Online Learning | Feature

An Education Free-for-All

The creator of Khan Academy aims to change the way we think about the delivery of educational content to students.

The high school trigonometry student who just isn't "getting" the material being taught in class traditionally had limited options for enrichment. He could work with a peer or paid tutor, ask the teacher for help, or switch to an easier class. Salman Khan has added a new option to the list: log onto a Web site dedicated to academic enrichment, and learn from one or more videos developed around K-12 math and science.

Momentum for the Online Resource
Khan, founder of The Khan Academy, said he came up with the idea in 2004, after remotely tutoring a cousin who needed help passing advanced 7th grade math. Using the telephone and Yahoo Doodle, a shared, online notepad, Khan worked with his cousin and helped her not only catch up with the rest of the math class, but also get ahead of the rest of the students, academically.

Word spread, and soon Khan was tutoring other family members, and operating around his own work schedule and his pupil's extracurricular activities to get the job done. "It became a little ridiculous," said Khan, who began developing online videos, and uploading them to YouTube, as a way to meet the students' needs without having to work one-on-one with them.

When the videos caught on with non-family members, Khan knew he was onto something. Students of all ages, it seemed, were hungry for educational content that they could access and learn from on their own schedules. Khan added simple JavaScript "problem generators" to the mix, thus making the courses interactive and more useful for his viewers.

Seventy educational modules and 10,000 lines of code later, The Khan Academy has morphed into the online home for 2,000 free videos that were all developed in-house. The videos cover K-12 math and science, plus "a decent number of college science, finance and economics topics," said Shantanu Sinha, president and COO, who estimated that more than 1 million people visit the site every month.

Those visitors include the high school trigonometry student who needs help understanding how to convert radians to degrees (and who can access a 10-minute video that walks her through the process) to the 70-year-old who logs onto the site and works through dozens of calculus problems simply to challenge himself.

"Our [content] isn't tied to a particular age or grade level," said Sinha. "We're targeting anyone who wants to learn math and science." By combining videos with the assessment tools (namely, the problems that students use to test their knowledge), Sinha said, the academy can deliver the free online educational videos to wide audience.

Piloting Khan in a Traditional School Setting
The Khan Academy, which is a 501 (c)(3) organization that is funded through donations, is currently expanding its materials to include more subject areas, including humanities and economics, and is currently translating its videos into other languages.

It's also taking its online tutorials out into traditional educational by rolling out a program at Los Altos School District that will test the merits of integrating the online video and assessment tools in the classroom.

Sinha said the pilot is based on a hybrid model that includes an instructor and the online educational materials. The model allows students to operate at different paces and provides the teacher with an online dashboard that can be used to measure that progress and adjust instruction accordingly. In such a scenario, Sinha said, the teacher's role changes from simply delivering information to becoming a guide and mentor for students.

Feedback from the pilot has been positive thus far from students, teachers, and parents alike, said Sinha. "The kids seem to love it," he said. "And the teachers like it because it gives them a real-time gauge of every student's academic progress and highlights the areas where those students need more instruction and guidance."

Getting buy-in for that model across the K-12 sector will be a bit more challenging for Khan and Sinha, who admitted that the concept represents a level of change management that school districts may not be ready for. "The educational space is a very complex, politicized system," said Sinha. "Driving any sort of change is a difficult process, and we'd quickly lose all of our energy if we tried to tackle the system directly."

Instead, Sinha said the academy is taking the direct-to-the-student approach and providing the necessary tools and resources pupils will embrace and use; and not necessarily those that are targeted at school boards or administrators.

"Our hope is that if we build something the students find useful, and do it in a way that creates a clear value proposition for those users," said Sinha, "then we can slowly make a dent in the overall educational system."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].