The Race for Education Tech Heats Up

Courtney Williams's picture
Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Selling out, cashing in and calling it a day seems to be many startup founders' dream these days. And in a shaky market, who can really blame them?

New York-based Knewton is hanging tough. The online learning company announced on Tuesday that it is pairing up with Pearson to add its adaptive learning technology to all of the publisher's online courses, starting with its college-level programs.

Instead of selling itself, Knewton has entered into an agreement with the industry giant, which might otherwise have been an acquirer. The deal is just the latest sign that some startups are holding their own with the industry's heavyweights as the market for new educational technology heats up.

Knewton uses an algorithm to track how students learn, tailoring courses incrementally based on a student's individual strengths and weaknesses. The system is intended to grow more intelligent as more students use it, much like Google's (GOOG) search results.

Pearson's close to 9 million college-age digital students will work within Knewton's system, creating a massive amount of coveted data on how student learn online. Pearson will get semi-exclusive access to Knewton's adaptive learning technology. And Knewton, which recently raised $33 million in venture capital funding in a round led by Pearson and Founders Fund, will get a share of proceeds based on the number of Pearson's (PSO) online students. "Pearson is a network effect wrapped up in a bow," says Jose Ferreira, Knewton's founder and CEO.

Demand for online education is exploding. The global market for online learning at schools and businesses is expected to grow from $32.1 billion in 2010 to approximately $50 billion by 2015, according to research firm Ambient Insight. And Pearson is far from the only player that's fighting for a piece of that growth. News Corp (NWS) purchased a 90% stake in Brooklyn-based Wireless Generation for $360 million last November. Apollo Group (APOL) purchased Carnegie Learning Technology, an adaptive learning company, in a $75 million deal this past August. And companies like NBCUniversal and even Disney (DIS) have begun to dip their toes into the online learning business.

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