If you're learning, you're being taught, no matter who is doing the teaching or where the lesson is taking place (and conversely, if you're not learning, you're not being taught). That message reflects the mission of the Khan Academy, an online learning platform that offers free lessons to anyone, anywhere, in subjects ranging from algebra to art history.

Created by Salman Khan after tutoring his cousins by telephone, the Khan Academy not only teaches academic subjects, but it also develops skills like grit and determination that are needed to take ownership of information. And this, says Khan, is what the essence of education is all about:

"There's this illusion that is created in our classical education system and even at university that someone is teaching it to you. Really they're creating a context in which you need to pull information and own it yourself. ... And when you think online, that becomes that much more important."

Online learning platforms have long promised to disrupt current models of education, but rather than compete outright with traditional institutions like colleges and universities, they are more likely to be folded into standard curricula. While schools like Harvard and Stanford offer free online classes, an increasing number of institutions will look for ways to economize their teaching structure.

American universities are already facing a time of unprecedented change, when standard cost-cutting measures combined with tuition hikes are no longer sufficient to control costs. In 2014, the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) issued a white paper on the state of higher education. Here is what PwC said:

"Higher education institutions are entering a time of significant change. In order to meet the demands of students, parents, and the federal government, marginal cost reductions may not be enough to support decreasing tuition. For-profit online institutions and free online colleges have shown that there may be lower-cost alternatives to the traditional educational models. The question now being asked is, are college and university presidents, boards, and faculties ready to seriously consider and implement non-traditional educational delivery alternatives to truly make education affordable and competitive?"

(As part of its "Aspire to Lead" initiative, PwC recently partnered with Big Think to curate a series of videos and articles on developing the next generation of women.)