How is technology disrupting education?

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[1], it is pertinent that education outcomes improve. The US government spends more per student than most of its OECD peers[2], yet education outcomes have lagged behind other countries, such as Ireland and Canada. One has to wonder why the $70billion[3] that the US spends annually is not translating into tangible outcomes. An argument is that the “factory model”[4] 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.[5]


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[6] 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.[7] 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:


  1. 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.
  2. 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[8] and unlearning how to be a “teacher” but transitioning to being that of a coach, a facilitator of the personalized learning.
  3. 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.



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[1] McKinsey & Co, “How the world’s best performing schools come out on top”, accessed November 2016

[2]Forbes, “Why are Education and Healthcare Outcomes so bad in the US?”, accessed November 2016

[3]National Priorities Project, “Federal Spending: Where does it all go?”, accessed November 2016

[4] Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, “A factory model for schools no longer works”, accessed November 2016

[5] NPR Ed, “’A bit of a Montessori 2.0’: Khan Academy Opens a Lab School”,, accessed November 2016

[6]Wired, “How Khan Academy is Changing the rules of Education”,, accessed November 2016

[7] Khan Lab School,, accessed November 2016

[8] Information Age, “Teachers may not like like how tech will disrupt education, but transformation is necessary”,, accessed November 2016


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Student comments on How is technology disrupting education?

  1. Interesting post about an alternative for current education system!
    Despite all of above mentioned merits, I think one of the inherent problem of online education system is inability of forcing students to focus on the class. Not being in the same place at the same time with the teacher and other students negatively affect students’ concentration, and use of computer further distract students from studying. If Khan Academy could solve this problem, their new education system would be much more efficient.

  2. Great post! I think Khan Academy is pursuing a very worthy objective, but educators need to also gain a sense of the limitations of these types of, what I would call, “teaching tools”. I think technology has huge potential in being able to personalise learning – one teacher’s explanation will never be the most effective one for all 30 kids in a class, so why not have 30 teachers (videos) explain the same concept in the perfect way for each individual? That’s powerful. However, there is a lot a great teacher does at levels above “classroom explanations” that we shouldn’t forget, and assume technology can also replace.

  3. Very interesting post. I worked in the education sector for close to 2 years and we brought Khan Academy to India. In fact, Khan Academy’s only office outside of San Francisco is in our office in India! I agree with the post largely especially with the training the teacher model. Would like to point out some things that we did and which would be interesting to consider especially as it expands into other countries

    1. We funded the translation of Khan Academy videos into Hindi. However, it turned out that pure translation was not as important as contextualization of the videos. Kids in India wouldn’t be able to relate to “Ben Franklin” or “the dollar” so we ended up doing that. It was quite successful but took a huge amount of time. I wanted to check if you have any thoughts on what we could do to reduce the resources one could spend doing that especially on quality checking (anything related to the machine learning point you mentioned?)

    2. The other big takeaway was that in many cases, it actually helped the teachers more than it did the students. In areas where teachers are not very well trained, it gave them a platform from which they could learn how to teach. In reply to some of the comments above, it actually flipped the model. I wonder if with very little tweaking, we could develop a Khan Academy for teachers. It would be the same lessons but just a bit more from an instruction point of view instead of the learning point of view. Most of the principals we spoke to reported higher levels of teacher participation than student participation with regards to Khan Academy!

  4. Great article! I love Khan Academy and have used it multiple times in the past. Do you think that universalizing and globalizing KA might actually lead to a bigger split between the have and have nots? I am thinking of children in many parts of the world who might not even have electricity at home, let alone a PC or internet connection to run their videos on?

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