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Featured on Aug 23, 2012

Dave Zwieback

"When you are not afraid [to] be breaking some rules [or not be] fulfilling someone's expectations, what more enlightenment do you want? - Khyentse Norbu"


Born in Europe, raised all over. Father of two boys, husband of one amazing woman. Occasionally get a chance to sit and do nothing. The rest of the time, appear to be running large-scale infrastructure at Knewton, or small-scale infrastructure at Lotus Outreach (a non-profit that helps at-risk and exploited women and children in the developing world). Like technology, but love technologists. Learned all about management by being in a rock band. Have been known to complain that yoga is 99% practice, 1% theory. Recreational tomato plant assassin.

  • Title: Head of Systems at Knewton; CTO at Lotus Outreach
  • Age: 38
  • Location: Union Square
  • Contact: @davezwieback

Knewton is working to revolutionize the education system by personalized content for every student. How has the reaction been to Knewton from the academic community? Do you plan on expanding into other subjects besides SAT/GMAT test prep and math?

Knewton's test prep products enabled us to bootstrap our adaptive learning platform, but our focus has always been on mainstream education, both in higher education and in K12. In 2011 we launched three courses with Arizona State University: College Mathematics, College Algebra, and our Math Readiness course. We have also have partnered with some of the largest education institutions in the US, including the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), Penn State University (PSU), Mount St. Mary’s University, and Washington State University (WSU).

This year, in partnership with Pearson, we are launching a very large number of Knewton-powered courses on Pearson's MyLabs/Mastering platform, which had 9 million student registrations in 2011. These courses cover reading, writing, mathematics, several sciences, economics, and other disciplines.

This video has a good flavor of some of the feedback we've received from ASU faculty and others for our adaptive learning platform. As far as concrete data on its effectiveness, according to ASU, compared to non-Knewton courses "the portion of students withdrawing from the [Knewton] courses fell from 13% to 6%, and pass rates rose from 66% to 75%". That's rather amazing, given that we've only been at this for 4 years!

You claim you "learned all about management by being in a rock band." When was this and please let us in on the secrets of management from rock band-ing.

Software engineers and musicians are sensitive, creative, opinionated, and often obsessively detail-oritened. Both coders and musicians will often fight to the death about the "right" way to do something--whether it's a choice of programming language, tool, or OS, or the exact EQ setting.  Most engineers and musicians wildly underestimate the amount of time it takes to complete their projects--recording an album often requires untold hours in the studio, just like releasing any sizable software project. Some engineers behave much like rock stars, and have entourages, groupies, and often unreasonable demands (and still some companies go out of the way to hire these "rock star hackers").  And yet, even the most accomplished software engineers and musicians live with the knowledge--and the basic insecurity--that despite all their efforts, their work remains imperfect and impermanent.

The key to managing both rock band members and members of your tech team is to understand the many obvious and secret things that drive each person.

There has been a lot of interest in the "broken" education system. What are you personal feelings about the educations system and how else do you think tech can help the education system improve?

Education is the gateway problem of our time--your level of education strongly correlates with your lifetime earning potential (you will make about twice as much if you have a college degree vs a high school diploma), your overall health (e.g., the more educated you are, the less likely you are to smoke or be obese), social engagement (better educated people are more likely to vote and participate in community/non-profit activities), and so on. In rural Cambodia, simply being in school is often what will prevent you from being trafficked out to Thailand for sex work or domestic slavery.

There are numerous ways in which the current education system is broken on a global scale: the unsustainable high cost that is threatening to make quality education a luxury; the limited access to high quality educational content for those that need it most; the assembly-line one-size-fits-all education that leaves the most creative and capable students unengaged, and the most vulnerable students at a huge disadvantage. Addressing these many problems is perhaps the defining challenge of our times, and obviously technology will have a huge part to play in this.