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The Knewton Knowledge Graph: A Cross-Disciplinary Approach

Posted in Adaptive Learning on February 6, 2013 by

It’s an unavoidable problem in traditional classrooms: teachers, in the challenging position of teaching a class of 30 students or more with a wide variety of abilities and needs, are struggling to understand exactly what those needs and abilities are and to provide the instruction that will be most helpful for each student.

Knewton is working hard to solve this problem. In particular, we on the Knewton Adaptive Instruction Team have worked to create a system that assesses the needs of each individual student and serves him or her the learning experience he or she needs at exactly the right time.

To do this, we use the Knewton knowledge graph, a cross-disciplinary graph of academic concepts. Within the knowledge graph, concepts have prerequisite relationships that help define a student’s path through the course. Special relationships that define content as either “instructional” or “assessment” determine what kind of content to deliver to students at any given point. Knewton recommendations steer students on personalized and even cross-disciplinary paths on the Knowledge Graph towards ultimate learning objectives based on both what they know and how they learn.

Our team is always working to enhance the graph’s capacity to make fine-tuned recommendations for all the courses it powers. Often, this simply involves helping partners build graphs that better represent their content, but sometimes it can involve making changes to the nature of the graphing process itself on our end in order to ensure that the process is attuned to and capable of capturing the idiosyncrasies of a range of content domains.

Recently, we have used the latter process to help solve another challenge that inhibits learning in today’s classrooms. Since each subject in a traditional school requires a different teacher with the correct area of expertise, the various subjects are presented to students as being far more distinct and separate from each other than they actually are. Extensive studies show that students benefit in many ways from a cross-disciplinary approach, but practical concerns often get in the way. A history teacher might notice that her students’ essays suffer more from a lack of basic writing skills than from a lack of understanding of the historical facts, but she can’t suspend her own curriculum to teach those skills (even if she’s qualified to do so) and she can’t ask the English teacher to revisit them in his class, because he has to get his class through Hamlet by the end of the week. (It is true that some schools are advancing cross-disciplinary instruction and encouraging teachers of different disciplines to plan their curricula together; however, these schools are the exception, not the rule.)

Knewton’s goal is to link multiple subjects into one huge knowledge graph, rather than creating several separate ones in parallel. Generally, the process of graphing involves asking ourselves questions about the content at hand. If we’re looking at a section of a history book, for example, we would ask ourselves what other historical facts and concepts a student must understand in order to contextualize the new content. To create an interdisciplinary graph, we would ask questions like, “What reading level is necessary to parse out all the important details in this section?” and “What understanding of fractions and percentages is necessary to read the pie chart on page 145?”

The goal of this approach is to ensure that students possess the skills and knowledge they need to tackle the learning experience we recommend for them. We also hope that this will prove to be a helpful tool for educators to develop holistic curricula and collaborate effectively with their peers teaching other subjects. We hope that those who have not begun to approach learning in this way will now find it easier to begin to do so and that those who have already been struggling with these issues will see us a valuable ally.