Khan Academy Makes E-learning Exciting – Is This Possible?

Khan Academy is coming close to home. One of my kid’s schools has been selected for a pilot test of middle- and high-school math classes based on the Khan system. It’s a one-year test run by the Math Department Head himself, working directly with Khan. The pilot came about based on an initiative taken by a junior student at school! And this is not a struggling school (at least not based on the extraordinary tuition we have to pay), rather they are embracing change to see if they can make an already successful school even more so – and for every child.

My title above is misleading because in fact, Salman Khan has inadvertently launched a revolution in EDUCATION, and e-learning just happens to be a part of his system. An authentic grass-roots e-learning initiative, started by an individual, Khan, has blossomed into a full-scale movement to improve education, which is getting noticed by mainstream media, attracting donations from hi-tech foundations and splitting educators. Like President Bush’s famous quote, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” traditional educators are polarized between embracing the new technology and dismissing it as a naive amateur attempt.

Here’s the real deal: Khan’s videos and methodology work (so far) because they are simple, hokey, deliberately non-corporate and non-polished. Yet they are also Web 2.0 – with a real “cool” factor. There’s no product marketing committee making sure every video has a politically correct, watered down mix of messages. They look like your hip uncle explaining algebra to you over Skype. Which is actually how the videos started out.

While gaining 68,000,000+ views on YouTube of his 2,400+ videos, Khan has formed a non-profit with funding from Gates Foundation, Google and others with the mission to make effective education free for the whole world. Now that’s a “reach goal”, if there ever was one.

Students watch videos (e.g. mini lectures) and complete online assessments at their own pace, and then interact with their teachers and other students while doing “homework” in class. Web 2.0 dashboards and progress tracking enables teachers to track exactly which students need specific help. I’ve done this myself (with 57,000 points earned!):

Screen shot of Khan Academy dashboard

Sample progress dashboard for a student (me) in the Khan Academy.

My teenage son introduced me to Khan’s videos when he was searching for algebra help on YouTube a couple years ago. That the young generation is spontaneously drawn to Khan’s videos is evidence enough for me that Khan is on to something. When my son searches for help on any topic, he uses YouTube, not Google text search. This is very different form how older generations search on the web.

Traditional educational content publishers (think Pearson or McGraw-Hill) have attempted to create compelling online education for years – and have failed repeatedly. I think because they are trying to satisfy committees, shareholders and traditional educators. Not the students themselves. Instead, Khan started with the students (his nieces and nephews, in fact) and evolved an educational system from that starting point.

We’ll see over the coming years if Khan Academy’s system begins to show repeatable, significant positive results with no long-term negative consequences. Plenty of traditional teachers are skeptical. But it’s worth a try. I’m relieved (and proud) that my kid’s school has the collective self-confidence and leadership to be at the forefront.

To try Khan yourself, see or

Good mainstream article in Wired Magazine:
(Wired August 2011 edition, published online July 15, 2011)

Article in Fast Company magazine:
February 16, 2011

[Addendum:  Article in The Economist 17-Sept-2011,  “Flipping the Classroom”: ]

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2 Responses to Khan Academy Makes E-learning Exciting – Is This Possible?

  1. Minter Dial says:

    Will be interested to see how that pilot program turns out, Ken!

  2. Ken Hayes says:

    @Minter – The school has considered the pilot a success, so far, and has now opened up applications for the next school year 2012-13. They are tweaking the structure but continuing the effort.

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