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Khan Academy founder Sal Khan challenges the traditional approach to education.
Photo: Les Kamens
SAN FRANCISCO—"Walter, I want to work with community colleges."
That's what Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, told Walter Bumphus, president of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), following his keynote at the opening session of the annual AACC convention.
It's a message Khan shared during his keynote at the opening session and wanted to reinforce with the association's CEO. In fact, the leaders of the two organizations hope to work together soon. Bumphus noted that AACC may form a team or committee to start a dialogue with the Khan Academy.
The two organizations are on similar paths in trying to reform education. The Khan Academy turns the tradition concept of education upside down by providing free videos on YouTube, along with online practice exercises and assessments, to ensure that students master a concept before moving on.
And that's crucial for community colleges, Khan said. He called two-year institutions “the sweet spot” in providing personalized education to a population where 75 percent of students have to take developmental math. He expressed an interest in working with community colleges to explore how they can take better advantage of the Khan Academy.
A simple idea goes global
At the opening session, Khan explained how the Khan Academy evolved from a simple tutorial aimed at helping his young cousin into a global phenomenon that reaches 6 million new students every month.
In 2004, Khan was an analyst at an investment firm, when he agreed to help his bright 12-year-old cousin, Nadia, who was having trouble understanding unit conversions in math. After Khan worked with her every day for about a month, “it started to click,” he said. Nadia retook a placement exam and transfered from the slower to the advanced math track. By the time she got to the 10th grade, she was taking calculus at a local university.
Khan then began tutoring her younger brothers, and eventually found himself working with about 15 family members and friends every day. When a colleague suggested putting tutorials on YouTube, “I thought it was a ridiculous idea. YouTube was for cats playing the piano,” he recalled. But he gave it a shot, making a collection of videos illustrating how to solve algebra problems.
Videos as learning tools
Eventually, his cousins preferred YouTube to in-person tutoring, and that, he said, led to the realization that video instruction has certain advantages.
“The first time you’re trying to learn something, it’s stressful when someone is waiting for you to learn it,” Khan said. With video, “you can pause, rewind and review stuff.”
Khan kept at it, creating videos on physics, calculus, chemistry and other subjects.
“I started to notice people who were not my cousins were watching,” he said, and they were submitting positive comments. One viewer, for example, wrote that “this is the only reason I was able to go back to college.”
Site traffic kept rising, so in 2009, Khan “took a leap of faith” and decided to focus on the instructional videos full time, inspired by the idea that he could reach students around the world, including poor kids who didn’t otherwise have access to an education.
Khan was still mostly living off his savings, when in May 2010 he received a $10,000 donation from Ann Doerr, the wife of Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr. She was so impressed by Khan’s mission to provide “a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere,” that she followed up with a $100,000 donation, and that, he said, “was the beginning of a long cascade of surreal events.”
While Khan was conducting a summer camp with middle-school students, he got a text from Doerr, who told him Bill Gates was on stage at the Aspen Ideas Festival talking about how he used the Khan Academy with his own kids. Two weeks later, Gates’ chief of staff invited Khan to Seattle to meet with Gates, and similar meetings followed with Google officials.
Financial support from those and other companies enabled the Khan Academy to have an office and staff, and Khan began developing a “knowledge map” that conceptualizes how proficiency in one skill set prepares students for more advanced lessons.
That’s a major departure from the way the schools operate today, Khan said. In the traditional system, students are grouped together in age-based cohorts and are taught through lectures and homework, followed by tests. Some students get As, some get Cs, and some fail, but the whole class moves on to a more advanced topic together.
“That’s a broken system,” Khan said. “When you’re artificially constraining the time to work on something” and go on to the next step, while ignoring the gaps, students get further and further behind. “We say, do it other way around,” Khan said. “Students should master a skill before they advance to the next level.”
Part of the learning process
Khan showed a video of middle-aged man who had always been a C student, but, thanks to the Khan Academy videos, was able to get a 4.0 GPA at a university and realize his dream of earning a degree in electrical engineering. He listened to some videos 20 or 30 times, and that’s “where the understanding really happened.”
When Khan started with the videos, “we assumed it was a supplemental thing outside the classroom,” he said. But then teachers asked him how his concepts could be applied in the classroom.
Khan’s response is that teachers should promote interactive learning rather than having students merely subjected to passive listening. By having students engaged in personalized learning via videos and computer assessments, teachers can provide individualized interventions, and students who understand the material can help their peers.
If you let students work at their own pace, he said, the students viewed as below average start to excel. That’s what happened with kids at a charter school in Oakland, where students’ mindset actually changed and they started to improve when they set their own goals.
Khan described research showing that students do better when given motivational feedback aimed at spurring perseverance, rather than merely telling students that they’re smart.
Educating the world
The Khan Academy is now partnering with nonprofit organizations to bring instructional videos to disadvantaged youths around the world. There are now 7,000 videos translated into other languages.
About a year and half ago, Khan got a letter from a 15-year-old girl in an orphanage in Mongolia who excelled at the Khan Academy. She is now the top producer of Khan Academy educational content in the Mongolian language.
“We can start to reach many more people than we thought possible,” Khan said. “It’s no longer about virtual versus physical education. It’s about leveraging physical education so virtual education can become more human.” As a result, he said, “we can start to give the poor something they didn’t have before—the same education we’re giving to Bill Gates’ kids.”
Copyright ©2012 American Association of Community Colleges