Why Technology is Causing Your HBS Degree to Depreciate

founder-picWill your Harvard Business School degree have any value in 20 years? That is one of many questions that disruptive technology is creating in the education sector. As Massive Open Online Courses (“MOOC”) are offered by more independent organizations and universities, more individuals will have access to educational content. If everyone has equal access to the same content, what, if any, value do educational institutions offer?[i]

The Khan Value Proposition

Khan Academy (“Khan” or the “Company”), a non-profit, is one example of an organization that is taking advantage of digital technology to offer value to students. The Company provides instructional videos and practice exercises across a variety of subjects such as math, science, computer programming, history, art history, economics, and more. The content is also applicable across age groups from kindergarten learners to adult learners.  Khan’s mission is to “Provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.”[ii] This mission statement highlights the core attributes of Khan’s value proposition:

  • Flexibility – By utilizing the internet, Khan allows learners to access educational materials from their computers or mobile devices. By untethering the learning process from brick and mortar school buildings, Khan offers students unlimited flexibility in determining where and when to learn. This flexibility is a key competitive advantage over traditional schools. Consider how this opens the door for adult learners with full-time jobs to continue their education.

Additionally, by offering content on mobile devices, Khan offers a compelling value proposition for students in developing countries who may have access to mobile devices but not computers.[iii]

  • Private / Self-Paced Learning – Khan allows individuals to explore any topic that interests them. The benefit for students who are behind in a subject is that they are able to take remedial courses in the privacy of their homes, which removes the stigma behind publicly struggling with concepts. It also allows advanced students to surge ahead. By offering students the ability to work at their own pace, Khan addresses one of the problems of the traditional classroom model where teachers are forced to teach to the median.[iv]
  • Free, Open Source – All of the content available on Khan is accessible free to everyone. By eliminating payment as a requirement to access the material, Khan offers broad accessibility to everyone.

Example Khan Academy Video:

YouTube. 2016. Intelligent Design and Evolution – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxOEz9aPZNY. [Accessed 18 November 2016].


Low Marginal CostUnlike traditional academic institutions, the marginal cost for adding additional students is low for Khan. Traditional schools are limited by the physical infrastructure that is required to teach additional students—more students require more teachers, classrooms, books, and other materials. Therefore, schools must invest heavily to expand the number of students. However, Khan essentially operates as a subscription model, without charging a subscription fee. Khan’s largest investment is in developing the educational content. Once the content is created, the marginal cost of delivering the content to an additional student is low.[v]

khan-logoThe End of Traditional Schools?

Based on the strong value proposition that Khan offers to students and its attractive operating model, which is highly scalable, it seems as though online educational platforms will soon consume traditional schools. However, there is one area where MOOCs fail and this presents an opportunity for Khan to strengthen its platform. In 2014, Khan opened the Khan Lab School –a physical brick and mortar school building.[vi] At first, this seems highly counterintuitive. If digital technology offers such a strong value proposition for students, why would an online platform open a physical school?

The concept is best explained by Khan founder, Salman Khan, in an interview with NPR. This: “Doesn’t mean that the classroom gets replaced; it means the classroom gets liberated. It doesn’t have to be about a lecture anymore; students don’t have to learn at the same time and pace. Classroom time could be much more about Socratic dialogue, building projects, whatever else.”[vii]

Recognizing that students still benefit greatly from interacting, bouncing ideas off of one another, and working in teams, this is really the next frontier of online educational platforms. Khan should leverage its technology to build more interactive components into the software platform. Khan should create virtual classrooms where students can work together from across the globe. Today’s technology allows us to have a thoughtful dialogue with someone sitting on another continent. Therefore, instead of expanding into physical schools, Khan academy should invest in building out its technology platform to support interactive learning among students.

Once Khan masters the case study method online and everyone has access to the same content, how valuable will our HBS degrees be?


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[i] Washington Post. 2016. How the Internet will disrupt higher education’s most valuable asset: Prestige – The Washington Post. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-the-web-will-disrupt-higher-educations-most-valuable-asset-prestige/2016/02/05/6bddc1ee-c91e-11e5-a7b2-5a2f824b02c9_story.html?utm_term=.0149d9ca1f61. [Accessed 18 November 2016].

[ii] Khan Academy. 2016. About Khan Academy | Khan Academy. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.khanacademy.org/about. [Accessed 18 November 2016].

[iii] Ally, Mohamed, & Mohammed Samaka. “Open education resources and mobile technology to narrow the learning divide.” The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning [Online], 14.2 (2013): 14-27. Web. 18 Nov. 2016

[iv] WIRED: WIRED. 2016. How Khan Academy Is Changing the Rules of Education | WIRED. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.wired.com/2011/07/ff_khan/. [Accessed 18 November 2016].

[v] The Economist. 2016. Online education: The disruption to come | The Economist. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2014/02/online-education. [Accessed 18 November 2016].

[vi] Khan Lab School. 2016. History | Khan Lab School. [ONLINE] Available at: http://khanlabschool.org/history. [Accessed 18 November 2016].

[vii] NPR.org. 2016. ‘A Bit Of A Montessori 2.0’: Khan Academy Opens A Lab School : NPR Ed : NPR. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/01/05/461506508/sal-khan-on-learning-coding-and-why-virtual-ed-is-not-enough. [Accessed 18 November 2016].


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Student comments on Why Technology is Causing Your HBS Degree to Depreciate

  1. Very interesting post Tiana, and raises the question of just how valuable is face-to-face interaction? For example, there have been multiple studies that have shown that a good teacher can actually raise the median income-level of a class. Will a teacher have this profound of an effect in a virtual environment? How well can a virtual environment actually replicate the mentorship and social institutions that come with face-to-face interaction? Time will tell, but I am a strong believer that the value of a brick and mortar institution like HBS, and the associated idea exchange / interaction that comes with being in person, will be incredibly difficult to replicate virtually.

  2. I do agree that ed tech startups like the Khan Academy are challenging traditional methods of teaching and learning, as well as the role of the classroom. However, I do not think that spells doom for institutions like HBS in any way. In fact, Salman Khan recognizes very well the value of in-person interactions and tries to enhance the learning that can be gained from physical time spent teachers and classmates rather than replace it. This is best exemplified by his evangelizing of the “flipped classroom” idea, in which students learn their concepts online outside of the classroom and therefore better utilize their classroom time with teachers by asking questions and participating in discussions. Further, learning at HBS takes place on so many levels that cannot be replaced by online classrooms – in discussion groups, in social settings, in travels abroad, etc. If anything, the online classroom can be a powerful tool to make learning at HBS even more effective and efficient, and not a threat.

  3. Thank you for your post, Tiana! Really a lot of insights here.
    Having worked with public education for a couple of months earlier this year, I can easily visualize the benefits of programs such as the Khan Academy: reduced investments in infrastructure, higher quality of teachers and the ability to bridge age-year distortions. In Salvador, for example, one of Brazil’s richest capitals, age-grade distortion is over 34%. This means that 1 in 3 students are more than 2 years behind their appropriate grade. A program such as the Khan Academy may be exactly what the City needs to improve this situation.
    Having said that, I believe online education can only takes us to a certain level. A full educational experience, as Carl and Ann mentioned above, still demands personal contact with teachers and fellow students.

  4. Phew!!! the title scared me. Hopefully my HBS degree will be worth something 20 years from now since I will probably still be paying for it at the rate this semester is going.
    More seriously, I do believe that online education is a powerful tool. However, I believe it is an ideal complement to traditional classroom education, and not a substitute. Just think about what is the greatest value that HBS creates for us as students. Even though we learn heaps from professors and classes, the most valuable lessons come from sharing experiences with fellow HBSers during social contexts. Class discussions are great, but nothing beats a heated debate over a couple of beers on a subject we would never discuss in class. Whether it is the validity of the title “World Series” for the North American baseball championship, or the presidential election. I don´t think we as humans are able to connect that way with other people through the internet yet. Maybe that will change, but hopefully it does after I pay off my student debt.

  5. Great article and very interesting field to consider how technology is disrupting a current business and operating model!
    By reading your article I am left with few major doubts or concerns:
    – How is Khan Academy making money? It is a no-profit organization, but to maintain the platform itself and to continue enhance the study material must require lots of investments and recurring expenses. Can you tell us more about the business model and how does this business create revenues? My concern would be that revenues come from advertising, which could make the students distracted by the many adds popping up and the learning experience less introspective and valuable
    – How does Khan Academy grant the highest standard of content delivered? Are there competent bodies who can certify the quality of the study material? I am a bit worried about a totally open and free learning platform, where the control on the content provided can be low
    – How will be next generations of young people affected if they will interact with each other just through online platforms, social and interactive but still digital and not physical?
    As final thought, I can see a large potential in this form of education as well as a very high risk of poor content delivery and lack of personal interaction during the learning process, and I think that regulators and education competent bodies will have to play a crucial role in defining standards and limits of this new methods.

  6. Tiana,

    Great article on the value of digitized education. I agree that digital education offers a strong value proposition for students. However, I believe there are several issues with digital education and the Khan Academy in general which will hinder its replacement of the traditional education system. The first is that access to high-quality internet is not a given. According to Pew Research Center (http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/06/26/americans-internet-access-2000-2015/), usage of, and access to, internet varies depending on geographic and demographic categories. For example, 78% of rural Americans use the internet. Factors such as these inhibit the adoption of digital education.

    Secondly, a report (below) shows that a majority of people utilizing online MOOCs already have degrees and are using the platform to fine tune skills rather than seek a degree.


    It seems as though MOOCs, while unlikely to replace traditional education, do offer a strong compliment to it. They offer a student the opportunity to brush up on skills learned before or satisfy their interest in a subject such as philosophy.

    Consequently, I agree with your recommendation to avoid the physical classroom and instead build out the digital platform to allow more students to use it. Further, partnering with universities who are engaging with MOOCs may offer a powerful combination to bring high-quality education delivered via a strong digital platform. Since there has been criticism (https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/khan-academy-the-hype-and-the-reality/2012/07/23/gJQAuw4J3W_blog.html) of the lack of instructor preparation in Khan courses, partnering with universities may help to alleviate this issue.

    Lastly, I’m concerned over the viability of this platform. Understanding that even though they are a non-profit, the organization stills requires funding – will this be through ad-revenue? If so, does this detract from the quality of education offered? These are important questions to answer should the viability of the platform continue into the future.

    1. I have noticed that with the advance of technology, Education is changing away from grasping information to learning how to use information. I agree with Tiana that technology is doing that as it personalizes learning, enables interaction and focuses on the learning by doing method. However, I also agree with you Anonymous that Digital platform for Education may be better catered for fine-tuning skills. I am wondering whether there is opportunities to having traditional schools merge with digital platforms. The closest example I could find is the Alt School, although I believe that there is an opportunity to find other creative ways to bring the best of both worlds to schools. https://www.altschool.com/about

      In answering Tiana’s question, as to whether HBS will be replaced by MOOCs. I do not believe that MOOCs will replace HBS. What MOOCs can do is that they can provide an additional platform for education. What MOOCs do is provide knowledge, they do not provide us insights, experiences, debate, etc. They also do not help us to learn from others, nor to learn by doing. 90% of the education at HBS is the collective learning of Case studies and the learning by Doing of Field courses. I believe what HBS has done well is understand the importance of the technological advances that MOOCs and other platforms are providing, and preemptively invest in teaching its case method and its core programs as an interactive course through its HBX platform. https://www.ft.com/content/674f02f8-ade8-11e3-9ddc-00144feab7de

  7. Really interesting article!
    I think that one of the greatest effects of digital revolution is democratization of content and tools, and Khan is surely one of the many examples of this phenomenon. I think that online learning hasn’t yielded satisfying results yet, but with your proposed next steps regarding interactivity and collaboration, I have no doubt that it’ll have a huge effect. I think the fact that people are moving online when it comes to forming relationships or working for companies will make online learning a more important tool as time goes on.

  8. Really interesting piece!!

    I think the concept of online education serves two key purposes: (1) provides access to educational content in a structured format to users that traditionally may not have had easy access to such content and (2) serves as a complimentary tool for students who may need additional help on a particular subject or are looking for content on a specific topic that a course curriculum at a school may not have dived deep enough in. Given this, it leads me to the question of “what is the true value of a school like HBS?”. While I believe that online education platforms will disrupt the more traditional methods of education, such as lecture-style, classroom learning, etc., I wonder if they’ll be able to disrupt the more unique styles of learning like the case method, and a heavily debate driven method like the one Law school classes use. Additionally, I think the value of some schools may come down to brand recognition and the access to be a powerful network. Of course this begs the question, are things like brand value, and access to a network enough to support the longevity of a school’s position in a constantly changing education landscape? Only time will tel.

  9. This is a great way to re-think about our learning at HBS. This article mentioned that lots of teaching and learning can be conducted via digital platform, but as you mentioned in your essay, it just make the education more liberalized. I believe the peers and classmates are one of the major reasons for people to attend top schools. So the form of education might change but the value of the education will always be there.

  10. Really hope my degree is valuable in 20 years or I need to recalculate a few NPVs!

    I do think the place of technology in education is a really valuable question. How do you balance efficient delivery of information and knowledge while also teaching kids how to think and analyze — the part that normally comes from human interaction or discussion. I wonder if even digital, interactive learning will ever replace looking someone in the eye and learning from them. Also, it can be argued that having a personal relationship with someone outside of the classroom also helps in learning with or from them in class later.

    Other questions I have include how does Khan Academy make money outside of ads and how does it stay self-sustaining? Can Khan Academy be paired with real-interactive learning – ie you watch lessons online then take class – or can it all be done online? Should schools invest in designing classes and having their professors provide lessons to Khan Academy in order to up their publicity?

    I’d imagine the target audience for expansion is people looking to supplement their education. I think it would be good to also target students on the cusp of going to school or not, as a way of looking to change the world, and convince them to go to school. And finally, I think it would be good to get these classes in the hands of lower-income schools that can’t afford to have professors for all the different classes.

  11. Technology is indeed disrupting education and I believe for the better because it is providing a wider range of people access to quality education. I still believe that there is value for group learning which is what we see in business schools and perhaps we should figure out how technology can enable that as opposed to a purely distance model. Any thoughts on this?

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