The Knewton Blog

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Teaching, Selling, Making a Difference

Posted in Ed Tech, Higher Education on May 20, 2016 by

Striatic via Flickr(CC BY 2.0)

Striatic via Flickr(CC BY 2.0)
Striatic via Flickr(CC BY 2.0)

My parents were both schoolteachers.  My father taught high-school biology to Rosie O’Donnell. My mother taught elementary school forever, and is still active with the school district. They encouraged me to explore my passions and showed me the larger world. In our home, the one constant was the importance of learning and of being a productive, thoughtful, and caring member of society.

Growing up, I wanted to become a elementary school teacher.  I love young children, and I wanted to help them discover their love of learning.  As I was about to graduate from college, however, I was not sure that teaching was the right path for me, and I looked into other options in the business world. One day I gave a class presentation and my professor came up to me and said, “You should really consider a career in sales. I think you might have a knack for it.”

He meant it as a compliment, but it didn’t feel that way to me.  When I heard sales, I imagined desperate men selling used cars, the kind of job you’d have to take if you couldn’t find anything else.

As it happened, I couldn’t find anything else. The only job I was able to land out of college was…in sales. For four years, I sold computer training to corporations looking to train their staff.

While I knew that there was some good coming out of selling all this training, it was hard for me to connect what I was doing to a greater good until the day a woman came to the office to thank me.  She was a single mother, and it turned out that the courses we built helped her get a promotion, which allowed her to provide a better situation for her and her daughter.

I went back to school for a master’s degree in management, then landed a job at online learning company…in sales again. I spent the next year working with early providers of online education, such as the state virtual schools in Kentucky, Florida, and Illinois. I felt like I had finally found a home, able to make a difference by providing educational opportunity to people that may not otherwise have had access to education.

A year later, I joined another company that made a learning management system. It was an opportunity to work on a larger, more visible platform where I could make a difference in more lives. I will never forget the day I heard two students in my home district in Colorado — one pregnant, the other homebound — talk about how they would have gone without education were it not for the access that our solution provided them.

In 2011, I heard from a startup called Knewton. At the time, adaptive learning was not on most people’s radar, even in online education . But the first time I met Jose Ferreira, his big vision was clear and he articulated a path to realize it. He also expressed a passion for making the world a better place.

Knewton had just begun working with Arizona State University on an adaptive developmental math course for admitted students who could not place into college-level math. That partnership turned out to be a success: Pass rates increased, withdrawal rates dropped, and more than half of the students finished early.

Developmental math is a huge obstacle — maybe the biggest — to college students fulfilling their educational goals. Before Knewton, these students had to take a remedial course at a community college that did not count toward their degree and was not covered by financial aid. It’s hardly a situation that would make anyone love learning, and half of those students would never return. That was a loss for everyone: ASU never received the tuition these students would have paid. For hundreds of students each year, the cost was much greater: giving up on the chance to better themselves like that single mother who came into the office at my first job.

In sales, I can’t do everything for students that teachers do. I don’t have the same relationships that my mother and father did, in the classroom with their students, or at home with me. That said, I have been able to help students surmount various challenges, whether it’s a math test or an illness that keeps them homebound, so they can become more productive members of society. And through my work in sales,  I can help many more people than any teacher can work with at one time. That gives me enormous satisfaction.

I’ve been incredibly lucky to work for great companies that are making a difference in the lives of students. The constant in all of these organizations has been the importance of learning, just as it was at home.  If I could teach something to my younger self, it would be that you really can use your own strengths to make a difference in the world.