Khan touts benefits of online schools
By Taha Adib
Published on Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Salman Khan, once a hedge fund manager, reaches more than six million students across the world monthly by providing free educational videos via the Internet. Khan — now the founder and executive director of Khan Academy, a non-profit organization aimed at providing “world-class education to anyone, anywhere” — discussed Khan Academy’s development, future and implications in a Monday lecture in Spaulding Auditorium.
The seventh lecture of the “Leading Voices in Higher Education” series, Khan’s talk, titled “Digital Pedagogy and Trends in Learning: Lessons from the Khan Academy,” should prompt “hard questions about the best way to teach at Dartmouth looking forward,” Provost Carol Folt said in her opening remarks.
Addressing a full audience of students, faculty and community members, Khan discussed the origins of the academy, which began when he tutored his 12-year-old cousin Nadia in math. At the time, Khan lived in Boston and tutored his cousin in New Orleans using the Yahoo! Doodle drawing program and other software to quiz her and check her progress. After finding success with Nadia, Khan began tutoring 15 other cousins around the country who were struggling with their studies, he said. Khan said he initially thought that “YouTube is only for cats playing piano,” but he realized this was not the case when a friend suggested that he record his lessons and upload them to the website.
Khan said he soon began posting pre-algebra and algebra videos on YouTube and received positive reactions from his cousins.
“They told me that they like me better on YouTube than in person,” Khan joked.
Khan said he eventually began receiving comments from other users who found his videos effective, from comments such as, “This is the reason I passed algebra,” to hearing from a man back from the military who had not done math in 15 years and wanted to go back to college. Khan also heard from parents of children with learning disabilities who said that the academy had made a significant difference in the students’ studies.
Khan Academy videos allow students to work at their own pace, he said. The videos also avoid the embarrassment students often feel when they do not know something, allowing Khan Academy users to revisit videos and activities as often as necessary.
“It liberates the classroom so teachers have more time with the students, rather than just lecturing,” Khan said.
In response to a continual influx of testimonials, Khan Academy officially became a non-profit organization in 2008, and by 2009, Khan quit his job to work full-time for the academy. In 2010, Khan Academy attracted the attention of Bill Gates, who said he used the website with his children. Google awarded the academy $2 million that same year, and Gates gave a donation on the same order of magnitude, according to Khan. Time magazine recently named Khan one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World for 2012.
Khan Academy is different from the traditional academic model in which there is a fixed time period for student learning, a fixed way material is taught and a fixed way for that material to be learned, according to Khan.
“Imagine building floor after floor with deficiencies — the whole thing collapses,” Khan said, comparing the traditional academic model to building a house. Khan said that when students are forced to learn new material before mastering the basics, they are likely to suffer academically.
Khan discussed the successes of applying Khan Academy to fifth and seventh grade classrooms in pilot programs in California but said his teaching model could be “more of game-changer in the developing world where there are bigger gaps,” Khan said.
Khan presented a video montage of students using Khan Academy videos in under-resourced areas around the world, including India, Mongolia and Uganda. In several of these places, videos were downloaded on an offline server for students in schools with limited teaching staff.
Khan Academy offers videos in more than 16 languages and has a “true global impact,” Folt said.
Looking to the future, Khan said he expects to expand the site’s curriculum by adding subjects such as grammar, medical content, computer science and writing through peer review.
“I was really impressed, and he is doing much more than I realized,” economics professor Bruce Sacerdote said following the lecture. “I think Dartmouth’s biggest role is producing more material for him to distribute.”
Many students in the audience had used Khan Academy in the past, including Kunyi Li ’14 and Alex Gerstein ’15. Li thanked Khan for his videos and revealed that he felt that he would not be at Dartmouth if it were not for Khan Academy.
“I used Khan Academy in high school, and I knew he was fascinating so I came to learn more about him,” Gerstein said.
Khan Academy’s teaching model is appealing because students’ performance levels vary at different times due to a variety of factors, but it would be difficult to implement the model in Dartmouth’s 10-week academic term, according to engineering professor Petra Taylor. Taylor said she foresees difficulties with making this model work at a university level.
“I have heard of Khan Academy in the past, and I came because I was interested in enhancing the education of my own children,” Taylor said.
The “Leading Voices in Education” speaker series is part of the College’s strategic planning process and aims to bring creative leaders to discuss innovation in higher education to the College.
Gerstein is a member of The Dartmouth Business Staff.