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 the history of all art. A typical episode consists of a video screencast focused on a single painting or sculpture—say, Cézanne’s Still Life with Apples. On the audio track, Harris and Zucker discuss the artist, the work, and its place in the canon. The audio is always recorded live as they’re standing in front of the actual work, and they often disagree or talk over one another, which is part of the fun.

Smarthistory won a Webby Award for best education site in 2009, but it was always a low-budget operation, scraping together funds from places like the Kress Foundation, the Portland Art Museum, and even a Kickstarter campaign. Last October, to my astonishment, Smarthistory merged with Khan Academy, where Harris and Zucker now share the title Dean of Art and History. Their 300 videos have become part of the Khan course lineup—in fact, they’re the first Khan-branded videos that aren’t narrated by Sal Khan himself. In a blog post about the merger, Khan said the move represented just a beginning of a push into arts and the humanities. That’s a key addition to a curriculum that’s otherwise extremely heavy on math, science, economics, and test preparation.

It was less surprising to find out that Victoria “Vi” Hart, the creator of the Doodling in Math Class series and many other fun videos, has also joined forces with Khan Academy. The holder of a music degree from Stony Brook University, Hart calls herself a “recreational mathemusician.” She became famous (in geek circles, anyway) back in 2010 when she started publishing frantically sped-up math videos on YouTube, usually using fanciful characters like slugcats (felines with long slug tails) to illustrate obscure-but-fascinating aspects of geometry. Topics like fractals and infinite series came alive through Hart’s anthropomorphic drawings, but that was only part of what made the videos enchanting. Throughout, she also sprinkled fairly barbed criticisms of how deadening traditional math education can be. (Why doodle in math class, she asks in one video? “Maybe you have an incompetent teacher and it’s too heartbreaking to watch her butcher what could have been such a fun subject full of snakes and balloons.”) My favorite Doodling videos are the ones on Fibonacci numbers, which turn up with amazing frequency in the spiraling patterns of leaves and seeds in many plants.

But as awesome and popular as these videos were—Hart’s riff on Infinity Elephants has been viewed more than 1.5 million times—they weren’t exactly earning her a living; she says in one video that she got by for a long time on speaking fees. That’s why it was such a perfect match when Khan Academy hired her and assigned her to keep going. Now “I show up at an office and do whatever I want and get paid for it,” Hart says. She adds that while her own videos make nice teasers for cool corners of mathematics, the Khan curriculum is a gateway to the deeper technical details. “I want to share cool stuff you can do [with math], and it is very important to be able to amuse yourself in class,” she jokes. “But when people ask me how do I go farther than that, how do I get down some basics, Khan Academy is such a perfect way to do this.”

There are plenty of other people making great, free educational videos on YouTube. One source that came in extremely handy a couple of weeks ago, during the hoopla over the Higgs boson, was Minute Physics, the creation of animator Henry Reich. His explanation of how the Higgs field imparts mass was the best I’ve seen, hands down. As far as I know, Reich hasn’t taken a job at Khan Academy yet, but he has fans who think he should.

My overall point is this: it’s always been the job of universities to inspire students to undertake careers in intellectually challenging fields like math, chemistry, linguistics, physics, and art history. But today they’re in danger of ceding that role to the new YouTube celebrities. At any real college, professors like Harris, Zucker, Hart, Reich, and Khan would be 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.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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5 responses to “Can Anyone Catch Khan Academy? The Fate of the U in the YouTube Era”

  1. el_tigger says:

    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.

  2. Ralph Dtex says:

    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.

  3. fargojay says:

    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?

  4. 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.

  5. Jessica L says:

    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.