Pearson and Knewton have been working together since late 2011, and in fall 2012 they introduced their joint product for math, economics, reading and writing. Now, they have expanded into college biology, anatomy/physiology, chemistry, physics, finance and accounting.
For each of the new subjects, the focus is on the introductory college course that students must pass if they are serious about a subject; for example, the biology class is specifically for biology majors, including pre-med students, said Paul Corey, president of Pearson Higher Education's science, business and technology unit.
"We think of these as gateway courses," Corey said. "Getting through these courses is a tough challenge for many of these students. The success rate, once students get through these gateway courses, is pretty high." The fact that these are "weed out courses" designed to eliminate students who don't belong in a particular major was Pearson's clue that "focusing there is where we can do the most good," Corey said.
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Knewton technology is being used to enhance Pearson's MyLab & Mastering online tools for student practice and assessment. The new content areas have been live on the service since June but will be reaching many more students with the start of the new school year. The software for each subject area previously went through pilot testing with hundreds of students, and the decision to move ahead was based not only on scores but interviews with instructors, deans and provosts, Corey said. "We've been getting results which suggest we should not only expand but accelerate into these areas."
Knewton uses a big-data analytics approach to detect patterns of student success and failure, plugging into tutoring and assessment applications designed by publishers and educational software companies. So far, Knewton has primarily partnered with companies that were traditionally textbook publishers but increasingly define themselves as providers of digital educational content. Of these, the partnership with Pearson is the most established, while joint products with firms such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt are still under development. Knewton has also worked directly with some institutions, developing custom software for remedial math education that is used at Arizona State University.
"By the end of the year, between a million and a half and two million students in higher ed will have used Knewton-powered products," Knewton COO David Liu said. The majority of those students will be exposed to the technology through the Pearson partnership, he said. The numerical boost is important because larger volumes of student data gives Knewton more to analyze and improves the automated coaching the service can provide for each student, he said.
The increased breadth of subjects covered is just as important, Liu said. "There is a lot of talk that adaptive learning is really only useful for math and some of the developmental subjects," he said. In other words, Pearson and Knewton are "debunking" the notion that the software is only good for rote learning and remedial education. "As long as there is a rubric for what is right or wrong, we can make it adaptive," he said.
Although it's true that many of these subject areas "have never really been done before," Knewton can handle them as long as course content can be tagged to help the software identify related concepts and understand which ones build upon others, Liu said.
"Chemistry or biology are very complex areas from a content perspective, so most of the work goes into building those knowledge graphs," Liu said. Pearson is getting better at tagging the content, which is streamlining the process of adding subjects. With smaller publishers, Knewton will do the tagging for them, and to build capacity it is starting to certify consulting partners who can do that work.
Follow David F. Carr at @davidfcarr or Google+, along with @IWKEducation.