The news program 60 Minutes had an answer last night for kids struggling with their algebra homework. It featured Khan Academy, a nonprofit founded in 2004 that delivers short, free online video tutorials on thousands of different topics. Now backed by the Gates Foundation and Google, the site is beginning to be used experimentally in a couple dozen schools, apparently to great success, and finding an audience around the globe. Others appear to be following suit: On Monday, the nonprofit TED, which puts on a popular annual ideas conference, announced it would be starting TED-Ed, an online collection of free video lessons delivered by the best teachers on a range of subjects.
Khan Academy is the brainchild of Salman “Sal” Khan, a former hedge fund analyst that founded the service initially to help remotely tutor his cousin in algebra, only to find his videos going viral, his career changing as a result, and Bill Gates taking notice. Khan’s method—in which students watch videos to learn the lessons at home, and then work through problems in school with their teachers’ assistance—has been described by some as “flipping the classroom,” and is being hailed as a solution for better educating students and perhaps, as Sanjay Gupta suggested on 60 Minutes, “the future of education.” Commenters on 60 Minutes’ story are suggesting he should win the Nobel Prize. And yet, he has no PhD in education, no experience working for nonprofits to turn around schools, no time spent studying education reform in think tanks or universities.
And that does not surprise anyone who has studied innovation, including Google chairman Eric Schmidt. “Innovation never comes from the established institutions,” he told 60 Minutes. “It’s always a graduate student or a crazy person or somebody with a great vision.” He’s right, of course. Think for a moment of all the industries that have been disrupted by outsiders. Netflix founder Reed Hastings knew how to write code but was an outsider to the world of film. Steve Jobs was known primarily for his beautiful design of computer hardware before he upended the music industry. The list goes on.
Harvard professor Clayton Christensen has written about this phenomenon at length. In The Innovator’s Dilemma, he writes about why so many big companies miss opportunities to innovate, and get disrupted by outside players. It is not really the managers who dictate the course of a company, but the inflow of resources from customers and investors. Markets that don’t exist can’t be analyzed, he writes. And an organization’s capabilities are defined by its disabilities.
The large public-school education system, although not quite a big, slow company, is not really that different. Teachers are at the center of a system that has long relied on lecturing in classrooms and homework at home. No matter how good their intentions might be, it is hard for them to think about their own jobs differently, much less step outside the predominant teaching methods that have been used for hundreds of years. You can’t exactly study methods that haven’t been invented yet, and as difficult as it can be to get companies to experiment, doing the same on school children is even harder.
Who knows how much Khan’s video-based, “flipped-classroom” approach will truly change what ails American (and global) public schools. But whether it is Khan or someone else, my guess is that the most revolutionary—and potentially, most effective—educational reform will come from leaders outside the system.
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