khanacademyThis in-depth Wired feature article by Clive Thompson is a few months old, but I ran across it in an old print issue of Wired Magazine today at work and was completely fascinated. It does not have anything to do with e-books directly, perhaps, but is a great example of how new electronic media can be used for educational purposes.

Salman Khan, a three-time MIT graduate with a Harvard MBA, was inspired while tutoring cousins in 2004 to begin creating educational YouTube videos along with self-testing software to help students learn from them. Before he knew it, thousands of people were watching his videos, and emailing to tell him how helpful they had been.

“You made me realize that anyone can learn the material when it is presented in the right way,” wrote Tom Brannan, a 19-year-old about to enter a Pennsylvania college. After dropping to a C in math, Brannan learned enough from Khan to ace his last few high school tests and now plans to pursue a degree in computer science. “I had been struggling with the unit circle, essentially trying to learn it out of the textbook,” Brannan wrote. “I watched your videos and it all clicked.”

In 2009, Khan turned his videos into a nonprofit called Khan Academy, and was startled to hear that no less a personage than Bill Gates was one of his fans, as Gates’s own kids were using Khan’s videos to help study.

Last year, the Los Altos, California school board embarked on a pilot program to start using Khan’s videos as teaching tools, with some additional software including dashboards that would let teachers track individual students’ progress. Khan also added gamification, including badges and awards that kids could earn through their progress. This has led to some surprising results, including ten-year-old students who are hooked on inverse trigonometry at an age when their classmates in other schools are still struggling with fractions.

One of the elements that makes Khan’s videos so effective may be the way they are done in a conversational, explanatory style. It never feels like Khan is talking down to the viewer, or over their heads—it’s as if he’s sitting next to you, putting his head together with you as he explains difficult concepts in a way you can understand.

Khan Academy has over 2,700 educational videos at the moment, and continues to add them to cover a variety of subjects. Since the videos are on YouTube, they are free for anyone to watch, and another part of the website includes exercises students can do to earn points and badges, and a section that “coaches” (such as parents or teachers) can use to track students’ progress.

This sort of site could be an invaluable educational resource for primary or supplemental homeschooling. It might also turn a tablet such as an iPad or a Kindle Fire into a terrific educational tool without needing to buy any further educational software. For that matter, I’m sure it would go well with whatever the OLPC’s next device turns out to be, at least for in English-speaking areas.

Here’s a 20-minute talk Khan gave at the 2011 TED conference about the history and philosophy behind the academy:


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