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Free Online Education with the Khan Academy

Salman Khan at the 2011 TED Talk

Salman Khan at the 2011 TED Talk

If you haven't heard about the Khan Academy it's time to educate yourself. With over 2600 videos, 200 interactive exercises, and over 84 million combined views, Salman Khan is revolutionizing the way people think about online learning.

Salman Khan and the History of the Khan Academy

The Khan academy started out in 2004 as a simple tutoring arrangement between Salman Khan and his niece, Nadia. Since Salman lived in Boston and Nadia lived in New Orleans, they conferenced over the phone and did exercises together using Yahoo Doodle as a remote notepad. When Khan's relatives found out how successful his tutoring was going, Salman found himself inundated by requests from friends and family members to teach their own children.

Trying to arrange times to get together with his students proved to be challenging, so Salman began posting his tutorials online as YouTube videos that could be watched at any time. The videos were a huge hit and soon people from outside the family, hungry to fill gaps in their own education, began to respond to them. In no time, Khan was receiving positive feedback and testimonials from people all over the world.

This wave of positive feedback inspired Khan to create more tutorials and, in 2009, to quit his job as a hedge fund analyst to form the not-for-profit organization known as the Khan Academy. The Academy's mission: to create and distribute "A free world-class education for anyone anywhere".

At the time of this writing (October, 2011), the Khan Academy boasts over 2600 videos, all of them made by Khan at his home in a tiny office made from a converted closet. From this humble work space, Khan makes videos that touch the lives of millions of people. The videos cover a wide range of topics: everything from basic arithmetic (1 + 1) to algebra, trigonometry, calculus, finance, history, chemistry, physics, and biology. Khan's ultimate objective is to create tutorials about literally everything.

Better than Being There

Khan's video tutorials average about ten minutes in length and cover a single concept in great depth, with each concept fully elaborated in a series of examples. You never see Khan in these tutorials but instead watch him illustrate the concepts on a virtual blackboard and listen to him as he explains his solutions to the problems. His relaxed, easy-going manner keep the lessons fresh and intimate and communicate his passion and love of learning. A story that Khan loves to tell is about how one of his cousins once said that he was better on YouTube than he was in person.

The length of the videos arose originally from restrictions that YouTube imposed on video uploads but Khan quickly realized the value of keeping his tutorials short and to the point: most people find that their attention starts to waver after about ten minutes, so the length of his tutorials turned out to be a good fit for an average person's attention span.

The greatest value of releasing the tutorials as videos, of course, lies in a student's ability to pause, rewind and fast-foward through the lessons, stopping to research difficult concepts as required in other tutorials, on Wikipedia or elsewhere on the web. Since there is no live interaction and consequently no need to impress anyone, each student can work at his or her own pace, back-tracking as required to brush up on more elementary concepts and repeating exercises as often as necessary in order to fully master the material.

Gamifying Education

Many of Khan's tutorials are accompanied by interactive lessons that allow the student to test their understanding of the material and receive immediate feedback in the form of a progress bar, activity points, and badges. If the student answers a question correctly, their progress bar advances and they earn activity points, rewarding them for expending effort. Under certain conditions, such as answering numerous questions in a row quickly, or answering a lot of questions from a single subject, they will earn badges as well, rewarding them for outstanding achievement.

Students are required to pass ten questions in a row to demonstrate their understanding of a concept; if the student answers a question incorrectly, they lose some of their progress and must answer additional questions to make up for it. This mechanic forces students to become thoroughly proficient in a concept before progressing to more difficult topics but avoids the negative consequences of the traditional mechanic of assigning grades and streaming students down academic paths, often to the detriment of the student.

Each concept is organically connected to related concepts in a network of interactive lessons which is navigable on the Knowledge Map, which uses the Google Maps interface. This concept map gives students an intuitive way to determine which areas they are competent to advance to and which areas they may need to brush up on before progressing to a new subject. Periodically, as the student masters new concepts, previously mastered lessons may be updated to reflect their new understanding and students will be encouraged to go back and review these lessons to integrate them into their expanded knowledge base. When students master all of the exercises associated with a particular subject, they earn mastery badges, a visible measure of their accomplishments.

Impact on Traditional Teaching

The revolutionary aspect of Khan's work is the way that it transforms existing educational models. In the traditional model, students attend class and receive instruction in the form of a "broadcast": a lecture given by the teacher at a set pace and time. These lectures can be anywhere from half an hour to three hours in length depending on the grade level and course requirements and do little to address the needs of particular students with different learning styles. After the lecture, students take home assignments and solve problems on their own by trying to remember what was said in class and by reading additional material and answering questions provided by text books.

Khan's method turns this process on its head. In institutions that have adopted Khan's tutorials, the teachers assign the tutorials as homework and the students come to class the next day to work together on solving the problems.

Although many educators are concerned about the impact that Khan's work will have on their profession and the traditional academic structure, Khan is adamant that his work is intended to serve as an enhancement, not a replacement. He sees his videos and automated testing as a means to free up a teacher's time so that it can be spent more profitably on building stronger pedagogical relationships with their students. The data provided by the automated testing and performance tracking make it easy to see at a glance which students are struggling with difficult concepts and give the instructor ample information about when to intervene.

Freeing up more class time also gives other students an opportunity to strut their stuff by assisting fellow students; but this peer-coaching works both ways: the student who is tutoring one day may need assistance themselves the next, but in a different topic, demonstrating that learning is more about identifying and resolving differences between different students' level of comprehension than it is about ranking and streaming them. What seems at first to be a distancing and alienating technology is seen at its core to be a factor in humanizing education. This give and take between the teacher and students and between students and other students helps to bring every student up to the same level of proficiency in the shortest amount of time. According to Khan, every student should be forced to be an A student, and with this educational model, that ideal becomes a tangible possibility.

Future Directions

The goal of the Khan Academy is to make Khan's tutorials available to as many people as possible. Because their focus is on education, not profit, all of the tutorials and accompanying software are free to use. The Khan Academy is a purely not-for-profit organization and survives on the generous donations of private individuals like Ann and John Doerr and organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Google. As Khan likes to emphasize, you really can't get a better return on your investment in humanity than by providing free education to everyone. Students from every corner of the world and from all walks of life are benefiting from Khan's and the Academy's tireless work.

Khan has publicly stated that he would personally like to create tutorials on every possible subject but that he is open to assistance from other contributors if they can demonstrate the same high quality of work, passion for learning, and enthusiasm. Although he takes great pride in his work, his focus is squarely on satisfying the needs of the student. Khan, who records all of his lessons in English, also welcomes the assistance of translators; many volunteers are already working hard to translate his lessons into other languages so that non-English speakers can benefit from his growing body of work.

How the Khan Academy Can Help You

Probably the single biggest complaint that can be raised against the Khan Academy is that it is not yet an accredited institution. That means that you can't transfer your Khan proficiencies directly into course credit with an existing institution to earn a diploma. What it can do is give you the skills and confidence to ace courses and certification exams with these institutions until the academy finally receives its due credit.

If you're an adult looking to brush up on your math or science or looking to pick up a new skill-set, you'll get the most bang for your buck by studying the Khan Academy tutorials first and then applying for your brick and mortar courses. You'll ace your courses and improve your academic record overall. And a better academic record means a better chance of getting that dream job you've always wanted.

Personally, I intend to reference my own accomplishments on my resumes under education. It might raise a few eyebrows, but I have no doubt that it will lead to some interesting and productive conversations and will help to spread awareness of this increasingly important institution.

So what are you waiting for? Go out and learn something new today.

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Khan Academy Home Page

Khan Academy at Wikipedia

Conquer Online Education


j-u-i-c-e (author) from Waterloo, On on March 30, 2012:

@jada hamilon: I think the Khan Academy is something everyone should know about, like Google and Wikipedia. Here's hoping that it keeps growing and gaining in popularity. Thanks for reading.

jada hamilon on March 30, 2012:

i lovE it

j-u-i-c-e (author) from Waterloo, On on March 14, 2012:

@cookies4breakfast: The Khan Academy is an amazing resource. Free education any time you want it. And GOOD education. It's a little bit mind-blowing, really. Thanks for reading and voting.

cookies4breakfast from coastal North Carolina on March 14, 2012:

Thank you for taking the time to share his amazing story. I love that his tutorials are free to anyone. I can't wait to take one of the sessions! Voted up, most definitely!

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