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Technology in Service of Humans

Posted in Adaptive Learning on August 6, 2014 by



When it comes to adaptive learning technology, critics sometimes frame it as a rehash of prior attempts to improve or replace teaching — or, pejoratively, to “automate” it. How is Knewton different from B.F. Skinner’s teaching machine (1950s), PLATO’s computer-assisted instruction (1960s-70s), and today’s myriad adaptive learning apps?

Knewton’s technological innovations alone are significant, but that’s a topic for another post. Putting that aside, the most important difference is that Knewton is seeking to support — rather than replace — the human process of teaching with technological tools.

We understand technology’s limits. Education is one of humanity’s most complex and worthwhile endeavors, and education is driven by a consistent core — students, teachers, parents. There will never be a replacement for the emotional intelligence, cultural understanding, and empathetic pedagogy that educators bring to the classroom. The best technology in the world won’t work if it isn’t integrated thoughtfully.

However, people have limits, too. When faced with two students, a teacher can easily differentiate instruction to best fit each of their unique needs. But it’s much more difficult to scale that process to multiple classes of 30+ students. We have a limited capacity to take in information about students’ distinct progress, evaluate thousands of possible lessons, rank them, and recommend a different sequence to best support each individual student.

Knewton generates new information about students and educational materials that instructors and parents wouldn’t be able to uncover on their own. We understand that these aids will only be impactful if they can fit into and evolve with education’s existing structures. Great teachers already know how to foster productive student-teacher relationships, how to engage students with creative projects, how to use the classroom to help students grow intellectually and emotionally. Technology can support and enhance these relationships, but it will never replace them.

Knewton is building technology to support teachers. In order to do so, we need to understand their needs fully. Knewton has a large team of software engineers, data scientists, systems engineers, business specialists, etc. But we also have over a dozen former educators on our team, whose full-time job is to study how our technology impacts learning and how it can be used most effectively in the classroom. We have an entire team of implementation specialists — instructional and product design experts, partnership managers, and technologists who consult with partners on how best to utilize Knewton technology within their pedagogy, content, and user interface design.

Building out these teams is a big investment, and for us, a non-negotiable one. The only way to create new possibilities in education is to understand education’s existing structures and successes. These days, the tech world is all about the quick flip: build a product, get some growth and figure out an exit plan to cash out. But there’s no quick flip in education. Knewton is in this for the long haul to help students and teachers. Today, all our revenues go right back into expanding our product capabilities and building our team’s expertise. With enough time, dedication, and teamwork, we hope to make a lasting change for generations of students to come.