Education is a big deal. It’s #2 of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and as the world invests more than $3 trillion dollars annually into the sector, it is pertinent that education outcomes improve. The US government spends more per student than most of its OECD peers, yet education outcomes have lagged behind other countries, such as Ireland and Canada. One has to wonder why the $70billion that the US spends annually is not translating into tangible outcomes. An argument is that the “factory model” of schooling – lecture-style instruction, periods delineated by patronizing bell ringing and classes fenced in by subjects, is fast becoming irrelevant in the digital age. This school of thought has created a plethora of innovative approaches to education, be it in the form of a chartered school or an ed tech company. With funding from big names such as Bill Gates and Google, one organization that unanimously requires a mention is Khan Academy.
Khan Academy is a nonprofit that provides free instructional video content to students in the K-12 space. Since its inception in 2006, Khan Academy has evolved from teaching mathematical concepts in the K-12 curriculum to providing content in other topics such as art history and mars exploration. Given the enormity of the education problem, Khan Academy’s business model is focused on improving two weaknesses of the current system – standardized learning and measurability.
Firstly, one of the main criticisms of the existing system is that it deploys a “one size fits all” and “teaching to the average student” approach that essentially fails all students – the smarter students are bored and the struggling students become increasingly disengaged. Khan Academy, using essentially a library of instructional Youtube videos, provide a cheap and scalable option of adaptive and personalized learning. Students can watch these videos at their own pace, on-the-go and need not move on until they are comfortable with the concepts. In essence, the convenience and accessibility of the content improves student engagement and alleviates teachers from some of the classroom pressures.
Secondly, Khan Academy’s application of “big data” or “learning analytics” to education is meaningful. Whilst the learning content for student is adaptive to the student’s mastery of concepts, the teachers are empowered as interventionists. The website supplements the video content with a dashboard application and other teaching tools that can highlight student challenges to their teachers. As students do the exercises, the progress – number of problems solved and time, is tracked at split-second intervals and populates the dashboard.
Khan Academy’s growth has been aggressive – it has evolved their offering – adding free SAT prep and partnering with organizations, such as MIT and NASA to add content breadth, expanded into developing nations such as India and China and opened its first Montessori-style school in the US. I wonder if this is simply too much, too fast. My view is to focus on refining its core product – online content, which has room for improvement and opportunity for scalability. Specifically, there are three areas to look at:
- Expanding into 21st century skills. Although broadening its subject offering considerably, Khan Academy has limited content in preparing students for the 21st century. In fact, much of the criticism has been grounded that their rote-learning style videos stifle creativity and human interactivity. Expanding content is necessary to ensure students can obtain a comprehensive education. For example, Khan Academy could plug one of its subject gaps, creative writing by utilizing a peer review system or group students to enable project-learning, which can foster leadership and teamwork skills.
- Training the teacher. Taking Khan Academy’s model to the extreme, one could argue that the teacher role becomes redundant. In this scenario where the teacher is disintermediated, how do you ensure that the teacher is encouraged to participate in evolving Khan Academy’s products? As technology develops and the products become more sophisticated, it is crucial that Khan Academy not only redefines the teacher role but brings existing teachers with them. Teachers need to be taught how to use the technology efficiently and unlearning how to be a “teacher” but transitioning to being that of a coach, a facilitator of the personalized learning.
- Investing into machine learning. While we need to be aware of reducing human beings to a data point, there is considerable merit in collecting and analyzing student data. Considering the its popularity, Khan Academy is sitting on a treasure trove of data on how people learn. Investing into understanding the data will have repercussions on both improving the personalized learning model and potentially changing how curriculums are put together. Compared to opening up a new school, this will have more scalable impact, especially in developing nations.
 McKinsey & Co, “How the world’s best performing schools come out on top” http://mckinseyonsociety.com/downloads/reports/Education/Worlds_School_Systems_Final.pdf, accessed November 2016
Forbes, “Why are Education and Healthcare Outcomes so bad in the US?” http://www.forbes.com/sites/modeledbehavior/2016/01/03/why-are-education-and-healthcare-outcomes-so-bad-in-the-us/#18dc24ca5cba, accessed November 2016
National Priorities Project, “Federal Spending: Where does it all go?” https://www.nationalpriorities.org/budget-basics/federal-budget-101/spending/, accessed November 2016
 Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, “A factory model for schools no longer works” http://archive.jsonline.com/news/opinion/a-factory-model-for-schools-no-longer-works-b9943187z1-213602131.html, accessed November 2016
 NPR Ed, “’A bit of a Montessori 2.0’: Khan Academy Opens a Lab School”, http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/01/05/461506508/sal-khan-on-learning-coding-and-why-virtual-ed-is-not-enough, accessed November 2016
Wired, “How Khan Academy is Changing the rules of Education”, https://www.wired.com/2011/07/ff_khan/, accessed November 2016
 Khan Lab School, http://khanlabschool.org, accessed November 2016
 Information Age, “Teachers may not like like how tech will disrupt education, but transformation is necessary”, http://www.information-age.com/teachers-may-not-how-tech-will-disrupt-education-transformation-necessary-123460311/, accessed November 2016