Khan Academy, which began in 2004 as a small collection of youtube tutorials by Salman Khan, a graduate of MIT and Harvard, has become a library of free educational videos that has has earned the recognition and support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Google. With over 3,000 mini lectures in 15 subjects, mostly in sciences, technology, and math, Khan Academy’s mission of “providing a free world class education to anyone, anywhere,” is reaching across the globe, from rural Asia to classrooms in America, and is transforming the paradigm of education with a de-centralized, student-centered approach to learning.
At KhanAcademy.org, video lectures are simple, the only audio being Khan’s voice and the only visual a colorful virtual whiteboard. They are also short, each lesson about fifteen minutes long, despite covering subjects in diverse fields levels K-12. However, Khan has found that he simplicity lends accessibility. In an interview with 60 minutes he said, “I’ve got a lot of feedback from people who say it feels like I’m sitting next to them and we’re looking at the paper together…I think that’s what people like, the humanity of it.” In addition, the website also offers practice exercises and peer-to-peer tutorials, and software to track one’s own progress.
Some refer to the approach as “Flipping the Classroom.” In the schools where Khan Academy software is being piloted, students watch the lectures at home, with the ability to pause and rewind when needed, and spend time in class working on problem sets, where teachers can help students one-on-one. While some educators are skeptical that using so much technology in the classroom will alienate students from each other and from teachers, Khan argues that it creates a more engaging, active classroom and more meaningful interactions between students and teachers. He also believes the flipping the classroom is only one step. His full vision is one of students working independently to master concepts, while a teacher’s role is to support a classroom on 20-30 students who may all be working on different things.
Khan Academy has been used by a diversity of individuals and organizations, from professionals studying math for graduate school exams to elementary students with learning disabilities. One such user was Bill Gates, who used Khan Academy’s videos to help his children with their schoolwork, and who, with Google, has become one of Khan Academy’s primary supporters. But in addition to being used in individually, in community colleges, and in charter schools, not-for-profit groups have been using adaptations of Khan Academy videos to rural areas in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, where there is limited or no access to the internet. Google has even donated $2 million to expand and translate core courses into the world’s most widely used languages as part of their Project 10 to the 100.Eric Schmidt, from Google, argues that Khan’s innovation is different from other efforts to bring technology into education, because Khan Academy is systematic in the measurement of the efficacy of his videos, and translates that information into their software. With the data they collect from users all over the world, Khan Academy engineers can fine tune their software in the same way that Amazon helps you find the book you want, or Netflix recommends movies. “We get to do the same thing with education,” says Khan.
While there are a number of challenges to overcome before broader usage of Khan Academy can be implemented in schools, not the least of which being the need for computers in districts unable to supply sufficient numbers of textbooks, Khan Academy may be the harbinger of a new educational philosophy. The de-centralized approach to learning and awareness of the diversity in the interest, abilities, and pace of each student reflects a new and growing paradigm in educational philosophy. Its user-centric ideals, individual adaptability, and constant searching for opportunities to improve could very well provide the model for future educational innovation, in America and around the world.