Deals

Knewton raises $33M for adapting online education for each student

Educational technology startup Knewton has raised $33 million in a fourth round of funding as it rolls out an online learning platform that can be adapted to each student’s needs.

Knewton’s Adaptive Learning Platform can dynamically and automatically remix a school’s online educational materials to match every student’s strengths, weaknesses and unique learning style. It is part of a larger trend of “big data,” or using a large amount of feedback to analyze and then adjust to a user’s individual needs. And it is believed to be the largest funding round ever for an education technology startup.

That may sound like baloney, but New York-based Knewton has won recognition such as an award as a technology pioneer from the World Economic Forum. And its platform is being used by universities such as Arizona State University to tailor online education to thousands of students. If it truly works, then it will be a big deal, as the stats in the graphic on the right suggest. Education is in a funding crisis, but the internet can help alleviate that.

Knewton’s platform works by dividing the lessons into unique building blocks and then measuring the student’s performance while learning each section. It takes into account how long a student works on a problem, in addition to whether they got the answer right or not. And it takes into account how many videos you’ve watched. Then it serves up the next bite-sized bit of online content that the student should learn next. The system is algorithm-driven, generating unique lessons dynamically and automatically for the student.

The net result is a personalized education for each student. Knewton says it gets measurable results on retention and better-prepared students in class.

The platform is the brainchild of Jose Ferreira, founder and chief executive, who wants to bring about a revolution in education. A former executive at education firm Kaplan and an ex-venture investor, he started the firm in 2008.

“Between increased broadband and the rise of tablet computing, many more students are accessing their homework and even their classes online,” he said. “In so doing they are producing unfathomable quantities of data.”

Knewton captures that data and makes use of it throughout the education of the student.

David Liu, chief operating officer at Knewton, said in an interview that schools such as ASU have taken the platform through its proof-of-concept stage and are now using it with thousands of students. That allows advanced students to skip boring lessons they have already mastered and allows them to move on to targeted lessons.

“We tak into accounts thousands of data points per student,” Liu said. “We can be much more surgical.”

Liu said that the company’s system goes beyond adaptive testing, where a course difficulty is adapted to a student based on how well they do on a test. Instead, Knewton’s approach takes a lot more than test scores into account.

Founders Fund (headed by partners that include education-focused billionaire Peter Thiel) and education publishing giant Pearson led the round. Also participating were Accel Partners, Bessemer Venture Partners, and FirstMark Capital.

Liu said that Knewton will use the money to accelerate adoption of the Adaptive Learning Platform. It will hire more people and sell the platform more broadly. Knewton will also take the product to grades K-12 and create more partnershisp with publishers, universities and school districts.

“Knewton is poised to become a global lynchpin in online education and, more importantly, to improve education for everyone,” said Luke Nosek, managing partner of Founders Fund.

In the past year, Knewton launched two first-year college math courses – College Mathematics and College Algebra – and a self-paced Math Readiness for College course.

Besides ASU, Knewton has been adopted by Penn State University, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Mount St. Mary’s University, Washington State University, and Education Management Corporation.

Liu said the company has 70 employees now and plans to double that over the next two years. It will hire software engineers and data scientists in particular. Knewton plans to open up the platform to make it available to third parties.

Knewton has now raised $54 million to date. The funding and all of the adoption is giving the company some “real external public validation,” Liu said.

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