Udacity and Khan Academy ed-tech CEOs call for disruption in higher-ed

SAN FRANCISCO — When Khan Academy piloted its online math program in school districts across the Bay Area, the results were astounding. With a computer and a bit of instruction customized for their grade-level and learning speed, students from a variety of backgrounds were able to master basic algebra in record time.

Today, a team of expert panelists gathered at DisruptSF to discuss how technology can benefit the public school system. The overarching goal for NewsCorp’s Joel Klein, Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun and Khan Academy’s Salman Khan is to bring personalized learning to the classroom.

Khan, whose company is a free service for educational tools and instructional videos, kicked off the discussion by outlining his vision of a perfect school, where personalized, digital instruction is a daily reality.

“I imagine my young kids going to a physical school. You have an amazing teacher…[who is] looking at a room of slightly antagonistic blank faces, trying to figure out where the students are,” Khan said. “I hope that because of all the tools we are talking about we get to a more human level. It frees the teacher from having to give this one-size fits all lecture.”

Khan stressed that this isn’t the first time in our history that we’ve attempted to bring digital tools to the classroom. In the ’90s, a major push fell flat. The stumbling block? “A 200-year old system inherited from the Prussians,” he said. Khan’s convinced that with that change will occur when we demand it. “It’s the groundswell of teachers and students making it happen,” he said.

For Klein, the timing is ripe as school districts are more receptive to technology. He took the opportunity to spotlight Amplify, the shadowy education startup that finally launched this summer. Amplify is News Corp.’s initiative, which Klein oversees. He resigned as the chancellor of the New York City department of education in 2010.

Amplify’s goal is to revolutionize learning with a new digital curricula — teachers will be able to connect with students online, offer them personal instruction, and fill in the gaps in their knowledge.

“We’re bringing sophisticated analytics, long missing from K-12,” said Klein. However, if they’re to succeed in bringing tablet devices and analytics tools to public and private schools across America, Amplify has a tough read ahead. “If you take away nothing else from this discussion, it’s that nothing comes easy in K-12,” Klein explained.

Udacity’s founders have an equally ambitious goal. The startup wants to spotlight those with a lifetime of professional expertise and give them a platform to teach. The digital university lets anyone take advanced education classes. For Thrun, Udacity’s CEO, learning shouldn’t end on graduation day. “There is amazing potential to make education accessible,” he told the audience.

Thrun dedicated a lifetime to teaching but is willing to admit that professionals and industry experts often make better instructors. Case in point: Steve Blank, a serial entrepreneur and author, recently launched a class on Udacity, popular with young professionals who aim to pickup entrepreneurial skills.

The three panelists agree that, in and of themselves, computers aren’t the answer to education. As avid Facebook users know, technology can be disruptive in all the wrong ways.

For this reason, the ed-tech executives shy away from using the term “replace” and claim they are supplementing or enhancing traditional education. Khan Academy is often credited with displacing teachers. For Khan, when a new digital technology comes along to shake up a traditional infrastructure like healthcare or education, “they [the press] always think of it in the contention with the other. In education I think that’s wrong.”

“I would never use the word replace in public,” added Thrun, before uttering his parting words to the audience of tech entrepreneurs and investors.”We need high-quality education for the fraction of the cost and to give anyone a chance to learn throughout their lifetime.”

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