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The White House, the College Board, Bank of America, and Comcast.

What do they have in common? They’ve all announced partnerships with Khan Academy, the nonprofit provider of free educational videos and analytics tools, in the last 12 months.

These partnerships combine various aspects of cash, content, and distribution. But in each case, the stodgier established player is borrowing a little bit of Khan Academy’s halo. Maybe it’s because of their nonprofit status, maybe it’s Sal Khan’s geeky yet approachable personality, maybe it’s because the content is really pretty great and useful, but Khan Academy is the rare ed-tech company that has managed to reach millions of people while gaining a high media profile and transcending the MOOC backlash. They remain dedicated and associated in the public’s mind to providing free high quality educational resources to the world using technology. And so when a technology company wants to burnish its association with low-cost internet access; or the White House wants to update the image of college access, or the College Board wants to democratize test prep; or a big bank wants people to not hate them, they turn to one guy with a digital whiteboard and a camera on a tripod.


Sal Khan talks to David Coleman at the College Board

So it’s pretty clear what these organizations want out of KA. But what does KA want with them?Of course, the nonprofit needs cash to continue. But they’re also at risk of diluting their brand image, independence, and mission every time they ink a deal. The Comcast partnership, in particular, has raised eyebrows as it relates to net neutrality–an Internet provider appearing to favor a certain type of content.

I spoke to Monica Tran, Khan’s Product Strategy Lead, for insight on what KA is thinking as it enters into these partnerships.

“We are in a privileged position — we have a lot of interest from potential partners,” she said. “Given the fact that we’re pretty small and lean, we are highly thoughtful about what these partnerships can do for our learners.” She mentions that in the case of the College Board partnership, 70% of KA’s users are under 17, so these test prep resources are potentially quite appealing for that audience. And there’s a synergy with their college prep tools, which come out of the White House relationship.

I believe in the idea of giving learners what they want. But by aligning itself with SAT prep and college prep, Khan Academy is tethering itself to the educational establishment, diverging from its original, revolutionary vision: to give people a path to learn and demonstrate mastery without needing institutions as intermediaries.

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Anya Kamenetz, writes the Digital blog for The Hechinger Report. She is a contributing writer at Fast Company and the author of several books and book chapters about the future of education, including...

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