Knewton and Pearson – Is Big Brother Teaching Your Children?

by Staff Writers

"The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live — did live, from habit that became instinct — in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized."
(George Orwell,1984, 1949)

Let me first go on the record as saying that I am generally a proponent of adaptive technology, having previously written about its impressive potential in this blog (Semantic Web Technology and the Future of Learning). However, with the marriage of adaptive learning pioneer Knewton to content provider Pearson, I am seeing a move towards an Orwellian future where giant corporations control all of the world's knowledge and information and are responsible for policing the very thoughts we are allowed to think. Orwell himself never imagined anything as pervasive and potentially invasive as adaptive learning technology. In 1984, citizens could only be tracked by other humans. We now have a vastly greater potential to see and know everything that an individual does, reads, watches, and by extension, THINKS! 

Knewton is Watching
The idea behind the Knewton adaptive learning system is absolutely brilliant. It represents the realization of semantic technology that will revolutionize our computing experience in the same way that social media has. This technology is smart enough, and compiles enough data, to provide endless customization and learning possibilities. Here is a video overview of how it works and a summary by education blogger Mike Keathley:

"Here's how it works: Students generate data as they work through their online classes. The data is then captured by Knewton's Adaptive Learning Platform (ALP) as students progress through their courses and education, a process similar to the one used by other sites like Pandora, Facebook, and Amazon, collects data and determines user needs and preferences. However, this platform guides students along a specially customized, competency-based path that allows them to move quickly past the knowledge and skills they have mastered and into new concepts they have yet to master. The ALP considers not only student responses and achievements, but also such metrics as how long they spend on a particular task, and what type of learner they are."
(Keathley, Oct. 19, 2011) 

Another interesting aspect of the Knewton system is that it incorporates video game-like features including badges and leveling-up, along with other game metrics (, Nov. 1, 2011). The use of these tools makes learning within the Knewton system not only effective and enjoyable, but some would argue, addictive (WebMD). I see gaming as the most likely and effective educational medium of the future (What Does Game-based Learning Offer Higher Education), largely for this very reason. If game-based or game like education can capture students' attention and hold it, then they are more likely to learn. But who controls what is learned is an issue worth considering.

Where Knewton starts to get a little frightening is in the company's designs on leveraging this engagement potential to capture such vast quantities of user data. Ultimately, they would like to track every single student through every grade, class, lesson, and mouse click (Inside Higher Ed., Nov. 1, 2011). This would also entail tracking every instructor, their teaching methods and effectiveness with particular students and types of students. While this has some interesting potential for matching students with the best teacher for them, there is also the potential to use this information to evaluate a teacher's performance, adherence to the prescribed curriculum, political ideals, and other tendencies that could be used against that individual.

Taken to the extreme, Knewton might eventually have access to every piece of data that an individual generates in their lifetime. What you watch on TV, where you shop, what you eat, who you talk to, what you talk about, what books you have read, etc. At some level, this is an interesting proposition as education and learning are a function of life experience as much as they are of anything that ever happens in a classroom. Being able to understand all of the variables that factor into a student's achievement would not only help the individual, but would also be a nice way to demonstrate the broader effectiveness of things like parental interactions, preschool, healthy eating, and a host of other variables that we don't currently consider, or don't have the tools to consider. But who really wants Big Brother Knewton criticizing their lunch because it doesn't provide enough protein or vitamins to fuel the learning it has planned?

Partnership with Pearson
One question I've had since I first heard about Knewton was "Where will the content come from?" Saying that you are going to provide every piece of instruction in every possible medium sounds fantastic, but really is not feasible – Enter textbook publishing giant Pearson.

Pearson is already the largest digital content provider in the world, reaching more than 9 million students this year. It is the largest education company in general, with a focus on curriculum, textbooks, and assessment at all levels of education (Inside Higher Ed., Nov. 1, 2011). The amount of data they now have access to is frightening with 750 thousand individual users already. With the incorporation of Knewton into their content offerings, that number could rise into the millions.

Millions of users all linked into the same learning system, based on the same curriculum? Vaguely reminiscent of the Ministry of Truth, isn't it? There is an inherent need for diversity of ideas. In much the same way that a lack of genetic diversity dooms a species when inevitable change happens, a single source for all human knowledge and learning artificially constrains our ability to innovate and adapt. Relying on any one entity to provide a majority of the content in education is dangerous.

It Always Comes Back to Industrial Education
What I envision for semantic web technology is an open system that draws on the collaboratively created knowledge found on the Internet to generate or synthesize new content for learning. Pulling exclusively from Pearson and those invested in its system shuts down a valuable alternative source of information, opinion, and perspective. In a world that desperately needs creativity and innovation, this is a serious problem. Conglomerations such as the one represented by the Knewton/Pearson partnership have the potential to become nothing more than mass-produced education masquerading behind a thin-veil of personalization. A "personalized" education based on a standardized curriculum can never be truly creative or teach innovative thinking skills. The goal is not to make education cheap and efficient, but rather to make it as effective as possible. This pairing achieves the former, but could be leading us far away from the latter.


Image: Idea go /