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Why materials costs aren't the problem in education

by Jose Ferreira

Students spend a lot of their day learning.

They spend six or more hours in bricks-and-mortar classrooms each day, listening to teachers, talking with peers, and working with textbooks/software/technology (collectively, “materials”). Then they spend a few more hours working through materials after school. Some students learn more in the classroom environment; others learn more by using materials to teach themselves.

Despite how huge and complex the education system is, students do primarily just those two things: attend classes and work with materials.

For all kinds of reasons I won’t go into here, it’s very difficult to innovate — especially at scale — the bricks-and-mortar classrooms side of the system. But it’s eminently possible to innovate the materials side. In fact, we’re currently in an innovation boom.

Just as this innovation boom has begun to proliferate, though, materials creators have received growing criticism over the price of their products. People have long complained about textbook prices, but over the last few years it has been increasingly argued in some quarters that the high costs of education ought to be addressed by lowering materials costs.

But materials are only around 1 or 2 percent of global education expenditure. Bricks-and-mortar classrooms — and all the costs associated with operating them — make up the rest.

We would all like education to be more affordable, but focusing on reducing materials cost is pointless. It’s far too small an expenditure. In fact, it’s worse than pointless — it’s dangerous.

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A strong foundation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is key to preparing students for the modern workforce. According to a recent report by STEMconnector, STEM-related jobs in the U.S. are expected to grow from some 7.4 million in 2012 to more than 8.6 million in 2018.

Hence the importance of initiatives like the 2013 National STEM Video Game Challenge. Hosted by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, the competition invites students in grades 5-12 to create original video game designs. Says Executive Director Michael Levine, “The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop's mission is to advance children's capacity to learn, compete, and cooperate in a digital age. The National STEM Video Game Challenge helps bring national attention to the value of design competitions in promoting both youth innovation and deeper knowledge of vital 21st century skills.”

The Challenge is open until April 24, 2013. Visit for more information.





This month, we announced a partnership with Triumph Learning, a leading provider of K-12 Common Core State Standards resources and other educational materials. Triumph Learning, which currently serves 15 million students, will use the Knewton API to build a new generation of personalized learning products. 


Everything you know about education is wrong (The Atlantic)

California bill seeks campus credit for online study (New York Times)

Teachers' perspectives on the digital divide (Education Week)


Knewton is on a mission to personalize education for the world. We're currently looking for front-end developers, software engineers, data scientists, content experts, adaptive instruction analysts, product managers, and other super-smart people who are passionate about education to join our team. 

See open jobs


Wondering how a Knewton recommendation works? Data is important, but so is a full understanding of the educational content at hand.

The latest post from our Adaptive Instruction team explains how this deep understanding helps personalize learning experiences for every student in a Knewton-enhanced course.


Since moving to our new office last summer, we've hosted some awesome meetups (most recently NYEdTech's Spring Showcase).

The sheer number of great meetup groups in the city has got us thinking about the importance of balancing time in the digital world with time away from the screen. Check out this blog post for more thoughts on how technology can help us experience and connect with others in new, deeper ways.

On the horizon:

On April 4, we're hosting Intro to MapReduce, sponsored by NYC Hadoop User Group. Check out our events calendar for more. 


CITE (April 2 - 4): Pearson's annual online learning conference brings together higher ed stakeholders to share best practices for edtech innovation. We're excited for the keynote sessions — Dan Pink on human motivation and Jane McGonigal on gamification. 

Transformar (April 4): Organized by the Brazil-based Lemann Foundation and the Inspirar Institute, Transformar provides a forum for educators, entrepreneurs, and social leaders from around the world to discuss ways to improve educational opportunities for Brazilian students. Knewton Founder and CEO Jose Ferreira will be a keynote speaker. 

ASU/GSV Education Innovation Summit (April 15 - 17): Sponsored by Arizona State University and GSV, the Summit is an amazing opportunity to interface with innovators of all kinds — everyone from established industry leaders and politicians to brand new edtech entrepreneurs. Jose Ferreira will be on a keynote panel. 

First Annual Rice University Workshop on Personalized Learning (April 22): Rice's inaugural summit brings together leaders from the personalized learning movement to discuss challenges and opportunities around machine learning and big data. Knewton VP of Research David Kuntz is presenting.