Personalized Learning

Florida Virtual Schools and Knewton to Collaborate Using Analytics

By Leo Doran — January 19, 2016 3 min read
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In an attempt to bolster the customization of lessons offered to individual students, one of the country’s largest and oldest online schools is partnering with Knewton, a prominent educational data-analytics company.

Founded in 1997, the Florida Virtual School is defined as a public school district by state law. The system serves nearly 6,000 full time students, and over 200,000 part time students—its enrollment having been helped by a state requirement that all public school students to take at least one online class.

Florida Virtual School officials say their program has been attempting to incorporate “personalized learning” in lessons for years.

But leaders of the school say they wanted a better understanding of how students interact with their software and what strategies could be employed by teachers and curriculum directors to more effectively reach students.

After reviewing proposals from various bidders to provide the service, the Florida Virtual School chose Knewton to help curate the school’s content—beginning with the virtual provider’s geometry course.

The goal is to “personalize at a more sophisticated level,” according to school curriculum director Jill Barnes, and offer course material “in more granular pieces of content,” making lessons “more remix-able” and offering teachers a wider array of tools.

Education Week’s Ben Herold has reported extensively on Knewton’s ambitious efforts to create digital “learner profiles,” and the promise and controversy surrounding the company’s platform. Critics have questioned whether schools will end up putting too much faith in the analytics used by systems like Knewton, and if those systems are putting students in overly rigid, pre-existing categories, in an effort to tailor lessons based on data. Others worry about whether ambitious data-analytics platforms will sufficiently protect data privacy.

Students enrolled in a Florida Virtual School course can set their own schedule, provided they make weekly academic progress. Rather than attending classes in a traditional, brick-and-mortar location, learning is done online. Teachers provide students with one-on-one help by phone, text, email and video-chat.

Proponents of online learning say that it provides flexible and targeted academic options for students who struggle in a traditional school setting, and that students can obtain a curriculum tailored to a student’s pace of learning.

Others are skeptical of the quality of many online programs. They point to critical studies of the performance of online charter schools and caution that too much emphasis on online learning at the expense of classroom time can hurt student outcomes.

A spokesperson for the Florida Virtual School said its agreement with Knewton could pay the company more than $1.3 million over the next three years “dependent upon the number of Knewton-powered courses FLVS decides to deliver and the number of students taking Knewton powered courses at FLVS.”

The school and company decided to begin by focusing on overhauling the virtual school’s geometry course because of the large amount of content the school has accumulated in the subject, and the numerous opportunities it offers for formative assessments—a key ingredient for Knewton’s data-hungry algorithms.

Barnes said that Knewton was chosen in part because their data-analytics services should integrate easily into Florida Virtual School’s online platform. Knewton’s decision to sign the Student Privacy Pledge was also factor, she said.

Despite her optimism, Barnes recognizes that “learning goals are different in different subjects” and that attempts to use data-analytics to personalize learning in a geometry class may not fit an English class.

She emphasized that the school sees the partnership as one ingredient that goes into a successful learning experience. The partnership is intended to strengthen the arsenal of tools available to parents and teachers in their relationships with students—which Barnes says remains foundational to effective learning.

The partnership in many ways reflects the growing interest in K-12 systems in “personalized learning,” a somewhat amorphous term widely used among vendors and educators today. Personalized learning is sometimes defined as efforts to allow schools to customize lessons to challenge students who are ready to move quickly through advanced material, or slow the pace for students who are struggling or prefer to move more methodically.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.