When you wander the halls of the Khan Academy headquarters, it is hard to believe that you’re in a building housing what could legitimately be called the largest school in the world. And yet, in some ways, that is exactly what it is. The material that is sifted and categorized and released from this 1960s relic, located in Mountain View, California, is educating more than 10 million students around the globe.
Even for those used to how young Silicon Valley power brokers tend to skew are surprised by the first meeting with the Academy founder, 36-year-old Salman Khan. As Michael Noer of Forbes Magazine tells it, he doesn’t act like a CEO and education pioneer — although his jokes, which involve LeBron James and several complex statistical concepts, betray the fact that his academic background includes MIT and Harvard. Judging by the laughs, Khan’s employees, many with impressive Ivy League credentials of their own, match their boss’s intellectual prowess.
It’s a prototypical Silicon Valley ethos with one exception: The Khan Academy, which features 3,400 short instructional videos along with interactive quizzes and tools for teachers to chart student progress, is a nonprofit, boasting a mission of “a free world-class education for anyone anywhere.” There is no employee equity; there will be no IPO; funding comes from philanthropists, not venture capitalists.
Khan thinks of himself as a disruptor. The Internet has turned many an industry on its ear, and education is due for a shakeup, too. The only question is why it has taken so long for digital technology to penetrate academia.
The answer is about reach. The academic revolution needed to wait until broadband penetrated more homes in both U.S. and the world. Now that many students have broadband at home and carry mini-computers in their pockets in the form of smartphones and tablets, people like Khan are pouncing, and the public is increasingly receptive to it.
And this perfect storm is finally attracting investment. According to GSV Capital, a publicly traded venture fund based in Woodside, Calif., a measly $3.4 billion worth of venture money was plowed into education over the past decade–but the deal pace accelerated sharply. Of the 428 deals financed during those ten years, 207 of them closed in 2010 or 2011, accounting for 45% of the funding.
Although many are keeping their eyes on the U.S. education market – after all, most suspect that that’s where the most money is – the place where online education is slated to make the biggest impact is in the developing world.
“This decade is the first opportunity we have ever had to extend quality secondary education to every kid on the planet,” says Tom Vander Ark, a venture capitalist who headed the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s educational programs through 2006. “When you combine mobile devices, free content and an inexpensive, blended learning model, you can serve kids in the slums of Nairobi for $4 a month and you can start to imagine a $100-a-year high school that is quite high quality.”