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 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.