The Knewton Blog

Our monthly newsletter features edtech and product updates, with a healthy dose of fun Knerd news.

Heads in the Cloud

Posted in Ed Tech on January 11, 2016 by


All animals spend their lives seeking food, shelter, procreation, health and well-being, even entertainment. Humans seek these things too; agriculture, real estate, and healthcare are among the largest industries in the world. Only humans, though, have an additional pursuit we devote much of our lives to: education.

Education created human civilization. It’s responsible for everything we take for granted. It makes humans unique on Planet Earth and, if you follow the logic of Enrico Fermi, quite possibly in all the Milky Way.

And in our society, education is the ultimate social mobility mechanism. If you get a great education, you can go far. It’s also the ultimate “gateway” problem. If human society could offer high quality education to all, we would solve (or greatly ameliorate) problems such as poverty, nutrition, civil rights, political justice, access to resources and technology — problems that are much more prevalent among people with less education.

Today, we are in the era of the factory model, the most recent global education paradigm. The factory model is directly or indirectly responsible for the entire world we see today. It is an impersonal, cookie-cutter education for the richest 20% of the world. For the other 80%, not even that. And, flawed as it is, the factory model is terribly expensive. Which is why most of the world doesn’t have it.

According to UNESCO, one in ten people between the ages of 15 to 24 is illiterate. In Africa, it’s one in four. One in six children of middle-school age in 2013 did not attend school; in 31 countries the World Bank classifies as low-income, it’s one in three. In 2013, Transparency International collected recent studies of rates of teacher absenteeism: 30 percent in Kenya, 25 percent in India, 21 percent in Indonesia.

We are condemning perhaps as much as 80% of the human race to an education level just at or below functional literacy and numeracy. That’s 5.8 billion personal tragedies that we all compartmentalize and dismiss because it’s too appalling to think about.

There’s also the opportunity cost of wasting so much talent and innovation. About 7% of humans complete college. If one needs at least a college degree to have a chance to become the next Jonas Salk, Marie Curie, or Albert Einstein, then (assuming inclination and talent are evenly distributed) as a species we are effectively choosing to waste 93% of the geniuses the human race produces. We’re also forfeiting 93% of the rest of potential college grads who are collectively responsible for most of the incremental advances in business, medicine, and science that everyone else builds upon.

The human race is in a mortal struggle to solve the hardest problems in existence, but we’re fighting with just 7% of our strength. It’s madness. To pick just one example and put it in more personal terms, if you’ve ever had a loved one die from cancer, then it ought to enrage you that we’re failing to develop 93% of the talent that could develop a cure. People ought to be marching in the streets in protest.

The barrier is cost. Poor countries know that if they were to invest now in a first-class factory-model education system, they would become a developed economy in a generation. It’s been done, most recently by South Korea and Singapore: now top-30 and top-five in GDP per capita, respectively. So why doesn’t every country do it? Simple: politics and game theory discourage political leaders from investing so massively in something that will benefit their successors a generation later. If the human race needs this “game” to be won at global scale, we are doomed. The only way to win is to change the game.

And now, for the first time in human history, there is another way. Most institutions Knewton talks to are rushing to offer online lectures, readings, problem sets, and extra help opportunities. Students are taking more online classes — and increasingly using online materials and courses offered by other schools.

Each school that rushes online does so for its own reasons. Though it is not their goal, the world’s education institutions are collectively compiling the largest library of educational materials and courses in human history. This “learning cloud” is growing exponentially. Within 10 or 20 years, it will be a great common utility, like electricity or running water. But unlike other great human utilities, this one is digital, which means much of it is free to use, and all of it is nearly free to deliver.

At last, the human race can change the game. Today the choice facing developing world leaders is not all-or-nothing on spending billions for quality schools and teachers in every last village in their country, but to embrace high-quality, low-cost online education via this global learning cloud. As their national education levels rise and labor forces upskill, GDP and tax receipts will rise, and developing countries can invest more in schools and teachers.

At long last, high quality education for every human being is possible. That’s why Knewton has a double bottom line. We hope to use the learning cloud to deliver personalized education to low income youth around the world. We’re ingesting this library, graphing it, measuring how effective every piece is for every particular student, and making it Knewton-adaptive. We launched the first version of this platform, a public beta, last August, with math and English for middle school and high school. Hundreds of thousands of students from all over the world have tried it. Since then we’ve been hard at work squashing bugs and adding tools to improve the experience. In 2016, we’ll add more K-12 content, college coursework, and tools for institutional use. Our goal? A virtual tutor curating that immense library of material just for you, constantly updating based on everything you do and on the combined anonymized data of everyone else like you. It’s ambitious. But we’re focused and patient. And we’ve accomplished a lot already. Why not join us?

If the human race takes advantage of this opportunity, the learning cloud could become the world’s virtual schoolhouse within a decade. By then, we’ll be able to tell Harvard that there’s a girl in Cambodia with a once-in-a-generation talent for science. If she can’t pay, let’s get her a full scholarship. If she’s never considered attending college, let’s beg her to go. Maybe she’ll end up curing cancer.