Khan's Biggest Impact: Changing the Economics of Education

Khan's Biggest Impact: Changing the Economics of Education

A lot has been and will be written about Salman Khan. Though he already arrived in the spotlight of mainstream media, he is clearly just at the beginning of his mission. And with fresh money in the war chest, Khan and his team are now planning the next attack on the education system. 


Besides growing the faculty of the Khan Academy, Khan is planning to open the system to teachers around the globe who can then use the Knowledge Map to build their own courses and also have access to the in-depth analytic tools Khan Academy is providing at the back-end. 

But here is the deal: the content must be put up to Khan Academy’s noncommercial public domain. Noncommercial

I believe, this is an aspect of Khan Academy most people have not thought about or didn’t pay attention to yet but that has the potential to change the economics of education profoundly. 

At the moment, there are basically three business models in online education. Ad-supported, freemium and premium. But there are also two large scale operations that have no business model at all, Khan Academy and Wikipedia. Let’s go to the three most popular for-profit ones before we focus on the noncommercial examples. 

Ad-supported education are in most cases smaller projects of individual educators who upload videos to YouTube and display Google ads against them. From my own experience you will earn enough money to pay for a couple of fancy coffees every month but as the revenue per click or impression for education related ads is not comparable with other topics, it is not suitable for bigger operations. 

Freemium is a very popular model amongst education startups. Users have access to a big chunk of the product for free, though this part is usually also supported by display ads. If learners then want to have access to extra content, usually grammar charts, worksheets or videos, they will have to pay. 

Premium, as the name suggests, is content that is only available to paying customers. Language learning platform Babbel famously switched the popular freemium model to premium only back in November 2009 and soon afterwards announced that the startup was profitable. Another reason was the problem the team saw in displaying ads. 

Ads are far from being an ideal revenue stream in an educational context. You cannot really control what is displayed next or even inside of the video lesson. Ads can be a distraction, especially when they are animated or feature sound effects and they have the draw-back that they are seen critically in a public school context and I think this is also part of Khan Academy’s success amongst educators. Khan Academy has always been ad-free although nowadays Khan could make some significant income based on either Google Ads or by selling sponsorships based on his reach. 3.5 million unique visitors a month are worth a ton of money yet Khan Academy stays a noncommercial platform.

The same is of course true for Wikipedia. Jimmy Wales is also fighting the idea of displaying advertisements or sponsored links on the site though it could earn Wikipedia a lot of money based on the page views. Yet he chooses to go in the trenches, raising money to keep Wikipedia up and running. Though Wales has no big success in getting the basic user to donate he usually meets his goal through big donations like the lastest $500k grant by Google founder Sergey Brin and his wife whereas Khan always had a steady flow of small donations to keep the Academy alive.

So both, Khan and Wales, are proving that there is “a better way” to deliver true free education on the Internet. And I think this is the really radical part. If you take a look at what the Khan Academy is going to offer for free to educators one could ask why anyone would pay for similar products? Khan has no commercial interest something that resonates with the ideals of most educators. Khan is independent from big brands and publishers in education that take more and more influence in promising education startups lately by either investing and / or partnering with them. 

One could say that at the moment Khan is “untouchable” and he and his team can do whatever they think benefits their mission. No investor can take influence in order to streamline the operation for a potential exit in 5 years like being sold to Pearson or Blackboard. 

Currently, Khan Academy is supported by three big donors, Bill and Melinda Gates, Google and the O’Sullivan Foundation. I think, there is little doubt that others will follow suit in order to keep Khan Academy going for the next years. The interesting part begins when we start thinking what is going to happen when the first students will tie their financial success to what they learned for free at Khan Academy. 

Universities receive large sums from their alumni every year who want to give something back to the institution that provided them with the tools to succeed in life. What happens when Khan Academy was responsible for the success of a new breed of entrepreneurs in developing countries. A recent article on Forbes suggests that the next Internet billionaires will come from Africa

Free, quality education has been a dream of many educators and of course students for a long time now and Khan might be on the road to establish that mindset in the generation of users he and his faculty are teaching every day.

Photo: Khan Academy

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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
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