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Khan Academy looks to bridge the education gap with online learning

A screen shot from the video "Overview of the Khan Academy Library"

Kai Ryssdal: It's pretty rare to have a conversation about education policy in which the word "technology" isn't used at some point. Occasionally in the administrative sense, as a way to make education more efficient. But mostly in the classroom sense, helping kids learn.

Which gets us to Salman Khan. He's a former hedge fund manager turned educator as the founder and sole faculty member of the Khan Academy. It started as a tutoring service for his cousins on YouTube. It's become a library of thousands of instructional videos on topics from basic arithmetic to organic chemistry to the French Revolution, with financial backing from -- among others -- the Gates Foundation. Sal Khan, good to have you with us.

Salman Khan: Great to be here.

Ryssdal: How exactly did you wind up putting videos on YouTube?

Khan: I was a little dismissive of it at first. I didn't think YouTube was for serious mathematics. I thought it was for dogs on skateboards, or whatever else. But I decided to give it a shot and people all over the world started watching them and some of them would say, "Hey this helped me with an exam." But some of them would say, "Hey this helped me not drop out of high school." Or "This helped me get into the school that I wanted to get into." So it became a pretty exciting thing to work on.

Ryssdal: What's the education problem, though, that you think this can solve?

Khan: It's a pretty straightforward problem. It's that everyone learns at different paces and right now everyone is forced to go at the same pace. And it's a more serious problem than just people being bored or people being lost in one classroom. What happens when everyone moves at the same pace is you and I are in an exam or we're learning a basic subject. I don't get 5 percent of the subject. You don't get 20 percent of the subject. The whole class moves on to a more advanced subject. I have a 5 percent gap. You have a 20 percent gap. Those gaps build up over time and it pretty much guarantees that most students -- by the time they get to algebra or calculus -- have so many of these gaps that no matter how hard they try, they just can't understand what's going on. So what we're trying to address is every student can go at their own pace, make sure that they master something before moving on. And when you do that, then those gaps shouldn't happen.

Ryssdal: It's an accumulation of failure. Right? Isn't that your phrase?

Khan: Yeah, I would say it's an accumulation of gaps. And actually the failure this is interesting. Right now, when you take an assessment test in school, you get a label. You get an A, B, C, or D. The A kids kind of feel good about themselves, they get self-confidence. The B students are a little bit neutral. You get a C, D or F, it's not viewed as hey, you didn't understand 30 percent, why don't you go and try to learn a little bit better. It's viewed as you're not so smart, don't try to become an engineer or a physicist.

Ryssdal: Where do you fit in though? Where does the Khan Academy fit in in the larger application of technology to education? How do you slide in there?

Khan: For a while, whenever people talk about technology and education, they've just been talking about putting computers, or iPads or whatever in a room and hoping that something good happens. Even when there was something to do on a computer, it was always viewed as separate from the core curriculum. It was viewed of what normally goes on in a math class. What we're saying is now we can actually use technology, we can use these videos, we can use this software to allow every student to work at their own pace. It's not an either/or proposition any more. There's always this debate of do you do more of the core skills or do more of the projects and the investigations. We're saying that you do both. You can use a lot of the technology to handle a lot of the core skills, free up a lot of the teachers' time to do a lot more of the human interactions.

Ryssdal: For the price of a login -- you either login through Facebook or Google -- you get access to all these things. Is there a thought in your mind of somehow making people pay for this?

Khan: We want to, at some point, be sustainable as a not-for-profit, but we want all this material to be 100 percent accessible by everyone. So on the web and our core tools will always be free. Right now, nothing on our radar is not free, I guess is the simple answer.

Ryssdal: So what's the next step for the Khan Academy?

Khan: Right now we have about 2 million students a month who use our site on a regular basis. We want to start leveraging them so that they can help each other. So if you're in a classroom, your teacher knows that you need help. But if you're not in a classroom or you need a supplement to a classroom, maybe one of the other community members of the Khan Academy can tutor you or help you out or get you past your hurdle.

Ryssdal: Salman Khan. He's the founder of the Khan Academy. Thanks a lot.

Khan: Great. Thanks.

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Frank Noschese THANK YOU for posting your comment. I found your post valuable and the referenced TED presentations important.

I am a community college math instructor who uses an instructional strategy with a similar theoretical foundation.

I'm a high school physics teacher w/ a more critical view of Khan Academy: http://bit.ly/lbMcUW Kids should be constructing their own knowledge rather than consuming someone else's.

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