Monthly Archives: July 2011

Wired on the “Khan Academy”

Source: Wired, Aug 2011

 

Khan Academy is an educational website that, as its tagline puts it, aims to let anyone “learn almost anything—for free.” Students, or anyone interested enough to surf by, can watch some 2,400 videos in which the site’s founder, Salman Khan, chattily discusses principles of math, science, and economics (with a smattering of social science topics thrown in).  The videos are decidedly lo-fi, even crude: Generally seven to 14 minutes long, they consist of a voice-over by Khan describing a mathematical concept or explaining how to solve a problem while his hand-scribbled formulas and diagrams appear onscreen.

 

Bill Gates, whose foundation has invested $1.5 million in Khan’s site. “I’d been looking for something like this—it’s so important,” Gates says. Khan’s approach, he argues, shows that education can truly be customized, with each student getting individualized help when needed.

 

More than 2 million users watch his videos every month, and all told they answer about 15 questions per second. Khan is clearly helping students master difficult and vital subjects. And he’s not alone: From TED talks to iTunes U to Bill Hammack the Engineer Guy, new online educational tools are bringing the ethos of Silicon Valley to education. The role these sites can (or should) play in our nation’s schools is unclear. But classes like Thordarson’s are starting to find out.

 

… one-on-one tutoring is effective, but in 1984, the education scholar Benjamin Bloom figured out precisely how effective it is. He conducted a metastudy of research on students who’d been pulled out of class and given individual instruction. What Bloom found is that students given one-on-one attention reliably perform two standard deviations better than their peers who stay in a regular classroom. … a student in the middle of the pack will vault into the 98th percentile.

 

he has a ton of formal schooling, including three degrees from MIT (a BS in math and a BS and MS in computer science) as well as a Harvard MBA.

 

 

he was implementing classic “mastery-based learning”— requiring students to prove they’ve conquered material before advancing.

  

“Bill Gates is talking about your stuff onstage.” Khan dialed up the online video from Aspen and watched Gates, whom he’d never met, singing his praises; indeed, Gates revealed that his own kids were using Khan Academy as a study aid. (“I shit a brick when I saw that,” Khan says.) He met with Gates soon after and received$1.5 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Google kicked in another $2 million.

 

“Math is the killer,” Gates told me recently. His foundation had researched unemployment and found math to be a significant stumbling block. “If you ask people, ‘Hey, there are these open nursing jobs, why don’t you go and get one?’ math is often the reason they give for not applying,” Gates says.

 

In the new era of popular, YouTube-friendly education videos, Khan’s site is unique in that it’s ruthlessly practical: It’s aimed at helping people master the basics, the humble bread-and-butter equations they encounter in elementary and high school. Traditionally, these kinds of videos can be dry and difficult to slog through. But Khan manages to pull off his lessons with a casual air that keeps the viewer engaged. He says his relaxed approach isn’t faked—it’s a result of the way he prepares. He never writes a script. He simply researches a topic until he feels he can explain it off the cuff to “a motivated 7-year-old.” (Preparation can take anywhere from 10 minutes with a familiar subject like algebra to nearly a week in the case of organic chemistry.) Khan also never edits. Either he nails the lecture in a single take or he redoes the entire thing until it satisfies him.

 

Several students I spoke to also pointed out that Khan is particularly good at explaining all the hidden, small steps in math problems—steps that teachers often gloss over. He has an uncanny ability to inhabit the mind of someone who doesn’t already understand something. “He explains things step by step, rather than assuming you already know how to get from A to B,”Brannan says.

schools have a firm curriculum they have to march through, and the Los Altos teachers often find they’re moving on to subjects that Khan hasn’t covered in detail.

 

One member of Khan’s staff—now up to 13 people—is spearheading a drive to translate the videos into 10 major languages. It’s classic startup logic: Do something cool, do it quickly, and people who love it will find you.

 

As more high-quality lecture materials go online, teachers and administrators alike are beginning to realize that when it comes to simply explaining something, there’s probably someone out there who’s doing it better. So, they tell me, why compete? Focus instead on offering the sort of fine-grained, personalized help that only a live teacher can offer.