Bulletin 1 from a Week at Harvard 2013 – the Khan Academy and the Education Revolution



Thoughts from a stimulating week at the great Harvard Business School

 Harvard 2013 Bulletin No 1


At the start of each year I try and come to a one week leadership program at the Harvard Business School as part of my aim to keep up to date with some of the latest research ideas, how they will affect the world, our lives and ultimately our wellbeing. The program is intense, with classes starting straight after breakfast, finishing shortly before dinner and then group study classes meeting to discuss the course material and cases for a few hours after dinner. Over the coming week, I will post a series of bulletins which will summarise some of my key takeaways from the program. 

I should say that these takeaways incorporate my learnings from a number of sources, not just Harvard. So unless I attribute otherwise, the thoughts and views should be regarded as mine.

By far one of the most valuable cases was that of the Khan Academy, that is heralding the start of an education revolution

The Education Revoluton and the Khan Academy

The Khan Academy’s mission is simple as it is bold: “To [change] education for the better by providing a free world class education to anyone anywhere”.  Founded by Salman Khan, the  Academy is a YouTube based not for profit education business.  It has over 3,000 video tutorials on topics ranging from maths, to physics, history and finance and has attracted over 4 million unique viewers.

Salman Khan graduated from MIT with three degrees and then moved into the hedge funds management business. One of his cousins asked him to help tutor her in maths, which led him to post on YouTube various tutorials for her use in her own time.  Somehow other students stumbled across these. The enthusiastic and positive feedback that Salman received from these unexpected users, together with his discovery that he had a passion and talent for producing educational videos, led him to abandon his high paying hedge fund job, to launch the Khan Academy as a not-for profit. His growing realisation that what he was doing could revolutionise education, gave him a new sense of meaning and purpose.

The beauty of the system is its free availability to anyone at any time. Traditional classroom learning means that a certain amount of time is allocated to each topic, regardless of whether this is sufficient to gain mastery of the topic. Using the Khan Academy, students are able to work at their own pace, giving everyone the chance to achieve mastery, before moving on to the next topic. It is currently designed as a supplement to, rather than an alternative to school based learning. While users span the spectrum of age categories, most are high school or college students looking to supplement their classes with outside help.

Amongst disadvantaged students, particularly in poor countries, the Academy could of course become a primary source of education.

The Los Altos School District in California piloted a classroom based program with Khan to improve student engagement and provide more flexibility for students to work at their own pace. The success of this program led to it being rolled out more widely during the 2011-12 school year.

 Salman had the good fortune to be discovered by Bill Gates, who found his videos useful for teaching his daughters certain concepts. The Gates Foundation and Google, among others, have provided initial funding of around $10 million to the Academy, allowing it to expand its scope and reach, with a small but dedicated band of people, including some great computer programmers. There is a marvellous TED talk in which Gates MCs a presentation by Salman on the Academy:  Khan Ted talk.

But better still, if you just want to experience the site for yourself, or for your child, go to YouTube, type in ‘Khan Academy’ and you will see an array of videos arranged by different topics.

An even bigger revolution in education may  occur in the University sector. A term I heard often at Harvard was the rise in MOOCs – Massive Open Online Classrooms. Already there are a number of institutions offering a university education online. Even the major universities around the world are providing more and more content online.

Currently, the top universities are only able to accept a small percentage of the students who apply and have the abilty to perform well, because of the physical limitations of their buildings, accommodation etc. But imagine what is going to happen as some of these universities extend their courses online. There is theoretically no end to the number of students who could access the courses and interact with the material. Rather than restricting entry, in the online world, anyone may be allowed to enrol, but of course they would need to pass their initial courses to move on.

There are a number of issues that still need to be worked out, but the trend seems to be unstoppable and the implications for second and third tier universities is potentially grim. But for disadvantaged students around the world the rise in MOOCs could make a significant difference to their ability to close the education gap.

In the meantime, sample some online education for yourself. Find a topic that you are interested in and enjoy having Salman Khan help bring it to life




One Response

  1. Loved reading your thoughts on the benefits of MOOC’s and the fact that you’re able to go to Harvard Business School once a year – what a great opportunity. Thank you

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