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.”