November 29, 2013


Think about your high school. 

No matter what city or town it was in, it likely grouped students by age. And offered an eerily similar menu of subjects — biology, math, history, Spanish — which met for 45 minutes or an hour.

But why? 

Why are students grouped primarily by age, not ability? These questions occurred to Sal Khan, a graduate of MIT  and Harvard Business School, as he posted online videos to help his young cousin do better in her math class. Soon, he launched Khan Academy, a digital learning platform that features video lectures on subjects ranging from differential equations to the Age of Enlightenment.  Since 2006, the platform has expanded at a steady rate, now offering videos in a variety of languages - like Urdru, German, Arabic, Spanish, and most recently, Turkish - as well as offering related content from partners like the Getty Museum and the Museum of Modern Art.

Building a Digital School

Khan Academy’s following has exploded since its founding in 2006, but Khan stresses that the website is still a story of entrepreneurial struggle rather than overnight success. Until 2009, he ran Khan Academy out of a closet in his house, while maintaining his day job as a hedge fund analyst. It wasn’t until the website received significant venture capital funding in 2010 that Khan felt he could breath a sigh of relief and put away his resume.

“I started off well in my comfort zone, K [Kindergarten] through early college mathematics — stuff that I knew well,” Khan remembers. “And the guess when I started making these videos, back on the algebra videos and the calculus videos, was, you know, maybe this same sensibility will prove valuable to students if I explain chemistry, or history, or economics. And the feedback from users seems to validate that.”

That’s feedback to the tune of 6 million visitors each month — 75 million people have used Khan Academy since its inception. Khan modeled his video lectures on online tutoring sessions he conducted with his relatives. They are meant to sound like Khan himself is helping you with your homework at the kitchen table, down to slight missteps and the occasional repetition of an idea. At its core, each video boils down to a simple idea: complete and total transparency. 

“When you see me explain something," Khan says, "even if I’m explaining calculus, or I’m explaining chemistry, or something advanced, when I’m doing a little bit of arithmetic I [still] do the arithmetic. And sometimes I’ll make transparent my thinking as I’m doing the arithmetic. Or there’s a word that comes up and I’ll explain that word … people appreciate that transparency.”

WATCH: Khan Academy's Introduction to Evolution Lecture

The Education Revolution

Khan isn’t only trying to help those falling behind in a given subject, or supplement a traditional classroom. The ideals of Khan Academy support a radical rethinking of education itself.

Here’s just one example — in a traditional classroom, a unit on finding the area of triangles might last one week. On Friday, there’s a quiz to test how well the students understand the topic. Even though two kids fail the quiz, the class moves on to finding the area of cones.

Instead of this emphasis on testing and results, Khan emphasizes competency. Each child should move forward, he argues, only when he understands the topic at hand.

“When we get paranoid about our schools, we insist on more rigidity, more testing, more micro-managing of what happens at the classroom level,” he argues. “And it does de-risk some of the worst practices in the classroom, but … if you move to a competency-based model, it allows [teachers] to do what they see fit to get their students up to that common standard.”

Khan thinks that this focus on competency should extend to every level of education. He hopes that soon a certificate in computer programming from Khan Academy, or another digital learning platform, will carry the same clout as a computer programming degree from a traditional university.

“It’s odd that no matter what you decide to study [in college], it’s exactly four years,” Khan says. “It’s clear that the designers of our university system decided that people should spend four years here and then decided what to fill the four years with. And that’s obviously not very valuable if really we’re trying to say, what are people trying to [learn]?”

Leveling the Playing Field

Khan also has something else to consider: the price of a computer is just a small fraction of a traditional classroom’s cost. Khan hopes that the low price of a digital education can break down historical barriers to access and ensure that every person has the ability to get a competency-based education. When Khan looks to the future, that’s his ultimate goal.  

“I don’t even think this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I think this is a once in a millennium opportunity," he says. "We can turn education from this scarce thing, this expensive thing that’s almost a determining factor between the haves and have-nots, and turn it into a human right.”

Still curious?

Education, Sci and Tech, online learning, Culture, Internet, schools, Sal Khan

Previous Post

Creativity, Failure, and Innovation

Next Post

The People Powering AI Decisions

comments powered by Disqus