Khan Academy: Imparting Knowledge to Millions


5 Aug 2011
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In an age where the field of education has become commercialized, initiatives like the Khan Academy, with its free for all educational videos, truly stand out.

Born to an Indian mother and Bangladeshi father, Salman Khan (Sal) was raised and educated in the USA. He founded the Khan Academy with the hope of using technology to foster new learning models. He received his MBA from Harvard Business School. He also holds a Masters in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, a BS in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and a BS in Mathematics from MIT, where he was president of the class of 1998. While at MIT, Sal was the recipient of the Eloranta Fellowship, which he used to develop web-based mathematics software for children with ADHD. He was also an MCAT instructor for the Princeton Review and volunteered teaching gifted 4th and 7th graders at the Devotion School in Brookline, Massachusetts, USA.

I teach the way that I wish I was taught. The lectures are coming from me, an actual human being who is fascinated by the world around him. The concepts are conveyed as they are understood by me, not as they are written in a textbook developed by an educational bureaucracy.

– Salman Khan
Founder, Khan Academy

With over 2,000 videos covering over 30 topics, and millions of followers, saying that Khan Academy is popular would be an understatement. It even has the likes of Bill Gates and his children hooked on. The Khan Academy’s free-for-all videos have helped students around the world to achieve academic excellence. Little wonder then that it was picked as one of the winners of ‘Project 10 to the 100th’ by Google, which called for ideas to change the world by helping as many people as possible.

The man behind this truly unique initiative is former hedge fund analyst Salman Khan. He says that the $2 million grant that he received from Google will be used to translate the content into the world's major languages and build a software platform so that it covers every topic covered in mathematics. Khan Academy has also received $1.5 million from the Gates Foundation, which also intends to be their primary funding source going forward.

The academy had humble beginnings, with Khan helping out his cousin who had trouble with math in the 7th grade at school. He started remotely tutoring her for an hour after work via telephone while using Yahoo Doodle as a shared notepad. His cousin Nadia benefited immensely and soon he found himself tutoring more cousins and family friends. Since individual schedules and time zones posed a problem, he started making YouTube videos for them to watch in their own time and pace.

These videos soon gained popularity. “It didn't take long to see that other students (including adult learners) were hungry for videos like these, so I kept going. Even before I made the videos, I started writing simple Javascript problem generators so that my cousins would never run out of practice problems. I wanted to know when and how they were doing the problems, so I added a database to track usage. Seventy modules and 10,000 lines of code later, it has morphed into the adaptive math program on our site,” says Salman.

When he started out, Salman used to create videos with the help of Screen Video Recorder and Microsoft Paint. He now makes use of Camtasia Recorder, SmoothDraw3 and a Wacom Bamboo Tablet to create these videos. In 2009, egged on by the enthusiasm and appreciation showered on him by his followers, he quit his job and decided to focus solely on nurturing Khan Academy. It was quite a bold step and one can’t help but wonder if he felt a sense of insecurity? “Yes. I naively hoped that some foundation would eventually see the value of what I was trying to do and fund it. My naivety paid off. Google and the Gates Foundation have recently funded us to allow us to grow to a team of 5 or 6 people,” he recounts.

Today, his 2,000-plus videos span across over 30 topics that cover everything from simple math to vector calculus to science, history and humanities. Salman decides what to do next on the basis of where the greatest need is and what his mood is at the time. He believes that if he himself is not excited about a topic, then he’d be doing a disservice to the student by giving them dispassionate lectures. One of the reasons why his videos are immensely popular is that they are engaging and very easy to follow because of their conversational style.

Khan explains the concepts in digestible 10-20 minute chunks, and as he puts it, “I teach the way that I wish I was taught. The lectures are coming from me, an actual human being who is fascinated by the world around him. The concepts are conveyed as they are understood by me, not as they are written in a textbook developed by an educational bureaucracy. Viewers know that it is the labor of love of one somewhat quirky and determined man who has a passion for learning and teaching. I don't think any corporate or governmental effort, regardless of how much money is thrown at the problem, can reproduce this.”

He states further, “A lot of my own educational experience was spent frustrated with how information was conveyed in textbooks and lectures. There would be connections in the subject matter that standard curricula would ignore despite the fact that they make the content easier to understand, enjoy, and retain. I felt like fascinating and intuitive concepts were almost intentionally being butchered into pages and pages of sleep-inducing text and monotonic, scripted lectures. I saw otherwise intelligent peers memorizing steps and formulae for the next exam without any sense of intuition or the big picture, only to forget everything within a matter of weeks. These videos are my expression of how the concepts should have been expressed in the first place; all without compromising on rigor or comprehensiveness.”

Salman has 81,460 subscribers on YouTube as of now, while his website has recorded more than 16 million page views since inception. If these statistics are not enough, the comments left by viewers speak volumes about its effectiveness. Did all this popularity ever tempt Salman to commercialize the project. “I've been approached several times to turn it into a for-profit business, but it just didn't feel right. When I'm 80, I want to feel like I helped give access to a world-class education to billions of students around the world. I have a beautiful wife, a hilarious son, two Hondas, and a decent house. What else does a man need?”

This echoes in his vision for the future. He wants a place where anyone, anywhere can start from even the most basic skills and learn anything they want. He also sees this virtual school as being the ‘DNA’ or the ‘operating system’ for a new generation of physical schools.

Source : Chip Magazine.
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