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

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the stars—their lectures would be the ones you’d remember 30 years later. But to hoover up the knowledge they’re sharing, you don’t have to enroll anywhere, and you don’t have to pay a cent.

That’s obviously a bit of a problem for the old guard of higher learning. MIT and Harvard are responding with a $60 million effort called edX, which will put courses from both universities online using “massive open online course” or MOOC technology developed for MIT’s own online courseware project, MITx. The prototype MITx course, Circuits and Electronics, ran from March through June, and involved a combination of videos (hosted on YouTube, of course), an online textbook, an interactive lab, and a course-wide wiki.

Stanford is going in a slightly different direction. Rather than launch a rival to edX, it’s turning to its own faculty to build education startups, and then partnering with them. Coursera, founded last year by Stanford computer scientists Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, offers online versions of 15 Stanford courses, and announced this week that it has signed up a dozen more research universities to contribute material, including Caltech, Johns Hopkins, and Duke.

Meanwhile, Stanford roboticist (and Xconomist) Sebastian Thrun attracted so many people to his free online course on artificial intelligence last year (there were more than 160,000 students from 190 countries) that he decided to give up his faculty position to pursue online education full time. His startup Udacity now offers 11 MOOCs, from “Intro to Computer Science” to “Applied Cryptography.”

But when it comes to Web traffic and the volume of courseware available, Khan Academy has a huge lead over all of these other projects. And since none of the online courseware projects are offering actual degrees yet, this is a space where having a premium brand name like Harvard, MIT, or Stanford isn’t such a big advantage.

Just to keep things competitive, Khan launched an iPad app this spring offering access to all 3,200 videos. It’s currently ranked 12th in the free-education-apps category of the iTunes App Store. (Apple’s own iTunes U is ranked 3rd.) If the organization keeps expanding to new platforms, acquiring properties like Smarthistory and Doodling in Math Class, and filling out its catalog with material that’s entertaining as well as educational, it will be tough to beat. Stanford president John Hennessy was right to tell New Yorker writer Ken Auletta earlier this year that “there’s a tsunami coming” in online education. Universities will probably find a way to survive—as they’ve been doing for a thousand years—but they’re going to have to swim for it.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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