The Adaptive Learning Revolution

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Photo-Illustration by Alexander Crispin for TIME

What if you could know exactly what time of day your child learns best? Or if they were likely to fail tomorrow’s quiz? How about being able to predict how they will do on the SAT exam? Those are just a few of the many ways a concept called adaptive learning is poised to reshape education.

Through sophisticated, real-time analysis of reams of student performance data, adaptive learning technology could lead to the end of the one-size-fits-all curriculum, making personalized education available to more kids than ever before. As a result, it’s a hot concept, embraced by education reformers who see it as key to solving one of America’s most persistent problems, and by heavyweights in Silicon Valley, who are betting that the reformers are right—and that the solutions will be lucrative. (That’s not the only place those tech investors are putting their money, as my colleague Michael Scherer details in his story this week.)

Among the leaders in this emerging field is Knewton, a New York City-based start-up with deep pockets and bold claims about its potential to revolutionize how students learn. The company’s ultimate goal? A learning profile for every student — a sort of anonymous permanent record that travels from school years through college and onto employment. Think of it like the statistics on the back of a baseball card (though with a string of numbers in place of the player’s name).

“There’s going to be one company in the world that does this,” Jose Ferreira, Knewton’s high-motored founder and CEO, told me. “I think it’s going to be us because we’re so far ahead now.”

Is this where education is headed? And what about the cost to individual privacy? Knewton, after all, is only as good as the data it can collect from students. These questions are the subject of my story “A Is For Adaptive” in this week’s issue of TIME, which is available here for subscribers.

Click here to read Kayla Webley’s full story on adaptive learning, available exclusively for TIME subscribers. 

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