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 a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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