Khan Academy. How big projects start small
2015-07-22 | Text: Brian Hayden | Photo ©: Khan Akademy archive | 4302

“Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time.” Salman Khan opens his book The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined with this epigraph from Nobel Prize laureate Rabindranath Tagore. It’s also not a bad epigraph for Khan’s other brainchild, Khan Academy – a project to create a platform for free education through online videos and learning programs. A non-profit organization supported entirely by philanthropic donations – among its financial backers are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings – Khan Academy offers its students completely free video courses, uncluttered by commercials. What began in 2004 as a series of math tutorials posted to YouTube has grown into a massive global educational program whose goal is to “provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.” An impossible goal, it would seem, but Khan Academy’s channel on YouTube has now gathered over 1.9 million subscribers, and its videos have been viewed over 485 million times. 


Despite Khan Academy’s current dimensions – millions of students world-wide and a staff of 80 employees – the story of Khan Academy begins with one teacher and one student: Salman Khan and his cousin Nadia. Nadia, a straight-A student, had scored badly on a math placement exam. Because of academic “tracking” – a system in which students are grouped into “fast learners” and “slow learners” – a low score on this one math exam could have serious ramifications for her further education. If Nadia were placed on a “slow” track, she would not take algebra in eighth grade, and she would not take calculus in twelfth. This means that she would not be able to make it into a college program in the hard sciences later on.

Nadia’s situation, Khan asserts, is an excellent example of the limitations of the traditional classroom model of education. Nadia hadn’t done poorly on the math exam because she was stupid: not only did Salman, a surely biased cousin, believe that she was bright, but in One World Schoolhouse he tells us that she later made it into Sarah Lawrence College, which is no mean feat. Nor was Nadia’s school a bad one: it was a prestigious prep school, with small classrooms and attentive, qualified teachers. The problem was that there are certain things that even a bright student will not get the first time. The possible reasons are many: the student was sick that day, or tired, or upset, or for some reason one concept poses a greater difficult for one particular student. The problem with traditional education is that the standardized curriculum has no way of tailoring its needs to fit the individual student, and those that don’t get a topic the first time have to catch up on their own.

On a whim Khan agreed to tutor Nadia if her school would allow her to retake the exam. Since Khan was living and working in Boston and Nadia was attending school in New Orleans, the tutoring all happened over the phone or online. Nadia retook her exam and was able to significantly improve her score. When they found out about Nadia’s success story, other family members and friends approached Salman about tutoring. Salman soon discovered that he had a passion for teaching. Soon, however, this placed him in a tough situation – he had both a highly-demanding career and a newly-discovered passion. Scheduling Skype lessons with all of his students was difficult, and teaching small groups, which he ended up doing, did not have the same success as one-on-one lessons. Finally a friend suggested that Salman record his lessons and post them to YouTube.


At the time YouTube’s rules limited video length to ten minutes (this, of course, has since changed), which forced Salman to keep his videos at about that length. It just so happens that ten minutes is a near optimal length. As Salman later found out, education research had found that the optimal length for the presentation of educational material is ten to eighteen minutes. If the presentation goes on for longer, students start to “zone out.” Salman had to make another decision regarding video format, too – exactly what would the videos be like? When creating the videos, Khan wanted (or had to) keep equipment and production costs low, because at the time Khan was paying for them out of his own pocket. He decided that he didn’t have to be in the videos. Some of the reasons for this were practical or financial: if he decided to “star” in his videos, he would have to buy a good camera and worry about how he was dressed and how he looked. One reason was more psychological: if both a teacher and a blackboard were in the clip, the student’s eyes would be constantly moving from the teacher’s face to the blackboard and back, breaking concentration on the material itself. Khan decided to only show the blackboard on which he drew and wrote. True, now the blackboard was digital, and part of a computer program. There is something “magical” about a blackboard, Khan believes, that represents knowledge emerging from ignorance, answers arising from questions. Some have compared the digital blackboard to having an uncle look over your shoulder, helping you with your homework.


Five years after posting his first math video to YouTube, Khan quit his job as a hedge fund analyst to work on Khan Academy full-time. The next year, 2010, was big for Khan Academy. It was then that it received its first major backers – the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Google. Google’s grant of $2 million was donated so that the website’s material could be translated into ten of the world’s major languages. Bill Gates supported the Academy not only with money, but also with promotion – he publicly praised Khan Academy on several occasions, and in 2012 wrote a brief essay on Khan for Time magazine’s list of the year’s 100 most influential people. A combination of celebrity fans, media hype, and a growing audience for his video lectures have made Khan something of a contemporary education guru. Khan Academy’s staff grew along with the website’s notoriety, reaching a total of 80 employees, most of them software developers, in 2014. Despite the tremendous commercial possibilities of the website and lucrative offers from potential buyers, Khan has kept Khan Academy a non-profit organization funded completely by philanthropic donations.


Strange as it may seem, before he began tutoring Nadia in 2004, Khan had no real teaching experience. Khan had worked in the financial sector, and his superb education – MIT and Harvard – had been in computer science and business administration, with no focus on teaching. This “inexperience” meant that Khan came to the task with an open mind and a willingness to do some learning of his own – namely, to learn about how people learn. In Khan’s view, his lack of a teaching degree was an asset rather than a handicap: he had not picked up bad habits or misconceptions about the “right” way to teach. Over time, through what Khan himself admits was “trial and error” – together with some reading and research – he came to some conclusions of his own on how to teach and how people learn.

The bedrock of Khan Academy’s teaching system is mastery learning. Within a mastery-learning system, the student works on a concept at his own pace, taking time to review if necessary, feeling no pressure to keep up with his peers or a curriculum. Once he has mastered a concept he moves on to the next one, though he can go back and review previous material as much as he would like, whenever he wants to. Khan cites studies showing that students in mastery learning programs feel better about learning, are more confident in their ability to learn, and take more responsibility for their progress. An important adjunct to the mastery-learning strategy is making education flexible in time and space, thereby freeing it from the constraints of the classroom and the class period. If a lesson’s content can be accessed anywhere, at any time, the child is free to learn in the environment where he learns best.


Naturally, this mastery-based system is in many ways the exact opposite of our current, curriculum-based system. In a mastery-learning system, the constant is mastery and the variable is time: each student spends as much time as needed to master a concept. With the curriculum-based system, the constant is time, and the variable is the level of mastery: every student spends the same amount of classroom time on a concept, but not all of them master it to the same level. This, Khan believes, is why time-based, heavily-scheduled curricula are bad for almost everyone: those who pick up a topic quickly soon grow bored and lose time that could be spent on new topics, while those who learn more slowly fall behind the rest and cannot catch up. Such an approach only suits a hypothetical average student, who may or may not actually exist. Curricula often ignore the role of review, and if they do schedule in review periods, these are not suited to the needs of individual students. In such a system children are left with little room for initiative or exploration, since their education is strictly limited by a schedule.


Khan calls the existing traditional model of education the “Prussian model.” In the eighteenth century Prussia was one of the first countries in the world to introduce compulsory tax-funded public education for all. Other countries soon copied the model in hopes of creating a literate middle class, as it had in Prussia. However, Khan believes that in the 200 years since its inception the Prussian model has become woefully obsolescent, and is increasingly unable to prepare children for the demands of the contemporary world. While many elements of the Prussian model are so deeply-ingrained in our cultural consciousness as to seem logically inevitable – class periods, classes grouped by age, discreet subjects – Khan believes they are in fact arbitrary and perhaps counterproductive. It only seems that the Prussian model is the “right way to teach” because it is the only one Western culture has known for the past two centuries. In Khan’s words, it is a “cultural habit that we take for granted.”

Khan offers two alternatives to the Prussian model: “the flipped classroom” and a reborn one-room schoolhouse. Instead of having lectures at school and homework, the flipped classroom would have children watch video lectures from Khan Academy at home and then come to school to work on reinforcing exercises with their classmates and a teacher. Freed from the task of lecturing, teachers would now focus on helping children work through problems together, giving one-on-one tutoring to students who need it. In this system the role of teacher shifts from that of lecturer, as dictated by the Prussian model, to one of tutor and monitor. The teacher would be helped in the monitoring role by Khan Academy’s software, which not only checks answers, but also records how much time is spent on each answer. The flipped classroom is an idea that predates Khan Academy, but has gained increased popularity thanks to the website’s videos.  However, Khan does not believe that the flipped classroom completely solves the Prussian model’s problems – it still restricts children by making them study the same thing within the same timeframe.


In the more extreme modern-day one-room schoolhouse, Khan would remove all boundaries between subjects, grades, and classrooms. Instead of having groups of 20-25 students, all of the same age, led by a single teacher, he would group students of various ages into groups of 75-100 with three or four teachers. Abolishing age groups means freeing students from limitations and preconceived notions about when children should learn what. This would also allow older students to help the younger students. In this new, “liberated” classroom, only about 20 percent of students would be working on computer-based lessons at any one time, since the efficiency and speed which Khan (somewhat immodestly) imputes to Khan Academy videos would cut study time by 80%. The remaining 80% would be given over to educational games in groups, self-study on difficult problems, art lessons or music practice. Though Khan can be somewhat ambiguous on this point, sometimes making vague statements about students needing a foundation in subjects like math, physics, and other sciences, the one-room schoolhouse would not give them this – without a curriculum as such, its students would only study what interested them.

No matter how much Khan represents Khan Academy as a complete break with the past, in many ways it is a progressive-minded update of the same old “Prussian model” – which in no way minimalizes his accomplishments in education. He often says that his videos and traditional lectures have nothing in common, but in reality Khan Academy simply replaces long, classroom-based lectures with shorter, internet-based lectures. Homework is replaced by software-generated questions and by group-work at a conventional school. The most interesting and most high-tech innovation is the Khan Academy monitoring software that allows teachers and students to follow a student’s performance. This software not only automates the grading process, but also gives both the teacher and student more information than in the traditional grading system. But, once again, these innovations by Khan Academy are ultimately only improvements on traditional education, and not a complete revolution. The Academy’s truly new and significant contribution to education lies in its use of the internet to make а contemporary version of traditional education freely available to anyone, anywhere, at any time. 


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