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Will Khan Academy someday offer students a college degree?

Each month, about six million students head to Khan Academy for online video lectures on everything from chemistry and computer science to logical reasoning and the Renaissance. But could the Silicon Valley-based non-profit someday offer high school diplomas and college degrees in addition to digital content?

When asked that question Tuesday at the New York Times’ Schools for Tomorrow conference, founder Sal Khan demurred – but he didn’t outright object.

For the next two to three years, he said, his non-profit is “heads down focused” on making Khan Academy the best possible learning tool and proving the benefits of personalized, mastery-based learning. But he added that the question gets to something that is “close to [his] heart”: competency-based learning. Now, students make progress based on the amount of time they spend in a seat, not how well they can demonstrate mastery of a skill or concept.

“It really should be, however long you spend in a seat, do you understand calculus now? Do you understand world history now?,” he said on stage. “I don’t know if we’re going to be the actor here – maybe it could happen through the community college system, maybe it could happen through other entities or maybe it’s a combination, [with] employers involved some way. But we are moving to a reality, in five or ten years, where you will have this credentialing architecture that allows someone, regardless of how they learned it … to go and prove in a benchmarked way that they have that skill at a very high level.”

To former Senator and Governor Bob Kerrey, at least, Khan’s comment sounded like a “yes.” On stage at the conference later in the day, Kerrey, who is now a leader of the “online Ivy” Minerva Project,” said he thought that Khan dodged the question.

“He didn’t say yes, he didn’t say no, he didn’t say maybe, meaning he’s probably going to do it, right? I spent 16 years in politics and I heard a “yes,” Kerrey quipped.

New credentialing models gain traction

The idea of a third-party organization, outside of traditional academic circles, offering a new kind of credential is gaining traction. Just yesterday, investor and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman wrote a post calling for the “disruption of the diploma.” And startups like Degreed and Smarterer, in addition to the non-profit Mozilla’s Open Badges initiative, are beginning to point the way to new models of certification.

Last week, Udacity announced a new consortium of technology companies and educational groups – of which Khan Academy is partner – that plans to provide students with a curriculum, learning content and the certification they need to pursue careers in technology.

Speaking with me after his talk, Khan reiterated his point that, at the moment, his non-profit is focused on the learning experience. But he seemed to leave the door open to some kind of Khan Academy-issued credential in the future.

“At the end of the day, we say that if, in the next five years, we can prove that Khan Academy, especially in conjunction with an amazing teacher, can accelerate a students’ learning dramatically, we’ll have a seat at the table in these other conversations,” he said. “[But] you want to do it right. It has to have the right ingredients, people need to perceive it as something that matters.”

But Khan also emphasized that he thinks new credentials wouldn’t displace the traditional degree: residential colleges offer powerful environments for learning, creating relationships and forming communities; newer certifications can offer professional advancement opportunities in parallel.

“I don’t think it will replace the degree,” he said. “I think it will be a healthy thing for the degree.”

5 Responses to “Will Khan Academy someday offer students a college degree?”

  1. Yael Tiferet

    Khan Academy has made me feel so much better about myself. Years ago in middle school I hit a wall in math and my parents got so upset that I didn’t get straight As any more that I gave it up. It didn’t seem like so much of a sacrifice then because I was miserable in math classes anyway.

    It turns out (thanks to Salman Khan) that I’m actually pretty good at math. I don’t know why a girl who can alter and even make dress patterns based on people’s measurements was getting Cs in geometry–there was no excuse for that. Khan Academy has helped me relearn what I forgot, identify what I mastered, figure out that some of my “cheats” for dealing with difficult arithmetic were actually algebra, and identify skills I can learn easily by intuition and other skills that I need help with–and make plenty of help available for those skills. And I get to do this at my own pace, a little or a lot every day depending on how much time I have to spend on it, for free, with nobody putting pressure on me to make a certain grade, spend a set amount of time on it, go at their pace rather than mine, or do it at a time of day when I may not be at my best.

    Learning math and finding out that I’m not actually bad at it–I just need to work on some skills more than others–has made me feel so much better about myself. I feel like I just might be ready to get some kind of credential and a new career. It’s almost like being 18.

  2. Widely accepted competency-based learning models already exist. Credit earned via exam from programs like CLEP, DSST and UExcel is accepted at thousands of schools. and students can learn the material through free online courses. Credit-by-exam doesn’t replace a degree, but it does shave time and money off the cost of a degree.

  3. Well, definitely it would be nice. I hate the thought that we depend on a diploma so much. What if have natural skills to Creative Writing (look for My Essay Service company to check out creative writing samples online) for instance. Why should I waste so many years and money in college when there are basic things which I can learn by myself, hire someone to teach me or even take online courses like these ones! So hopefully one day Khan Academy will be able to give some sort of valuable certificate which will be at list something close to a diploma or maybe one day online education will be equal to a traditional one!

  4. Kyle Johnson

    It’s worth remembering that traditional colleges and universities are mostly stuck with the “time in the seat for degree” is because that is how the feds award financial aid. The feds have allowed a couple of schools to award degrees based on competency, but until the government catches up, only schools who can fund themselves without taking federal financial aid will be able to experiment, and only students who can afford to go without federal aid will be able to get degrees from any of these experimental institutions.