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Education Data in Action: A brief look into the Knewton Adaptive Learning Platform

Posted on Jun 20, 2012

Brad McIlquham is the Director of Academics at Knewton, a New York City technology company that created the Knewton Adaptive Learning Platform. Brad has worked all along the education spectrum, from working at Kaplan to helping teach ex-gang members the skills they need to succeed in college and life. After working with gang members for several years, Brad was contacted by Jose Ferreira, a former colleague of Brad’s from his time a Kaplan. Jose called him and challenged him to “help revolutionize education” at Knewton.

The Knewton Adaptive Learning Platform analyzes learning materials by keeping records and data about each student’s difficulty level, way of learning, and personal needs. This gives a recommended learning path that can optimize instruction. That is what Jose Ferreira created with the help of Brad and seven other individuals in a squeezed room in the West Village. I had a chance to speak with Brad and ask him about how Knewton works and what implications it could have with online learning and students with disabilities.

Q. When Knewton was named a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum, following in the footsteps of companies like Twitter, Firefox, and PayPal what success did it bring to Knewton?

A. It is hard to say. This was the most prestigious award Knewton had won. The success it brings is having more schools want to incorporate Knewton in their classes. This helps Knewton to grow and spread the word.

Q. As I understand, Knewton can be used in a flipped classroom setup. Can you explain more about this?

A.  Knewton is used in flipped classrooms by students using the computer. Students can work at home or in a computer lab on that day’s lectures and work. When they come to the classroom Knewton is able to group the students in areas that they need extra instruction from the teacher. This way students get help on what they need from the teacher and are allowed to work at their own pace.

Q. Does Knewton provide any support for students with disabilities?

A. Yes, Knewton works with students with disabilities. Knewton works with the school to accommodate the needs of each student. Teachers can add extra testing time, audio, or anything the student might need.

Q. Do you have K-12 classes?

A. Yes, we have 8th to 9th grade students that work on algebra, helping them prepare for high school math. Knewton also has a senior high school class to prepare for college. We also have a four week online summer program to prepare for college. Currently, Knewton has about 10 high school partners.

Q. Can you give me an example Knewton in use?

A. In College Mathematics at Arizona State University the class usually runs twice a week. During the first class, students work in an emporium style computer lab setting. Students are delivered adaptive instructional video, text, and assessment at their own pace. As they work through the course objectives, instructors walk through the lab assisting students who need help (either because students asked for help or by using Knewton’s reporting features to identify at-risk students). In some cases this is also done at home, which constitute a true “flipped” model, with video lectures and adaptive instructional content being delivered through a digital learning solution.

Q. What else happens when students return to class?

A. In the second weekly meeting, students attend classroom setting where they are broken up into groups to work on problem solving, critical thinking, and collaborative projects. The instructors have designed these projects for each learning objective in the course (around 45 different topic areas). Because students are working at different paces and have different strengths/weakness, Knewton developed an adaptive grouping tool that allows teachers to optimize groups around these adaptive ideas. The instructors can then work directly with these different groups on exactly the types of things they’re focused on at that moment. One group might be working on understanding polynomials, while another has progressed to graphing rational functions. The teacher can target the group instruction accordingly.

Q. How would you quickly summarize Knewton’s use?

A. Basically, the instruction (video, text, strategy) gets moved online or to independent lab study, while targeted instruction and formative problem solving takes place in the classroom and with Knewton, it adapts to the pace and performance of each individual student.

Katie Mulich is a blogger and reporter for the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities.

Learning Analytics: the first release in a white paper series

Posted on Jun 19, 2012

The Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities has released a short white paper on Learning Analytics, available for free download here.

The report is definitely worth reading if you are interested in learning analytics and the entire world revolving around the collection and processing of student data that leads to instructional change or modification. The report makes the case that there are still many unanswered questions that researchers need to address.

Teachers have always made modifications to their instruction based on how students are progressing. This comes naturally to many educators. And just as the computer has helped teachers with grade books and keeping in contact with parents and guardians, technology may have the potential to help teachers see where students are struggling (in real time) based on a trail of data left during online instruction.

The Center plans to release a series of white papers around this subject.


The Absolute Importance of Teacher Quality

Posted on Jun 18, 2012

Small class sizes have been consistently advertised by schools and universities as indicative of a superior education. Of late, there has been an emphasis on reducing class sizes, mainly by hiring more teachers, thus leading to significant increases in per-student spending. Despite this push, no notable impacts have been observed. McKinsey & Company reports in How the world’s best-performing school systems come out on top, “Of 112 studies which looked at the impact of the reduction in class sizes on student outcomes, 103 found either no significant relationship, or a significant negative relationship.”

In reality, a student’s success seems to be based primarily upon the quality of the teachers that a student has. In a defining study from Tennessee, it was demonstrated that, “If two average eight-year-old students were given different teachers – one of them a high performer, the other a low performer – their performances diverge by more than 50 percentile points within three years.” This is the significant relationship that we should be focused on. Quality teachers are key to student success, and consequently, practices to produce and make available quality teaching is the key to a strong educational system.

Of course, this could all change given some of the opportunities presented by online learning. As discussed in a prior post, online learning can allow the best teachers to work with students from around a state, a country, or even the world. Will teacher quality still be important when educators are teaching via computer screens instead of a blackboard? Does teacher quality still make a difference in massive classes?

McKinsey & Company. (2007). How the world’s best-performing school systems come out on top.

Josh Luthi is a computer science student at the University of Kansas and has a penchant for politics.

How to make sense of so many blended learning models

Posted on Jun 15, 2012

Bryan Dykman

Innosight Institute released Classifying K-12 Blended Learning last month. It serves as an addendum to The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning, which Innosight released in May of last year. If you haven’t read Rise, it’s one of the most detailed overviews of blended learning and examples that I’ve seen to date.

Classifying K-12 revisits Innosight’s definition of blended learning, how blended learning is different from fully online and tech-rich learning, and categorizes blended learning programs within four models. The first page of the report explains why they are releasing an entire white paper on definitions and model clarification:

Definitions are important because they create a shared language that enables people to talk about the new phenomena.

This idea was reinforced recently when I was sitting in on an iNACOL webinar. The speaker was a director of Student Online Learning, and she praised Innosight for helping to set the standards for how to talk about blended learning across districts and state lines.

The report is rich is graphic organizers that illustrate each of the four models. If you’re a visual learner, you’ll love studying the full-colored models. You might even be inspired to open up Illustrator or Photoshop.

Rise previously used a six model approach to classifying blended learning, and the rationale for cutting two models is explained in Classifying K-12’s appendix. Of course, I’m hoping for a 2012 update to Rise with even more examples of blended learning in practice, but in the meantime, I’ll be kept busy studying the illustrated blending learning models that the experts at Innosight have provided.

How to overcome skepticism in online learning

Posted on Jun 13, 2012

A portrait of Dr. Nellie AspelThis week I interviewed Dr. Nellie Aspel who is currently working as principal of North Shelby School in North Carolina. She has won many awards including the Wachovia Southwest Region Principal of the year and the Cleveland County Distinguished Woman in 2007. Because Aspel was one of the main writers in charge of the rewrite process and development of courses for the  Occupational Course of Study program, her insights provided a good history lesson into the formation of an online program for students with disabilities.

As I discussed in an interview with North Carolina Teacher Leslie Fetzer, OCS is a blending learning program where students get two teachers, one online and one in the classroom. It first started with the committee called, Alternative Course of Study. In this committee, members decided to focus OCS for students with minor or intermediate disabilities, because they are a group of students that Aspel feels had been left out.

Some were skeptical about the online part of the program, thinking that students were just going to have the students sit on a computer. Aspel overcame this by doing many demonstrations about the OCS program which helped others to understand the program better.

“We did a presentation for the State School Board that includes testimonials from these programs and also showed research that supports students working in paid jobs prior to graduation from high school as an indicator of post-school success,” Aspel said.

Critics saw how well the interactions were done and the learning skills that could be taught online. This changed their minds drastically.

In 2000, OCS was approved for all schools in North Carolina by the state school board. In its current form, it is a way for students with disabilities to get a high school degree that looks nearly identical except for some minor changes on the transcript. The classes through OCS are just as hard as any traditional high school and meet the same needs. The committee made sure of this though text books, end-of-course tests, pacing guides, progress monitoring, documentation of vocational training hours, competitive employment requirement, career portfolio, technology skill development, CTE courses (and pre/post testing for those courses), and additional teacher training.

Aspel feels the future of the OCS program is only going to grow and get better. They are constantly gaining more classes like, English 1 and 2, Intro to Math, Algebra A and B, Biology. As Aspel says, “OCS has become well ingrained in North Carolina. It is not going anywhere.”


Katie Mulich is a blogger and reporter for the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities.