How Khan Academy and Tata Trusts’s recent partnership could affect the U.S. EdTech market


Jan 5, 2016

In December, Tata Trusts announced a five-year partnership with Khan Academy to develop tech-enabled, high-quality and localized education resources across India by providing a personalized, mastery-based learning experience. Although this effort will likely improve educational opportunities in a country where millions are in need, the theory of disruptive innovation predicts that this move could impact the U.S. education market as well.

Central to the theory of disruptive innovation is identifying where disruptive entrants start. These firms typically gain their foothold in areas of nonconsumption—that is, areas where the current alternative to existing solutions is nothing at all because the everyday citizen can’t consume what the market is offering. There can be many reasons for nonconsumption, such as price (the current product is too expensive for the average customer), geography (the current product is only offered in a centralized location), or lack of skill (the average person can’t use the current product).

A few examples to illustrate the point: TurboTax found early success, not by going after individuals who already used the services of a personal accountant, but by going after individuals who could either not afford or secure access to one. Honda tried and failed at marketing its low-power SuperCub to the traditional motorcycle market, but gained traction among outdoor enthusiasts after a Honda executive took a fortuitous ride up a California hillside. In each case, as the company targeted nonconsumers of the mainstream market, it was able to hone its product while serving individuals that incumbent firms had no incentive to go after. These products improved over time to compete with the current market on traditional measures of performance and offered new performance benefits in terms of cost, accessibility, or convenience to boot. In every case, as mainstream customers embraced the disruptive innovation, incumbent firms fell by the wayside.

In the U.S. K–12 education sector, however, there is near universal consumption. Although there is a small percentage of homeschooled children in the United States, virtually every child is enrolled in a school of some kind. This reality forces Khan Academy (as well as other EdTech companies) to cater to the mainstream education market that often demands basic online instruction and tutorial tools, but limits the types of experimentation and innovation that could otherwise be possible.

But in developing countries, nonconsumption is a different story. In India, there are 1.4 million children ages six through 11 who do not attend school, and 42 percent of all students drop out before completing primary school. These numbers are what make Khan Academy’s partnership with Tata Trusts so interesting because the company will be dealing with high volumes of nonconsumers who face very different challenges than children who are already attending school. Furthermore, these individuals aren’t demanding the same level of performance that schools in India can provide because their current alternative is no schooling at all. In this type of environment, Khan Academy could have fertile ground in which to plant disruptive seeds—that is, innovative solutions that make learning ever more simple, accessible, and convenient. As these seeds mature and blossom, their fruit could very likely be consumed by Khan Academy’s growing worldwide user base (and yes, here in the United States) as the company aims to “provide a free, world class education for anyone, anywhere.”

Khan Academy is not alone in its efforts to address educational nonconsumption across India. As my colleague Thomas Arnett has written about, India-based Educational Initiatives aims to provide blended-learning opportunities in areas where there are severe teacher shortages and in some cases, no qualified teachers at all. It designed its software, called Mindspark, to offer basic instruction and to resolve specifically the most common misunderstandings in any given topic. By bringing in teachers who don’t have deep content knowledge but who can guide, motivate, and encourage growth among students, Educational Initiatives’ learning centers are a boon for students who would otherwise have nowhere to learn.

Zaya Learning Labs is another provider aiming to address severe challenges within Indian schools. A Mumbai-based startup, Zaya Learning Labs works to set up blended learning in schools where high student-to-teacher ratios and poor infrastructure make effective teaching and learning nearly impossible. Zaya Learning Labs sets up a Station Rotation model that allows teachers to work with smaller groups of students for direct instruction and uses teaching assistants to manage the technology enabled stations. Like Educational Initiatives, schools working with Zaya Learning Labs serve students whose alternative would be next to nothing at all.

It is important to note that although the blended-learning models employed by Educational Initiatives and Zaya Learning Labs are not new, the growth taking place in areas of nonconsumption could result in innovative solutions for mainstream educational markets. By not being tied to traditional measures of performance or quality, Educational Initiatives, Zaya Learning Labs, and Khan Academy have opportunities to create new approaches to instruction and learning while offering the benefits of accessibility, simplicity, and affordability.

It is likely that U.S. EdTech companies currently feel no threat from Khan Academy’s partnership with Tata Trusts or even think twice about exclusively Indian online curriculum providers such as Educational Initiatives or Zaya Learning Labs. Why should they? They have no motivation to go after students halfway across the world in Indian slums. Yet, as these tools improve over time, the threat to existing firms will be readily apparent. It will be essential, therefore, for existing companies to nail the jobs to be done of students and teachers, both in and out of the classroom. Technologies and products come and go, but jobs to be done persist over time. Framing their businesses around jobs to be done, instead of products to be sold, may be the existing companies’ best bet for avoiding disruption.

Clifford oversees our popular Blended Learning Universe—or BLU—a comprehensive online hub filled with blended-learning resources and practical guides, as well as a dynamic directory of blended-learning programs worldwide.