Khan Academy “just might change your life”

A 2009 report from the Programme for International Student Assessment placed the U.S. 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in math on standardized tests administered to 34 countries.

These results are, to put it bluntly, pitiful. Among developed countries, the U.S. is not leading but is in fact falling behind in education. Why is this?

The simple truth is that the American education system is broken. Educators know this, but the problem is that most teachers (and politicians, for that matter) don’t have any viable solutions, and even if they did, few would have the political traction to put their ideas into law.

Meanwhile, politicians bicker about how to legislate teacher accountability, or about the best way to tweak the pedantic “standards” that now dictate what our students should and shouldn’t learn. All the while, our students continue to suffer.

If the education reform movement has taught us anything, it’s that the problem will not be fixed from the top down. The solution will instead come from the people.

Enter Khan Academy, a website that hosts over 3,200 educational videos on a wide array of subjects, ranging from math and science to history and finance. The ten-minute long videos are concise and informational, yet uniquely conversational in their approach. They are a rarity in the world of online educational media, which has historically been the domain of drawn out, pedagogic lectures filmed on low quality cameras with muddy sound.

Salman Khan, the founder and sole teacher at the Khan Academy, quit his job as a hedge fund analyst to work full time filming videos. Now he spends his days adding to the site’s impressive collection of videos and exercises that are currently turning the world of education on its head.

The exercises are fun and intuitive, yet demand mastery before moving on to the next topic. Students can track their progress and work on exercises while they learn new concepts from the videos. In addition, teachers can track the progress of their entire classes, pinpointing students who are stuck so that they can be given targeted help.

Early pilots in California classrooms have revealed another revolutionary aspect of the Khan Academy: the idea of “flipping” the classroom so that students watch lectures at home and do what would be traditionally considered homework in class. Khan says that doing so gives teachers more one-on-one time with students because they are less burdened with the responsibility of giving lectures. It also gives students a deeper understanding of the material because they can work at their own pace and take the time to master a topic before moving on to the next one.

Compared to the traditional one size fits all in-class lecture, which has changed little since the nineteenth century, this idea is nothing short of revolutionary.

In an interview with 60 Minutes, Google CEO and Khan Academy sponsor Eric Schmidt said, “Innovation never comes from the established institutions. It’s always a graduate student or a crazy person or somebody with a great vision. Sal is that person in education, in my view. He built a platform. If that platform works, that platform could completely change education in America.”

Khan didn’t set out to upend the educational establishment, and is quick to note that his site is not meant to replace teachers. In fact, his videos increase the value of teachers. Instead of engaging in passive information transfer for most of the class, they can now relegate that part of the learning process to home, leaving class time free to guide students towards mastery. In short, Khan’s videos are the solution to interactive learning for which educators have been searching for decades.

Salman Khan has bridged the gap between students and teachers that so often inhibits learning. In doing so, he has become an educational pioneer who has the potential to change the way people learn worldwide.

“We’re a not-for-profit with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education to anyone anywhere,” says the Khan Academy web site.

With a mission statement this powerful, the Khan Academy is sure to make some waves in the years to come.

Check out the Khan Academy’s library of over 3,200 videos at www.khanacademy.org. It just might change your life.

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