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article imageWhy Knewton's e-learning site guarantees better GMAT, LSAT scores Special

By David Silverberg     Oct 3, 2009 in World
Online educational company Knewton is banking on video tutorials and adaptive learning software to boost its popularity for business and law students. In an interview with Knewton's founder and CEO, learn why education is a tough market to futurize.
Face-to-face tutorials are so 2003. In today's Web-charged universities, students are turning to more technological means of getting the educational advantage they need. It's not enough to simply cram with crusty textbooks; savvy students will turn to their PC to fine-tune their testing skils.
Enter Knewton, a New York-based e-learning company who claims to have "developed the industry's most powerful adaptive learning engine, customizing educational content to meet the individual needs of each student." In a nutshell, customers pay $690 US for GMAT and LSAT prep courses, which offer live class videos, admissions counselling and review concepts. Additional practice questions, tests, and archived lessons are also available on demand.
The GMAT and LSAT preparation courses offer around 40 hours of live videos, and include a unique money-back guarantee: a Knewton user buying the GMAT course will increase test scores by 50 points, and LSAT users will see an increase of five points.
Jose Ferreira, the founder and CEO of Knewton, told "We are able to make these guarantees because we believe what we offer students—world-class teachers, top-notch content, and adaptive learning technology—far surpasses what they will get from any other course."
Knewton operates with 30 staffers, and it received $2.5 million in venture financing last May. Ferreira says the company isn't profitable yet, because it is focused on growing users and reaching new enterprise consumers. spoke with Ferreira to learn more about this sector's potential, the question of a university becoming obsolete and why the corporate-training market could be in Knewton's crosshairs.
Jose Ferreira  founder of Knewton
Jose Ferreira, founder of Knewton
Courtesy Knewton
DJ: What gave you the idea to start Knewton? Did you see a void in this space?
Jose Ferreira
: I’d been thinking about starting a company like Knewton for 18 years, ever since I first started working for Kaplan. I saw a lot of unproven instructors teaching students at local test centers. Now that the technology has caught up, we're able to bring the best teachers available to any student anywhere in the world.
As a teacher and eventually an executive at Kaplan, I got tired of telling students that they needed help in broad areas like "geometry." I wanted to be able to target students' weaknesses at a much more granular level. For Knewton's curricula, we've tagged literally hundreds of concepts in each subject area. We're able to tell students with certainty that they're in full command of the fact that all radii in the same circle are equal, but that they need more strategies for 3-4-5 right triangles, and here are some practice questions on that specific topic. That's adaptive learning, and it's a very powerful tool.
Looking beyond test prep, we see an opportunity to apply adaptive learning to any subject matter. Whether it supplements existing classroom teaching and textbooks or replaces them, we think that interactive online learning has the power to transform education.
DJ: Such as the corporate training market?
JF: That's a market we've been monitoring. With our ability to develop lessons in their most atomic form and bundle them for a student, we can offer that analytical tool to corporate managers. "Here’s what this person knows, what helps them learn best." We anticipate a fertile market in corporate training, but we're overwhelmed dealing with demand from the textbook industry.
DJ: So how can you customize for students who take the GMAT or LSAT courses with Knewton?
JF: Every little piece of content on Knewton is tagged, from bits of video, practice questions, diagrams. Based on what a student does we can generate content based on what helps him or her learn best. If someone can't understand core concepts, we'll make sure they're understandable.
In traditional education, you read a print book and your learning info can be lost in the ether. But at Knewton that info is captured. If you keep missing questions about certain concepts, that is info we capture. Our staff uses correlation analysis to guess why you missed the question, and then they form an analysis and cross-multiply all that data and have a clear sense after a few weeks to build a proper profile. We have more than 40 patents on this adaptive process.
DJ: What do you say to criticism that in-person preparation for a GMAT test can't compare to online-only courses because of the hands-on instruction and the intimate teaching that occurs between instructor and pupil.
JF: Our online learning platform is in-person and hands-on. You can chat and email your questions to the teaching assistants at any time and get them answered instantly. If the question is relevant to the entire class, the assistants will pass it along to the teacher, who will address it for everyone.
Because our teaching materials and practice questions are tagged and organized so finely, we can adapt each student's learning experience to their specific needs more easily than a traditional classroom teacher can. We think that the interactivity and convenience of online learning more than outweigh the lack of a brick-and-mortar environment.
DJ: Professor David Wiley of Brigham Young University has written, "If universities can't find the will to innovate and adapt to changes in the world around them, universities will be irrelevant by 2020." Do you agree?
JF: University education will change in the next 11 years, but it will never become irrelevant in 11 years. Because the private sector and public school systems are looking to cut costs, and those two will drive tech in education. School systems have ambitious plans, so you can imagine the change coming out of those areas, but universities are slower to evolve because they have brands to protect.
DJ: True, but shouldn't universities adapt to the technology their students are using?
JF: Education is hard to reform. Every other information industry on the Net has to totally rebuild due to the Web. Few industries have held out longer than education. Print textbooks won't go away but the education market could shift to adopt to new technologies emerging.
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