Sharing data and competitive advantage – Knewton interview, Part 2


David Liu, Knewton COO
David Liu, Knewton COO

In part two of our interview series with Knewton’s Chief Operating Officer, David Liu, we tackle the potentially thorny issue of sharing of data between publishers, and find out more about Knewton’s ambition to become a must-have for every ELT publisher.

You were telling us how one of your main aims is to build up a detailed history of every student’s own learning, which stays with them and builds as they go, whichever courses they’re studying. Is there any nervousness or resistance on the part of publishers to this inter-publisher sharing of data?

You know, initially there was. I think what we’re finding is that if you provide students with this actioning upon the data to provide better efficacy, at the end of the day, the student will benefit.

And you have to make sure that you’re part of a system that is big enough that can see a lot of students, and I think that’s what we’re seeing now with ELT. I think in the beginning it was very difficult for people to say: ‘Well, if I work with you Knewton, then I’m going get some benefit from this technology that will increase the efficacy of our products. Won’t you then provide that same level of improvement to my competitor?’ However, what I would say is that the product itself is not Knewton; the fact is that the product is made up of many different components, of which adaptive learning is one piece. Great content is a core requirement, and having flexible content is also important; content that is built for digital, content that can also be printed out and used offline and, you know, great quality content still matters. We believe that.

And then the product itself, the digital experience, the instructional design of the product, that’s not something that Knewton does. And so, we are thrilled when we’re working with partners like Cambridge University Press and Macmillan, who care about building great products. That’s a great point of differentiation. Products drive engagement, the ability to display data in different ways, and of course recommendations, so that the student can continue to move forward.

So we’re an enabler in that way. We enable adaptive learning while our partners bring so many other factors to the table. If you are a big player providing a lot of different courses, that makes you even stronger – you have a network effect onto yourself. When we talked to many of our larger partners, they’re providing a lot of different courses, and so we quickly want to expand with them; not just for our own reasons. We believe that this technology can help all of their students and customers find out where they are, and be able to move forward faster down a personalised path based on the efficacy and data across products. It improves the experience for each student within those products, but then other products beyond it. And so, the benefits spread very quickly.

student gets a more personalised experience no matter whose content the student is consuming

We don’t share the knowledge graphs, we don’t share how each partner is building their products – that is proprietary to each of our customers. We don’t provide a file to each of our customers, but what we do is we have processed data – analytics that make our models better. Everyone who is a part of our platform benefits from those shared improvements. And importantly, each student gets a more personalised experience no matter whose content the student is consuming.

That processed data – it’s not identifiable, it just continues to make the recommendations of a higher quality for that individual student. And what this means is – and this is the hardest part for many publishers to understand – we’re providing that recommendation in that moment, for that student only. We’re not providing it for anyone else. So the inputs to that recommendation may come from many different places, but that recommendation also has inputs coming in from the student herself and what she’s done; her learning history, the content that she’s looking at in this moment.

And so you could have a student that looks a lot like this at another publisher, [but] we’re not providing the same recommendations. The recommendations are really unique to that student.

So, I guess it’s a long way of saying it’s really not that big of an issue once people understand what we’re doing and how it works.

So, the logical conclusion is that if this builds up enough momentum, it becomes a significant disadvantage for a publisher not to have this capability integrated into their course. If you’ve got a student who’s building up this detailed profile that is useful to them and enhances their learning, and they were to switch to a course that didn’t have it, then obviously they’d be losing out. So is that Knewton’s ambition?

Yes, that’s the ambition. That is absolutely true.

Data begets more data. And what we’ve seen in other industries is that the platforms that are able to aggregate the most data will continue to aggregate more data. And if you can get enough of that, in education, we believe we can help improve student outcomes.

We believe there are a lot of folks already at a disadvantage in the ELT spaces if they’re not joining this platform

So I think we’ll be judged upon the efficacy of the products that we’re powering. And if those products, for those students, result in better outcomes, then I think what you’re saying is absolutely true – you will be at a disadvantage. We believe there are a lot of folks already at a disadvantage in the ELT spaces if they’re not joining this platform, because nobody wants to be at a 15% disadvantage because they have less data, and less understanding of how to improve student outcomes.

Our mission is to improve student outcomes in the way that we can affect it. And that is by using our technology to help the really interesting new products that are being built, for blended and digital education. If we are able to do that, then I guess you can say a result of that is that we have a lot of people joining this network and building up this platform, which again will only benefit all of the people who are on the platform.

So it’s a virtuous cycle as we continue to bring on more students. I think there is a trend, when we move into a certain vertical, and we’re able to get a few partners on, then all of the partners seem to want to figure out a way to work. We’re now seeing that happen in ELT, in test prep, in graduate nursing. There are just all of these different verticals where people are now seeing the benefits of being a part of the bigger platform.

Knewton office


Knewton interviews

Part 1 – Big data and adaptive learning in ELT

Part 2 – Sharing data and competitive advantage

Part 3 – Powering iterative publishing in ELT

Part 4 – Can adaptive learning really work for languages?

3 thoughts on “Sharing data and competitive advantage – Knewton interview, Part 2”

  1. Laurie,

    You are getting a bit pointed with the questions. good on you. One big question, will this service cost so much that only big publishers will be able to afford it. Another question, how can individual teachers benefit?

    • Hi Michael,

      Good question. You’re right that we currently work with big publishers. Companies including Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Macmillan Education, Cambridge University Press, and more have already partnered with Knewton to provide next-generation learning experiences to millions of students around the world.

      However, we’re also working with cutting edge companies in the edtech space. For example, we recently announced a partnership with Gutenberg Technology to help publishers of all sizes deliver personalized learning across any mobile device. You can read more about that here:

      Furthermore, for individuals, we’re working on something big.

      We’re going to make it possible for any parent or instructor to create their own personalized course experiences for students, and for any student to learn anything. We’re not quite ready yet, but if you want to learn more you can register at and we’ll keep you posted.


  2. Molly I will try to follow this as it is important to me that individual teachers and schools not 1. be forced into only using commercially published materials to avail themselves of this service and that 2. The service be priced at a place that does not effectively price individual teachers or schools out of the market.

    I see this service as a potential trojan horse for putting publishers in a particularly favored position over private individuals (to supply and control the learning stream). I say this knowing that big publishers have an incentive now to start viewing their market as consisting solely of students (and not independent schools or teachers) and I say this knowing that you probably don’t have private teachers contributing to your revenue and as such they are not “sitting at your table” protecting their interests.


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