Pearson Education, the largest education company in the world, has invested heavily in Knewton, a company that has a focused on development of Adaptive Learning Platform (tm); Knewton's algorithm (etc) will be integrated into Pearson's series of titles for higher education—the MyLab series that addresses math skills, reading, writing skills.
What's this mean? And what's it mean for education in developing countries?
I'm not at all positioned to give anything other than a partial analysis. However there are a few points that are salient, even to me. Note that ALL of these points are offered under the assumption that that Knewton algorithm and software provide effective, personalized learning that enable university students to build foundational skills and in some instances (statistics? math?), develop higher-level math-operational skills—that the product works as advertised, in other words.
(And note that the most recent "What works in math" review addressed Carnegie Learning's "Cognitive Tutor" software, a product that competes, broadly, with Knewton math products. The What Works Clearninghouse reviewed 24 studies and states that the CL product "was found to have no discernible effects on mathematics achievement for high school student." Let us say charitably that the jury is out on software-based adaptive teaching and learning.)
- The term "personalized learning" will be co-opted by machine-mediated learning in higher ed and possibly in K12. (Pearson and Knewton are exploring potential developments there.)
- Colleges and universities, already feeling the pressure of money (or lack of same) will cut staff, hiring fewer lecturer-level / graduate-student staff to teach first-year courses. (As someone who put himself through graduate school teaching undergraduates to write, I'm somewhat dismayed by this. But I'll try to remain objective.)
- Even in entry-level or remediating courses, machine-based personalized and adaptive instruction isn't going to provide the critical thinking skills that are also essential for success in college disciplines. (And let me posit here that critical thinking in humanities and social sciences are analogous in math to a combination of conceptual and applied skills—in other words, we solve problems in all areas via a combination of high-level [conceptual or theoretical or structural] understanding and concrete/practical understanding.)
Again assuming that the software provides the intended impacts:
- Will the Pearson / Knewton combine lead to more disadvantaged students either entering college, especially in STEM-related fields?
- Will university curricula skew even more toward competency and skill-based learning?
- What will the impact of reduced opportunities for entry-level university teaching positions be?
And now, a few items on developing countries (where I might be on more solid ground in terms of the germaneness of my speculative approach)...
Implications, developing-country education
And in this section, we add the further assumption—a reasonable one, IMHO—that costs of ICT access will decrease while access to ICT and the quality of the experience of using ICT both improve dramatically over the course of the next few years....
- As access to ICT increases in universities, the Pearson/Knewton combine will be successful—in part because the skill levesl of entry-level teachers will be questioned.
- Fewer expat graduate students (attending universities in developed countries) will finish their programs—as a result of reduced teaching opportunities—so that gaps in available teaching skills (see above) will increase.
- Matriculation rates into developing-country universities will be challenged by increased opportunities for machine-supported e-learning at private developed-country and "stateless" schools.
- Overall competencies among first-year college students will increase over time, however a "boundary-layer gap" will emerge among first-year graduate students (see above).
Questions, developing-country education
- Will the P/N combine develop separate content or make tweaks to its algorithm in response to different learning styles or approaches that arise from cultural and educational differences among developing-country learners?
- Will donor agencies fund country- or NREN-level investments in MyLabs or other P/N-style products?
- If donor-agency funding is forthcoming,* will the P/N combine gain the kind of clout in terms of ICT4E projects that the Big Three (Intel, Cisco, Microsoft) have acquired?
*USAID (which is the bi-lateral agency of the United States that funds education projects in developing countries, and you will note that P/N are titularly US companies) has included higher education as a target in is current 5-year education strategy. To provide context, secondary education, as well as primary education outside of literacy and numeracy, are not targeted. Thus there's at least a reasonable chance that USAID-served countries could swing funding for a P/N-driven higher-ed program.
Finally, many of the world's most distributed university systems are located in developing countries. These include the massive open universities (IGNOU in India, Wits in South Africa) and some of the larger geograhically distributed systems such as that of Indonesia or University of the West Indies in Barbados and throughout the Caribbean. For these large, distributed, high-impact systems, investments in P/N-driven solutions would seem very likely. All of these large, distributed, bottom-of-the-pyramid systems are taking steps to radically increase their e-presence. They remain, however, weakest where P/N is strong. (In fact, if I were running the P/N thing, I would get a sales team focused specifically on developing countries. Tomorrow, if not today.)