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How New Startup Knewton Will Solve the Global Education Crisis

If you’re not in technology or education, you may not have heard of Jose Ferreira. But, if you care about the Millennium Development Goals or about how your kids will succeed in the future, you’re going to want to. Ferreira’s startup, Knewton, shows potential to be the disruptive change that global education reform so badly needs by expanding access to low-cost, high-quality learning.

Knewton is an adaptive learning company that customizes educational content “down to the atomic concept level.” Think of it as Google on steroids – it offers every single user a customized learning experience according to the individual’s learning style, abilities, and preferences. It is a platform for schools, publishers, and developers to make their content more relevant, useable, and “hyper-personalized.” Fundamentally, it overturns the prevailing premise that kids in the same class should have the same learning outcomes. The concept has caught the ear of key investors, including the Founders Fund, who just added $33 million in growth capital to the three-year old company’s existing funding. 

At its core, Knewton is a mighty sophisticated data platform backed by numerous “hardcore” Ph.Ds. Digitizing and personalizing the world’s educational content is an almost incredulous feat, which is why Ferreira is more than just a CEO of an edtech startup; he’s a man with a vision. He considers education the key to unlocking and improving other global problems. At last month’s World Economic Forum in Davos, he said, “I started Knewton to do my bit to fix the world’s education system. If we can fix education, then we’ll dramatically improve the other problems, too. So in fact, I started Knewton not just to help fix education but to try to fix just about everything.”

Open Source edtech initiatives, like Khan Academy or even MITx, share Ferreira’s vision of disrupting global education. Perhaps as open source non-profits whose barrier to global entry is low, these companies' mission is more suited to that kind of thinking. The same is not true, however, for U.S.-based edtech companies, like Wireless Generation, which are generally much more focused on addressing market needs in domestic K-12 education. Through a series of interviews with edtech entrepreneurs (from Education Central, Ruckus Media, College Board) and my own attempt to apply my international education experience to education innovation, I have learned that edtech companies have not entered international markets for online learning, estimated to be worth over $32 billion, for several reasons. These include the fact that most edtech companies are new, and significant resources would be needed for international expansion; publishing companies with educational content generally have national, not international, distribution rights; and the barriers to entry are too high – people simply do not know enough about international learners.

My additional speculation is that global education is traditionally the problem of development organization and large multi-lateral organizations, not companies.

Ferreira, therefore, is a trailblazer in treating the global education problem as one that companies can help solve. His low-cost, high-quality products (like GMAT prep), and his strategy of partnering with Pearson will get him closer to his grand vision. As one of the largest education companies in the world, Pearson boasts 9 million global users in over 70 countries and helps Knewton expand its global presence even further. Analysts note that Knewton’s decision to partner rather than sell out to mega-companies like Pearson could be an indicator that education startups are willing to put skin in an otherwise competitive market (estimated at over $32 billion globally) dominated by large publishers and companies.

By disrupting traditional players, calling for risk-friendly, bold investors, and circumscribing a role for small, dynamic startups to help learners all over the world, Ferreira may finally be the lynchpin that ushers low-cost, high quality educational products to markets and students in developing countries whose growing ICT infrastructure makes them more ripe for digital education solutions.

Photo Credit: Knewton

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