The quotes below are culled from an interview with Salman Khan in MIT’s Technology Review, which I saw by way of Instapundit. I’ve reversed the order of the questions and answers I’m highlighting, putting them in their order of importance to me, but I encourage you to read the entire article. Free on-line education is a revolutionary change in the way things are done in the world, and you have a front-row seat on what should prove to be a thrilling drama.
So: Who really wants a free, high-quality on-line education?
In your mission statement, you talk about education for “anyone.” You don’t say “everyone.” What have you learned about the real demand for knowledge?
I don’t think I thought that deeply about it when I wrote it. When I started this, I thought this might be interesting for people like me when I was 12 years old—fairly motivated. And who knows how large a class of people that is. Most sites for the motivated have tens of thousands of users, if that. We are close to 6.5 million unique users per month. But if you look at the engagement—who is really ultra-into this and spending a lot of time with the videos—well, it’s a couple of hundred thousand.
My big takeaway, and we see this in classrooms, is that who is motivated and who can engage is a much bigger group than we originally thought. The core reason for students disengaging is that they are frustrated. They’re in algebra class but don’t have a good foundation in pre-algebra or arithmetic. It’s going straight by their heads. So they’re acting up in the back of the room. I think that is what is happening universally.
I’d be interested to hear about international matriculants to the Khan Academy. The near-term salvation of Western Civilization is likely to be the Southern hemisphere, and education-starved regions world-wide offer much hope for the future of the human mind. At least half of the world’s genius is untapped, and free web-based education is a way to shine the light of Athens everywhere.
Two educationist fallacies shot down, credentialism and the insistence that better must be perfect:
You’ve become the world’s most talked-about educator. But you’re not even trained as a teacher. That has upset some people, hasn’t it?
Look, pedagogy is a lot like economics. I can find two education PhDs who are in 180-degree opposition. It’s just like Keynesians versus the Chicago school of economics. You can see it in the debate over New Math versus the old math. The math wars have been raging for decades. They hate each other. They shout at each other. We try not to be dogmatic about it.
A lot of the criticism I have [gotten] is “There is no such thing as a silver bullet. The Khan Academy is not going to solve education’s problems.” And we agree with that 100 percent. At the same time, we think we’re at the very top of the first inning. Over the next five years we are going to be investing heavily, more than anyone, in analytics that give you a dynamic assessment. What does a student know? What does a student not know? How effective is the tutorial? That is what is exciting. That is the possibility of doing experimentation at Internet speed with Internet scales of data. So what you see today at Khan Academy is a very crude approximation of where we’ll be in five or 10 years. And even that won’t be the silver bullet. But we’ll be moving in the right direction.
The Khan Academy is a full-throated challenge to one-size-fits-all educationism, but here is an even-more-exciting prospect: Sometime very soon, another on-line learning paradigm will rise to challenge Khan’s model. Making education a statist monopoly has made it conservative and sclerotic. Its primary purpose is to provide jobs for dull-witted apple-polishers, but the lack of competition — and the absence of the threat of being run out of business — has made the education part of the enterprise particularly ineffectual. The reintroduction of competition into what was until lately always a competitive business, will make a huge difference in fairly short order.
Even so, disintermediating the schoolteacher’s unions will only be the second battle in this revolutionary war for education. The first is already being fought: How dare you call something “an education” that does not entail puking up top-shelf liquor with all the right frat boys?
Can you define what you mean by a “world-class” education?
“World-class” is probably the hardest to define. The aspiration is not [to create] a cheap alternative for those who can’t afford anything else. We really want it to be as good or better than anything anyone is charging money for. When people watch our videos, we want them to say, “I’ve learned just as much as I might have doing anything else.”
But here is also where our mission gets a little more into the physical. We are a website on one level, but we’ve been getting into this broader discussion about “What is a classroom? What is the best use of a classroom?” Half of what I talk about isn’t Khan Academy the software; it’s the general idea that no one should be giving lectures anymore. The idea is to move the lectures out of the way, so when humans get together in class they can be doing problem-solving.
This will make indoctrination in Marxism more difficult, so it’s plausible that the professoriate will beat the teacher’s unions to the battlefield.
The best for last: How do we move from millions of newly-educated minds to millions of newly-credentialed job applicants?
There are people offering college courses for free. Do you see a model for paying for that?
Here’s what I think it could look like in five years: the learning side will be free, but if and when you want to prove what you know, and get a credential, you would go to a proctoring center [for an exam]. And that would cost something. Let’s say it costs $100 to administer that exam. I could see charging $150 for it. And then you have a $50 margin that you can reinvest on the free-learning side.
I think that is consistent with the mission. You are taking the cost of the credential down from thousands of dollars to hundreds of dollars. And the [software] system would tell them they are ready for it. So no paying tuition for community college and then dropping out, or even finishing the whole thing and saying “Oh, I’m $20,000 in debt and what did I get out of it?”
Now you are like, “Look, there is this micro-credential in basic accounting I can get for $150, and I basically know I am going to pass before I invest that money.” That would be a huge positive for the consumers of education, and it could pay the bills on the learning side.
Did you get that? He’s going to take the sheepskins away, too. I expect the deans of academe have the idea that selling degrees is their fall-back plan, once all their ivy-covered crypts are emptied of students. But if Khan or someone like him takes that business, too, all bets are off.
This is the way of the internet. If the unit-two cost of a product is $0.00, the sensible retail price is $0.00 or something very close to it. If there is a brick-and-mortar component — as with credential-testing here — and no barriers to market entry, the price for that add-on component will tend to fall to cost-plus, as Khan indicates here.
If you’re a teacher, plan ahead. Your days in the classroom are numbered. If you have kids in school, start supplementing with on-line education now. If you live in a place where education has been unavailable to you, as a matter of practical economics or political restriction, the truth will set you free.
And if you make your living selling tony degrees in chummy drunkenness…?
The tax-payers are calling. They want their money back.