Innovation in Education… It Comes Down to the Dollars

Over the past few months I’ve developed an obsession with the evolving (or not-so-evolving) education landscape. Like the healthcare industry, the education system has remained relatively stagnant and is somewhat under fire. This can be blamed partially on the inherent bureaucracy associated with the industry, the misaligned incentives between students, teachers, and school districts, and the sector’s ill-defined metrics of success.

Here Comes Technology

Nevertheless, over the past few years the education technology (“edtech”) sector has been extremely active in terms of start-up creation and investment. Perhaps the most significant trend in the space has had to do with accessibility. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are aggregating and providing high quality educational content for free, giving virtually anyone with an internet connection access to hours of otherwise inaccessible knowledge.

Khan Academy – A Pioneer

A pioneer in this trend has been Khan Academy, a non-profit started by Harvard grad and ex-hedge fund analyst Sal Khan. Until recently Khan Academy’s offering has been educational videos covering subjects normally taught in middle school and high school class environments. Khan was able to differentiate his offering by establishing a highly personal connection through his instructional videos (he’s the teacher) and of course delivering all of his content gratis. While this undoubtedly altered the landscape in terms of access and opportunity, it unfortunately hasn’t done much yet to fundamentally change the way the education system operates (at least in the US). To be fair there are some innovative ideas that have started to take hold as a result of accessible high quality online instruction… like the flipped classroom model… where information delivery is done primarily outside of the classroom via an online platform and homework and more interactive learning is done in the physical classroom setting. However, these concepts are in their nascent stages and for the most part platforms like Khan Academy serve as a supplement to traditional classroom teaching and perhaps a substitution to after school tutoring. This is primarily because of society and economics. Majority of schooling (K-12) is “free” so schools have little incentive to change their approach and very few parents are going to take their child out of a social environment to stare at a screen for 8 hours a day.

Enter Capitalism

Last week Khan Academy entered into a partnership with the College Board in which they will offer free SAT test prep. Hello Princeton Review and Kaplan. When I heard about the announcement, I thought now this is disruption. Why? Now millions are on the line. Like other facets of education, test prep companies have relied on established cookie cutter approaches that they have bundled and re-bundled and sold to hopeful parents and students alike for significant sums of money. Now that there is a free, high quality (this is an assumption based on Khan’s reputation. I haven’t looked at the program myself) alternative, these companies will be forced to change their ways, innovate, and see how they can deliver superior services to justify charging such a premium. Maybe this innovation can take the form of truly personalized curriculums and/or providing different teaching methodologies based on one’s learning type (See a Buddy’s blog post on Adaptive Learning).

Regardless, I hope and predict we will see more innovation in the short-term that will truly change the behavior of the larger entrenched players and that will make a major impact on the education industry as a whole.

Warmly and Humbly,


P.S. Thanks to AJ Jangalapalli for his vast ed tech knowledge base and help with this post…

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