Can Anyone Catch Khan Academy? The Fate of the U in the YouTube Era

Traditional American universities are suddenly running scared of the Internet, and for good reason. They successfully weathered the rise of online, open-enrollment degree programs like the University of Phoenix, but now they’re confronting a much more terrifying enemy: YouTube.

Not just YouTube, of course—there’s also Vimeo and 5min and iTunes U and TED and the Internet Archive. But without YouTube, Sal Khan could never have turned the remote math-tutoring sessions he began offering to his cousin Nadia back in 2006 into a global Internet phenomenon reaching 4 million unique viewers a month. Khan Academy is, essentially, a creature of the Google era. The search giant gave the non-profit its first big grant back in 2010, and YouTube is still the storehouse for all 3,200 of its videos, which have been viewed 170 million times.

The threat to universities is this: Internet video sharing technology means that talented people from outside the education establishment can make and publish free educational videos that are sometimes just as compelling as what’s on offer inside university classrooms. Universities are scrambling to respond: this spring’s unveiling of edX, a joint online-education venture between Harvard and MIT, is just one example. But even as universities rush to put their lectures on the net, they’re vying with an explosion of new online learning resources like Coursera, Dabble, Skillshare, Udemy, and Udacity. Most are free, and most revolve around video.

From one perspective, this kind of competition is healthy and long overdue. For 40 years now, four-year universities have been jacking up tuition and fees at three times the rate of inflation. They’ve got more professors and nicer sports stadiums to show for it, but there’s no evidence that faculty are more productive or that students are getting a better education for their money. If online channels can deliver college-level material in a more efficient and exciting way, while at the same time opening up knowledge to millions of people who can’t afford tuition or don’t meet admissions standards, that’s a great thing, right?

Well, probably. As pricey as our universities have become, they’re still the envy of the world. International enrollment is at an all-time high as students from China, India, Saudi Arabia, and other countries clamor for an American university education. A college degree confers a significant wage premium, and provides some level of insurance against unemployment. Clearly, students at Harvard aren’t paying $208,000 in tuition just for classroom knowledge—they’re also buying a credential from a brand-name institution, not to mention the professional networking opportunities that can get them a head start on their careers. If you put the whole curriculum online, can you still charge a premium for these other benefits?

No one knows yet. But universities have no choice but to experiment. The point came home to me this week when I realized just how aggressively Khan Academy is expanding into the “casual learning” market. This is a genre that couldn’t have existed before YouTube. It consists of semi-professionally-shot videos starring enthusiastic domain experts who want to share a bit of their knowledge in an entertaining way. And it turns out that two of my favorite casual-learning series on YouTube—Smarthistory and Doodling in Math Class—have recently been absorbed by Khan Academy.

Smarthistory is the creation of Beth Harris, formerly director of digital learning at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Steven Zucker, former chair of the History of Art and Design at the Pratt School. The two started off making free audio-guide podcasts for MOMA visitors, but the project rapidly expanded into an ambitious multimedia survey of … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • el_tigger

    American Universities might be the envy of the world, but not so much for educational quality, but rather because of prestige and maybe research. The prices have evolved as a means of “costly signalling”, making it both desirable and difficult to get in. This might be a bubble or it might not be, it’s just hard to value aspects of game theory accurately. However, if you really want to turn out well educated and capable engineers or doctors in big numbers, this model is certainly the wrong one.

  • Ralph Dtex

    Wade, you should qualify you statements regarding tuition hikes in the United States, considering the decline in State level appropriations. Society has cut support for the university education, primarily driven by the republicans, and place the burden more upon students. As for you comment regarding faculty productivity, try to define it. I bet you couldn’t even provide the responsibilities of a faculty member. As for the nicer sport stadiums, I can assure you that tuition dollars does not go into those new stadiums, there are plenty of corporations and individual that provide support for stadiums, but not education. The majority of faculty salaries have not increased astronomically, especially if compared to salaries of those of equivalent education/experience.

  • fargojay

    How come no ones mentions that the most popular/successful examples are primarily content for geeks (math and art in this article) who tend to have a learning style that fits with the internet. Could anyone really learn Philosophy without a real dialog, only using asynchronous conversations or no conversations at all?

  • I don’t know if it is still true, but when I was a university professor (liberal arts) job security was the main goal of the professors, not research, and research that threatened any individual professor’s cache was dangerous. Especially if the threat was to the chair person. Not so in hard sciences, but any sign of resistence to an invention that trembled the senior professors usually sent the individual off campus to do his or her thing. In my opinion, forty year of this is the disaster anyone can see all around in the USA economically, socially, and environmentally. I think Khan, despite his several degrees from major universities, is doing the right thing; only wish the liberal arts had such an one.

  • Jessica L

    My daughter has been using Khan Academy for a year. Based on our experience, its video lessons are very helpful. The exercise on Khan is quite limited though. She likes to use Beestar for more interesting questions. Beestar is a popular home learning site offering many subject programs. Its math program is completely free.

    She receives Beestar’s practice questions every week. From easy to hard, these questions are well organized to test her almost all math knowledge taught at school. Sometimes when she encounters a new concept, she would search the exact video lesson on Khan Academy for explanation.

    I can monitor her progress on Beestar any time I want, and I happily found her math had improved significantly during this year. I will definitely recommend both of the two excellent websites to everyone I know.