Knewton Adaptive Learning Platform shapes learning material to suit each student's specific learning style.

The way you learn is about to change. At least Knewton, the makers of an innovative Adaptive Learning Platform, would like that to be true, and they just got a lot of money to help them make it happen. Pearson, the world’s largest publisher of print and online textbooks, and Founders Fund just forked over $33 million to Knewton in Series D financing.

This latest injection adds to venture funding previously raised by Knewton totaling $18.5 million.

What is it exactly that these groups are investing in? Knewton’s Adaptive Learning Platform takes the material in textbooks and reorganizes it in a way that best suits the students’ learning style. Mastered material is skipped, which makes for a less boring study time. And material that used to be just pages in a textbook are combined with multimedia for maximum engagement. But the truly remarkable aspect of the technology is its iterative aspect. Through exercises and quizzes the program learns what the student’s strengths and weaknesses are, and adjusts the material in real time. Instead of subjecting all students to the same curriculum, Knewton’s technology shapes the material so that each student receives a personalized education that meets their unique needs.

For example, after tracking the strengths and weaknesses of a student, the program determines whether to present the next concept with text, a video clip, an interactive exercise, or even a video game. It can give a short summary or a longer, detailed explanation. Instead of handing out the same questions to the entire class, the student can now set the difficulty level for practice questions. Knewton can also suggest study partners in the class who have similar studying styles but have a better grasp of concepts than a particular student is struggling with. With customized learning, Knewton keeps the students engaged by giving them material suited to their level of knowledge.

Several major universities are already using the software: Penn State University, Arizona State University, Mount St. Mary’s University, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Washington State University. The Education Management Corporation, which provides private post-secondary education to students, has signed on as well.

One of the major problems with incoming freshman is that, despite being otherwise qualified, they aren’t ready for college level math. As a result they have to enroll in remediation classes to get caught up. Arizona State University, testing Knewton’s math software, has found it so effective they’re considering reducing their remediation classes to just half a semester from a full one.

With the new funding, Knewton can now move forward with its plans to incorporate its platform to K-12 schools. It also plans on teaming up with publishers so that print content can be augmented with adaptive online material. The following video gives you a good glimpse of what it would be like to learn with Knewton.

The company is also taking the opportunity to grow. They expect to double their current number of 70 employees over the next 18-24 months, the majority of hires being software engineers and data scientists. And, in line with their tacit belief in people’s individuality and creativity, they will launch an open platform so that anyone can add functionality to the technology.

Seems times are ripe for just such a technology. More and more students are using notebooks and tablets to access their homework and even classes online. Even kindergarten students are getting iPads. And Knewton isn’t the only technology out there trying to use the Internet to improve education. The Khan Academy has 2,000 videos that cover diverse topics such as math, history, and finance. As with Knewton, teachers using Khan can track their students’ progress and help them when needed. But Khan doesn’t offer the automated and realtime adjustments that Knewton’s software does.

While improving educational tools should and will remain a goal among educators, grade point average isn’t the only number colleges wish to improve. The amount of money states give to universities has historically been determined by enrollment rates. But almost half of all freshman don’t make it to graduation day, and some exasperated state legislatures are searching for better metrics by which to assess and reward institutions that have better track records. Thus, better teaching tools could lead to higher graduation rates, higher GPAs, and more state funds. Graduating students on time would also save the university money they spend on remediation classes.

“I believe education is about to change as much as in Gutenberg’s time,” Jose Ferreira, Knewton’s founder and CEO told Forbes. Certainly the classroom of tomorrow will be very different from today’s. South Korea is trying to do away with paper textbooks altogether and digitize their entire curriculum, and there are now libraries with computer consoles instead of book shelves. A digital, flexible, and portable education should be better. But we’ll just have to wait a few years and see if indeed graduation rates and GPAs are improved. My guess is that the software passes the test.

[image credits: Times-Mail and Springer]

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.