personalized learning

Will Personalized Learning have a Comeback in 2014?

Editor’s Note: This post has first been published on edcetera – straight talk on edtech.

When reading those headlines with the top trends of the year, there seems to be confusion about which year actually was the “year of the MOOC”. Some say it was 2012, some go for 2013. Based on the slight cooling off during the last quarter of 2013 with Udacity and Coursera going into company training and edX cancelling its student matching efforts, we all might get the chance to talk and write about other interesting things going on in education right now.

Certainly one could argue that MOOCs are only part of the bigger trend around data in education. As Audrey Watters put it “student data is the new oil” and I think she is absolutely right. Also, if you listen to some of the most successful investors and founders you will notice that they talk about trends as basis for their decisions, in which vertical to invest or in which to launch a new venture. Data is such a trend and MOOCs rely heavily on data produced by the users as this data is the basis of how they (may) earn money down the road.

And if we go back in the archives and check what was all the buzz before the MOOC wave crashed and swept everything away we will find that before MOOCs digital textbooks and personalized learning were two of the major topics. Now that the dust has settled a bit let’s get up to speed with these closely connected verticals that might have the potential to make a comeback in the edtech headlines in 2014.

To begin with we saw the untimely death of Kno, one of the most ambitious startups in the digital textbook space. It had originally started as a hardware company that wanted to provide students with a tablet that had the same form factor like a normal textbook. In an unfortunate turn of events for Kno, Apple launched the iPad a couple of months later and essentially killed the Kno tablet in the crib. Afterseveral other rather unfortunate happenings Kno ended up in a fire sale to Intel. But I am pretty sure that we are going to hear more of Kno and Intel this year, probably in combination with a new, Intel powered tablet for education.

One the other hand, digital textbook creator Inkling that had temporarily fallen back behind Kno due to its more detailed approach in creating e-textbooks, came out on top in the end. After some pivots into cookbooks and other experiments the startup came up with a working business model: creating Inkling Habitat, a self-service platform for education publishers.

One other interesting story in the digital textbook space that hadn’t gotten that much attention throughout 2013 was the legal battle between Boundless and the publishers Pearson, Cengage and Macmillan. Boundless got sued for copyright infringement as the platform created free versions of expensive textbooks by compiling and curating freely available OER material. A case never took place and Boundless and the publishers settled their dispute last month. Details of the settlement have not been released.

Last but not least, we learned that Knewton raised a $51 million round just before Christmas. The New York based startup, though we should now call it a grown-up, has specialized in personalized learning since 2008. Over the years more and more big publishers including Pearson, Macmillan or Cambridge University Press partnered with Knewton to bring their content and learning experiences into the new digital era. Notably McGraw-Hill chose to invest into its own personalized learning platform by acquiring a 20% stake in the Danish startup Area9 in early 2013.

According to TechCrunch Knewton has generated close to 2 billion personalized recommendations to students over the past couple of years and throughout 2013 the company tripled its revenue.

I think over the coming twelve months the importance of the textbook is going to diminish. It is an antiquated idea of how students get access to information. Textbooks are probably going to be replaced by other entry points like apps or search portals also with an increasing focus on mobile consumption. What counts is who is going to generate the best data sets and analytics.

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Kirsten Winkler is the founder and editor of EDUKWEST. She also writes about Social Media, Digital Society and Startups at

  • chinamike

    Let’s get real, it sounds to me like the publishers are leaving print behind because the margins they face are dropping like a ton of bricks. They are ceeding the print space to low cost textbooks as they see the downward (almost to free) price pressure on these products and they realize they need to figure out ways to support higher prices. In some areas books will remain valuable (and hopefully cheap) for years (history, government, English language instruction, etc.). Digital publishers will work hard to show consumers the “extra” value they add in these areas but many teachers will push back and try to find ways to keep the digital space under their control. I don’t believe teachers will immediately jump on the digital ship in mass especially when they realize it is an attempt to keep prices high far into the future.

    I hope teachers demand that big data doesn’t become a bank vault that companies guard but rather an open sharing environment. In fact, this should become a great open-source project for someone one day. Does anyone really think that these world-wide publishers are trying to reduce the cost of education after watching textbook prices ride the pricing rocket over the past 20 years?

    • I think there are at least some folks who think this. One of the key issues to solve is to make people understand how valuable their data is. As long as they don’t care, students and teachers alike, there won’t be any change or any progress.