Lessons from Knewton CEO Jose Ferreira


Jose Ferreira, CEO and founder of the adaptive learning company Knewton, has a few non-traditional opinions about the direction of online education.

Knewton is a big deal in education tech. They’re staffed with a formidable team of software engineers producing online courses that collect data from each student as she learns. The data is used to personalize future instruction while the course progresses, adapting to the student’s strategies for success. Knewton’s vision is a “world where all students can reach their full potential.”

Former head of the product team at Kaplan, Ferreira is an active writer (and Tweeter) about online learning. Here are three of his top lessons:

Online learning will revolutionize access to education.

There’s been a great deal of buzz around MOOCs (“massive open online courses”) in recent years, and for good reason. MOOCs have the potential to eliminate the access barriers between top teachers and students with conflicting schedules, locations, and finances. By making a course from a top university available freely online (as services such as Coursera and Udacity have already done), the traditional gap in educational access is disrupted.

Ferreira calls this “revolutionary.” He cautions, though, that the label of “massive open online course” is a small misnomer for what MOOCs really are—lectures and classes only. No individualized feedback from an instructor accompanies a Coursera lecture series. Until that happens, MOOCs will struggle with issues of quality and retention.

Still, Ferreira lauds their social value. “They are a game-changer where the alternative is no classes at all.”

Data can personalize learning for literally everyone.

As mentioned above, Knewton’s mission is to help “all students reach their full potential.” The universality of that statement is telling. It hinges on the ability of instruction to adapt to each student’s ideal learning strategy.

Ferreira’s team of developers is creating software to analyze not just how each user interacts with course materials, but also how certain lessons are performing in general, and how proficient each student is shown to be based on previous testing trends.

Ferreira told the Economist in 2010 that Knewton’s software would even track even the ideal time of day for each student to study. “You can’t sneeze without the algorithm knowing it and processing it accordingly.”

Higher education is becoming unbundled.

Certain types of media are said to be “bundled” – television networks and CDs, for example. While formerly you were forced to purchase an entire CD to listen to the one song you wanted , the advent of iTunes unbundled much of music. Now consumers could purchase individual MP3s, rather than shelling out for a larger package of content they didn’t much value.

Ferreira points out that this will happen for universities in time too. “Bundling works to increase margin by tricking people into thinking that there is more value in a product or service than there actually is.”

As universities continue to create selective, paid online course and offer them individually online, the trend toward unbundling will grow. Ferreira notes that the advent of improved metrics for efficacy will also help increase faith that these online courses actually work. “Once that happens, the unit size of higher ed will begin to change from a traditional four-year on-campus bundled experience to more of a course-based experience.”

That’s not to say, though, that the university campus will go the direction of the record store. Unbundling is all about efficiency; where there’s demand for the four-year college experience (which all data indicates there is), there will be supply.


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