At first glance Salman Khan appears a most unlikely revolutionary. Although well educated (note: he is neither an educator nor a psychologist) he has nonetheless, and from most accounts, single-handedly ignited a revolution in teaching that any “real” educator, government administrator or instructional designer would be proud to lay claim to.
What started as simple private tutorials in math for his cousins – utilizing what he describes as about $200.00 in computer accessories and shareware – Khan drew upon his innate interest in education (along with perhaps his own personal frustrations as a student) to craft a series of screen capture how-to guides for solving high school math problems. As word spread among friends and family members, viral interest forced Khan to move his homespun videos to YouTube to service his burgeoning audience, completely for free. The rest, as they say, is history.
At present the Khan Academy (a not-for-profit educational organization founded in 2006) has served over 51 million views from a library of over 2200 videos. In addition to math and physics, topics now embrace history and biology. School districts and major corporations are attempting to use and develop his methods for their own internal applications. Donations from private sources and the likes of Google and the Gates Foundation have subsequently allowed Salman Khan to quit his day job and devote his energies full-time to the development of his Academy and the distribution of educational programs worldwide (“providing a high quality education to anyone, anywhere”).
Looking over Khan’s presentations on his methods you begin to wonder what makes the Khan Academy so successful. After all, this isn’t the result of a major educational research program, a sweeping government initiative, or a mass popular movement in educational reform. Further, what makes the Khan Academy even more interesting is that Khan’s tutorial method is not so much ingenious as it is ingenuous.
In several of his talks Khan is fairly straightforward in his assessment of what makes his method work. First and foremost, as Khan attests, each of the videos offers a lesson on a single concise topic (a “concept”) for no more than about 10 minutes. One key idea, cut in a bite-sized chunk, for a period not to exceed the boredom threshold of the average viewer. Given that the videos are recorded and stored online, the presentations can be played any time and repeated as needed by the student until he or she feels comfortable to move forward.
Another feature of the tutorials is the general tone they are given in. As Khan describes it, they feel like they are coming more from a friend than a teacher. You have a sense that Khan is there with you, sitting by your side, leading you through the problems with a pencil and paper. They are down-to-earth, enthusiastic and rigorous without a trace of giddiness, pomposity or pedantry. The student feels like “…there is an individual who cares about you,” Khan says. The student comes away with a sense that the instructor wants to help him or her over the obstacles in the landscape because he has been in the student’s place himself and sympathizes with the struggles that lay ahead.
Drilling down a layer into the Khan Academy’s unique style reveals even more about what makes the “secret sauce” special. Each of the bite-sized topics that are referred to previously are in fact carefully culled and curated learning objects. The trick, of course, is to first know the subject well enough to select which topics to present and in what order. Following that, the teacher must distill the concepts to their absolute essence.
This distillation process is, to all who have tried it, much harder than it looks. In fact, the ability to select and summarize complex material and ideas, rather than resorting to the indiscriminate slathering of a PowerPoint slide with bullets, might be one of the hallmarks of an educated mind. Clearly, Khan groks it.
Despite the thought and planning that goes into Khan’s presentations they can hardly be accused of being over produced. This is not Pixar doing technical training. If anything, the digital blackboard and colored chalk renderings show the human side of learning and mastery. The notes and diagrams often appear rough and awkward, but they are at the same time quite genuine, funny and sometimes – to the advantage of the learner – mistaken. As Khan explains it, he is often in the place of the learner and, in contrast to many schools and universities, has not rehearsed the solution beforehand, offering the student the patented procedure. Instead he lets the students witness his own thought processes as he wrestles with the problems and sometimes wanders down the wrong path from which he has to back out and start again – just like a real student.
Nowhere in Khan’s methods can be found any of the bells or whistles of modern post-industrial pedagogy. No Flash animation, interactivity, games, social networking tools, 3D graphics or monolithic learning management systems are to be found. In fact there is little beyond a virtual blackboard and some equally virtual colored chalk. You don’t even see Khan’s face.
The faceless almost tactile sketches and equations provide little distraction and promote focus on the material. This decidedly low-tech solution to training might harken back to ancient watch-me-do-it tribal methods but its effectiveness is not lost on Khan’s students, many of whom write to express thanks that they are not only mastering their classes for the first time but excited about the subjects as well.
Khan’s approach is to teach for academic competency. That is, he instructs in the methods and procedures that assist the student in passing standardized tests and formal exams. After the student completes a module, test problems are offered through a program that Khan designed himself that acts to monitor student progress and flag trouble areas for the teacher. The student is asked to correctly answer 10 problems in a row before moving to the next module. This final process closes the instruction, feedback and assessment loop in Khan’s method and further acts to eliminate the small voids in understanding that can multiply as the student moves forward. Interestingly YouTube assists in the process as well, offering statistics on usage and attention.
One of Khan’s own revelations about his method is telling: it’s so simple and effective that he does not see why anyone needs to give live lectures anymore.
Although he does not refer to it by name, Khan points to (and his method directly parallels) the use of what is commonly called the Inverted Classroom. In an inverted classroom recorded presentations impart new information prior to class while class time is taken up with teachers and peers solving problems (or “doing homework”) quite in reverse to what is traditionally done in schools and training centers.
The results of this method have so far been compelling. Both teachers and students benefit. Teachers benefit because more of their time is spent in directed remediation (particularly if they use Khan’s monitoring software), problem solving and exploration of the material. Students like the inverted classroom because it potentially transforms class time into something useful and interesting. In Khan’s case the testimonials from parents, teachers and students are hard to ignore. His academy and tutorials do work.
More needs to be seen to ascertain whether the Khan Academy represents the future of education as some claim. But what is clear is that it stands as a forceful reminder of what can be done to improve the instruction of certain skills and particular subjects while simultaneously improving the classroom experience for everyone.
Yes, the Khan Academy IS the Future of Education (video; singularityhub.com)