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Personalized Learning in Higher Education

Posted in Adaptive Learning, Higher Education on June 28, 2016 by

An interview with Knewton’s Jason Jordan and InsideHigherEd

Knewton is working with higher ed institutions to bring personalized learning directly to university students and instructors. Leading that effort is Knewton’s Vice President for Higher Education Markets, Jason Jordan.

Jason participated in a podcast recently with Rod Murray, the executive director of academic technology at the University of the Sciences, for Inside Higher Ed and they discussed:

  • the distinction between “personalized” learning and adaptive learning
  • how Knewton works in general, and for higher education
  • what Knewton supports in higher education and the challenges Knewton is trying to solve
  • whether or not Knewton can be applied to other competency-based education, such as corporate training

If you’re interested in learning more about these things, you can either listen to the podcast on or read the transcript below. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Before I get into the weeds with Knewton, why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you became connected to Knewton.

Sure. I’ve been in the higher education industry for a little over 25 years. I was with Pearson for the bulk of that time. And as part of my role at Pearson, I became aware of Knewton and actually formed a partnership with them on behalf of Pearson. And so I got to know the company pretty early on when they were one of the very few players in adaptive learning. And that’s how I came to know them and came to know what the company does.

Great. You know, some of my audience, especially in higher ed, I think, may not be all that familiar with adaptive or personalized learning. First of all, are they synonymous, adaptive and personalized learning? Can you tell us a little bit more about what that really means?

That’s a great question. So, you know, the way I think about it is, adaptive capability is just that, it’s a capability that we now have through the use of technology. Personalized learning is a learning technique that really lowers the instructor-student ratio and gives the student the opportunity to learn at his or her own pace using the material that is best for them to understand the concept at hand.

That certainly helps. I think my curiosity is, how does it really work? I mean, I know a little bit about it and I understand that it can be used pretty successfully in math. Because math, I guess, seems to be a little bit easier to handle in terms of personalizing the instruction. How does it really work behind the scenes?

Sure. So different companies approach adaptive learning in different ways. The way Knewton approaches adaptive learning is through the use of a learning graph. And you’re absolutely right, math is extremely well suited for adaptive learning process because math is very structured and it’s kind of easy to break down into very atomic parts.

So what Knewton does, the way Knewton handles adaptive learning, is we tag the content at the very atomic level. So this is about three levels below the learning objective level. We actually tag really at the question level. And we graph that content onto a system that looks at mathematics as a whole. And the students, as they are going through our adaptive process, are being served up parts of that graph based on what we think is going to be their optimal learning path.

The idea is that all components of mathematics will be part of the Knewton graph. And students move around that graph based on their strengths and weaknesses. The interesting part about what Knewton does, which I think is another differentiator, is that we actually use crowdsourced data to help determine what the next recommendation should be. We try to match the student’s capabilities that we’re currently serving with past students who have been successful at that atomic particle level on our graph. And we try to classify them by students who have been successful before them to really give them a very personalized experience through the material.

Interesting. So, for example, if I’m in a learning module on my LMS, and I’m in a Knewton module, I’m going to, you know, say a math question is posed, is there then instruction going along with that or is it pretty much problem and a solution, problem and solution. Is there interspersed  with didactic content? How does that work?

So your experience would be, in a Knewton product, as a student, you’d enter the module and you would get a very brief, probably two-paragraph explanation of what your experience was about to be. And then you would start answering some questions.

I like to think of it as you were as a student, way back when, when you and I were doing it pencil and paper in elementary school or whatever. Sometimes you had a tutor sitting beside you and so the first thing you did was you started answering questions. And when you got to a question that maybe you were having some trouble with, the tutor would help you through some narrative content.

And that’s basically the way Knewton works too. As long as you are answering the questions that you need to answer to satisfy mastery of the content, you will be in answering question mode. But when you start to struggle, we begin to serve up some narrative content to help you better understand the material, to aid in your learning, and to help you progress through the material.

So the narrative is interspersed but very much in a just-in-time manner. So Rod, if you and I were working through the same content and I started struggling before you, I might get some narrative that was unique to my problems, the issues that I was having with the material; and you would breeze through that part of the program if you had mastery of it.

In trying to imagine, as the instructor, how I would produce instructional content, say even in math. Would it just be a matter of asking a question requires a calculation, like I would normally do, let’s say on a multiple choice exam, or would I have to really break it down? Like, if you’re doing a test and where your work in progress your notes, your calculations are going to be graded. So, I can imagine having to break it down, like you say, in a very granular level to help to coach the student. Am I on the right track?

That’s right. You’re on the right track, you absolutely are. So, what the system does is exactly that. You know, once the student begins struggling, we try to zero in on the actual issue that the student is having. And we do that by going more and more granular to the material until we find that part of the material that the student is struggling with. And so, at that point, we’ll serve up some more narrative content to see if we can get the student back on track and to master that material, or we may serve up some remedial content to take them back on that particular subject matter to fill in the learning gap that they may be missing.

Right. So, I can see how it could be used in math and physics and some scientific disciplines. Are there any other subject areas that you can point to that are not math that seem to work well?

Yeah. We really feel pretty strongly that Knewton is flexible enough to go across the general education curriculum. As a matter of fact, when a student enters Knewton, let’s say they enter in a math course. Most students in this country are either taking math or freshman composition, many times both their freshman semester. And so, if they experience Knewton at that level, they actually build what we refer to as a student profile in the system and that profile tracks across all content verticals and follows that student; anytime that they are using a Knewton-powered product, that student profile grows.

So we can actually help students not only in math and science and engineering, we can also help them in psychology, economics, the quantitative side of business certainly. In the future, as we add more of the English content, we’re building a big OER content foundation in math but also in English. We think that we’ll be able to also help them in subjects like history or political science.

Wow, that would be impressive. I’m just thinking how it sounds like some technology regarding artificial intelligence or almost neural networks could help you in that regard. Is that something that’s in the mix?

That is not currently on our roadmap but I could see, you know, in the future, that would be an interesting partnership, perhaps. I don’t know that that would be part of our core competency at Knewton. I could certainly see how partnering with an AI-style engine could really help students learn, absolutely.

Have you received much pushback from faculty? You know, our faculty, sometimes, push back at new technologies. And when we first started doing lecture capture, they didn’t even want to be recorded. What kind of roadblocks or pushback have you gotten?

I think, once again, we’re sort of asking faculty to take a bigger risk and trust the technology as part of their classroom experience. I think the payoff for the faculty, if they do that, we feel like we can really help students’ success rates and increase retention rates within courses and across campuses. But the faculty have to kind of trust that Knewton is taking all their students on a pathway that will ultimately get them to succeed in their course goals.

And one of the things that we have tried to do with the product is to put some anchors back to the instructor’s syllabus so they can see at general checkpoints that the students are progressing and that everybody is syncing up to their syllabus.

It must be so hard, as an instructor, to go into a classroom full of new students that you’ve never seen before and try to determine at what point they’re all starting from. It’s such a mixture of skills. And we really see Knewton as a tool for faculty that they can use to determine where their students are and to really get everybody rowing in the same direction and on the same page in terms of the progress through the material.

You know, my real hope is that Knewton can kind of really assist the faculty in terms of remediating students and filling in knowledge gaps, which will then free up the faculty to teach more of the higher-level concepts. When you survey them or when you talk to them, that’s what they aspire to do, but they seem to run out of time at the end to get to those connecting the concepts and getting students to understand those higher-order concepts. And so, hopefully, Knewton will be a tool to help them get to that point. And through that, by trying Knewton out and seeing if we can save that kind of time for them in the classroom as part of their teaching, hopefully it will lower the barrier to entry.

Yeah. That’s really interesting. Now, does Knewton come as sort of a prepackaged curriculum or is it more of a toolkit that faculty need to work with to build their own content?

We actually will do both. We’ve had longstanding relationships with many of our publishing partners. Pearson and many other companies around the world utilize Knewton to power their adaptive capability.

The other thing that we have done to aid faculty members is we have curated a lot of Open Educational Resource content. We’ve tagged the content. We’ve adjusted it into our system. We have psychometrically “normed the content,” if you will. And we’re offering that up to faculty as a way to take advantage of some really low-cost options if they want it either as a supplement to what they’re currently doing or as a technology that they would use every day as part of their class.

I can really see this as being an important component of the increase in competency-based education. Is this how you see it going in the future?

Yeah. I certainly think Knewton is tailor-made for competency-based education. We’re already a mastery-based system. Because we break the content down into really atomic portions, it’s very easy for us to align to a competency-based system. So, we’re excited about the competency-based movement and we look forward to it growing.

We also feel like we’re very well positioned in any teaching style: emporium model, lecture model, “co-requisite-style” model… We feel like the system is flexible enough to adapt to any of those models. But, yes, “competency-based” is something that we think we could really drive.

Where do you see your main market and where is it now and where is it moving? K–12,  higher ed, or both equally?

I think that we’re going to see a span between K–12 and higher ed. I am certainly focused on the higher ed markets. But there is a growing number of students that are kind of between K–12 and higher ed, that’s the college readiness market. I think that we can really help those kids not get caught into the spiral of developmental education where they burn through so much of their financial aid and many of them don’t persist.

I think we could help through the use of Knewton technology because we can remediate in a very “just-in-time” manner. We can help more of those students enter at the college level and provide remediation on the fly, personalized to just their needs, so the instructor doesn’t have to take time within the syllabus to work that in. I think that’s a big potential for Knewton.

There are certainly a lot of challenges in higher education, both from the standpoint of the faculty having to learn and deal with new technologies in terms of colleges and universities competing for a diminishing demographic of students. What challenges or opportunities do you see? You’ve touched on this a little bit, but is there anything else you can say about how Knewton is going to address, sort of the future challenges in higher ed?

I think one big challenge in higher ed — it’s today’s challenge — but it’s going to be a challenge as we go forward too, is affordability. College is so expensive. And in particular, you know if you are a community college student, sometimes the amount of money you’re paying for your materials in college is close to your tuition bill. I think that we all want that to change.

I think everybody in the industry recognizes that the cost of a college education has gotten out of hand and it’s causing access problems for some students, especially students on the lower socioeconomic scale who just can’t afford to take the leap and go to college because they’re afraid it’s going to put them in too much of a financial bind.

And so, I think Knewton is well positioned to address that affordability issue, number one. Because we feel because we’re taking advantage of some OER content and really making it easier to use, that those customers who are concerned about affordability will find Knewton very attractive.

I also think that as the enrollments continue to decline around North America, that retention of students and students’ persistence rates are going to become a much bigger deal to college administrators. They are competing for a smaller pie and they’re also going to need to keep the students that they already have worked so hard to get to enroll in their colleges. And so I think that is a wonderful trend for Knewton’s business outlook. Because we feel that we can really raise retention and persistence rates of students and we think that more and more value is going to be placed on that by college administrators in the future.

I can second that. That’s a big issue, I know, here and a lot of places.


It also occurs to me that your tools would be great for corporate training. Are you seeing that as being a good market for you?

It’s so interesting that you say that. We’re currently in partnership discussions with several corporate training entities and we believe exactly the same thing. You know, it’s so interesting, Rod, it seems to be that competency-based education has been around for a long time in the corporate training world, you know?


So much of it is based on competency. And it just seems like a natural fit for Knewton to go into corporate training through partnerships with some established companies, and that’s what we’re pursuing.

Before we wind down, I was wondering if you can tell us anything more about the future of Knewton, anything that we should be looking for? Do you have new releases on a periodic basis? What can you tell us about the future?

Sure. So, we’re sort of on a constant product improvement cycle right now. We release courses about every two weeks or so new builds of the courses. I think what you’re going to see from Knewton is we’re going to continue to curate as much of the OER content out there as we could put into our system. And I think over time what you will see is that will help us expand product offerings. It will take us across different content verticals. And so we’ll have more product offerings for colleges and universities.

Well, this has been great. I’ve gotten a much better look into what Knewton does and I wish you all the success in the future.

Well, thank you so much.


Find Rod Murray on Twitter: @rodspods. And for more of his podcasts, visit