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Driving the change

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The Khan Academy is an initiative of one Salman Khan, who operates out of a walk in closet of his Silicon Valley home. What started of as a part time activity to help his cousin with her Mathematics courses has now grown into a site that hosts around 1600 video tutorials and attracts more than 200,000 students every month.

I personally checked out four of the videos on quadratic equations and statistics and found Khan’s conversational approach very engaging and intuitive. While it beautifully compliments the already established education system in the West, it could be a disruptive force as far as the education scene in the less developed parts of the world is concerned. Which brings me to the point of this article.

The US is a world leader in both education and innovation. In fact a lot of its prosperity can be directly linked to these. In addition to these of course, the US education industry earns it a substantial amount of direct income from foreign students. Which is why it would superficially seem that this kind of democratisation of education would be detrimental to its interest. The best education would theoretically be available to the poorest kid in the remotest corner of the world, equipping him or her to compete with more well off peers in the West. In fact it would put some kids in the West at a disadvantage by introducing competition that never existed before.

So why would the US not build barricades to this kind of change. It could be a well thought out strategy or simple plain faith in Capitalism and the right of every individual to pursue his happiness (in the case of Khan, its the satisfaction he derives from what he does). What really matters though it how it plays out in the real world that we live in, and how it affects the US.

Lets for a moment wonder what would happen if the US did try to stop this kind of an activity. The immediate short terms benefits for the US are quite obvious. US schools and teachers would no longer have to compete with a website. US kids will not have to undergo the stress of an imagined threat from some corner of the world that they did not even know existed. The US would retain its historical advantage and students from all over the world would continue to spend money to get themselves educated there. For some time …

Eventually though someone somewhere else would come up with a similar website. It may be a couple of years down the line or maybe even four to five years. Whatever be the time taken, someone would definitely implement this idea. The idea would gain popularity for the same reasons that Khan model became popular and one fine day kids in the US would be taking lessons from the website, the way they are doing now.

There would be one significant difference though. The site would be an outside initiative and the US would have become a follower. And therein lies the key difference. The difference between being a leader and a follower.

Now consider the current reality. Khan’s academy would continue to grow and soon acquire mainstream prominence. Yes jobs would be lost, some schools would lose money. On the other hand, Khan’s academy will offer lots of oppurtunities for American businesses. Schools which were limited by geography to address only an American audience would now be in a position to address the whole world. While the per unit income from the education sector would drop, the exponential increase in the customer base (easy accessibility would add more students to the schooling system) across the world would create a huge market that till now simply does not exist. And yes, the country that would control this new and fantastic oppurtunity would be the US.

Which is why Khan’s academy makes sense in a lot more ways than the ostensible altruism that it professes. It keeps the US in the lead driving the change, while the rest of the pack huddles together trying to prevent and protect itself from that which is inevitable.

Written by El Presidente

September 3, 2010 at 12:35 am

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