(Photo courtesy AC Education)
As education costs continue to rise, school districts across the country face state budgeting cuts, and teachers have to do “more with less.” Parents of public school children are concerned about how their kids can receive competent, affordable schooling.
Salman “Sal” Khan, a self-styled educator and founder of the Khan Academy, a free online education platform and nonprofit organization, is revamping the educational model of the schoolhouse from “one room” to “one world,” and for a change letting teachers do more … with more.
According to his bio, Khan, a Louisiana-born Bangladeshi American, has already authored and posted on the Internet some 3,000 short academic videos, mainly focusing on math and science. In late 2004, Khan began tutoring his cousin, Nadia, in mathematics online using the Yahoo! Doodle notepad. Other relatives and friends sought his tutoring, and soon he concluded it would be more practical and beneficial to distribute the tutorials on the YouTube channel, as the Khan Academy, starting in November 2006.
The Academy’s increasing popularity, along with appreciative testimonials prompted Khan to quit his job as a hedge fund analyst in late 2009 to focus on full-time development of his YouTube channel.
As of September this year, the Khan Academy channel on YouTube boasts nearly 400,000 subscribers and millions of monthly users worldwide, leading Time magazine to put Khan on its 2012 World’s 100 Most Influential People list.
Khan appeared earlier this month on a segment of National Public Radio’s “The Diane Rehm Show” to talk about the “One World Schoolhouse” concept.
Originally setup as a non-profit, he said the mission should be to reach and empower as many people as possible here. “There’s a high social return, almost an infinite return on social investment,” Khan told Rehm.
The first donation was from philanthropist Ann Doerr, for $10,000. “Before that I was getting these $5 and $10 donations from people all over the world, which was tremendous, it was helping,” Khan recalled. “I told Ann if we were a physical school, you’d have a building named after you. When she found out we were living off our savings, she stepped up and gave a larger donation, so I could support myself with a salary.”
Not long after, the academy jumped to the next level. “A few months later I got a text message from Ann, who was at a conference with Bill Gates, and she said he was up on stage telling everyone in the audience he uses the Khan Academy for his kids.”
The Gates Foundation is now the Academy’s largest supporter, along with other tech companies.
As if that weren’t enough, Education Secretary Arne Duncan also reportedly uses Khan Academy, and recently visited the offices with officials from the Department of Education. “I think he really understands things at the holistic level, and I hope we can tackle things alongside them,” Khan added.
“You read news stories and you become cynical about the system, and I never thought we’d be part of it,” he acknowledged. But then he was contacted by a Los Altos school system in California curious to find out how the Academy would fit into, say, a fifth grade math class. “The tools, the software, the videos allow every student to learn at their own pace. In our mind it frees up the classroom to do more interactive things. Teachers get real time information about where they all are, and then they could use that information to do focus interventions, lead projects and have students tutor each other.”
His pilot program expanded to four classrooms, then every classroom in that school district, and now is in use in 20,000 classrooms across the country. The long-term goal is to broaden use of the basic elements of the teaching program from math and computer science, adding more content that could be used in just about any major school subject from grade school to college level, including some graduate level topics, including medical school [starting with a partnership with Stanford University] and law school applications.
“This isn’t about virtual replacing physical; this is about virtual being used as a tool to make physical more powerful,” he maintains.
Mammoth “Khan” do it!
Of those 20,000 classrooms, a few of them are in Mammoth Lakes. Mammoth Elementary School 4th Grade teacher Marci Jefferson, for example, has brought Khan into her classroom. “I love it,” she enthused. “It really helps with independent study and lets me differentiate the students’ needs.” Jefferson likes the informal nature of Khan’s videos, which she thinks keeps students engaged. “I love his explanations, and his humor isn’t too dry!”
The Academy, she added, teaches what needs should be met, and allows her to spend more class time introducing concepts. “And there’s no status quo … you can look at each student’s individual progress and go from there.”
In Mammoth Middle School, math teacher Ruth Hensley (6th grade) and Emilie Weightman (7th grade) also use Khan’s program. Both are fans, pointing to how it allows them to track student data, and bring up to speed students who are stuck while others can keep moving forward. “We can start basic concepts and the students can backfill using the videos,” Hensley said, adding the teacher can then work on filling in any gaps.
“We start mini lessons, and then the kids work independently,” Weightman said. “The students and teachers can get more one on one … it’s really valuable when it comes to maximizing a classroom hour.”
Hensley and Weightman like Khan’s video lectures, but say, more importantly, so do the students. “They have a chance to watch someone other than us,” Hensley quipped. “A side benefit is that parents can sit in math lessons with their children, and we encourage parents to get involved.”
One of MUSD’s stated objectives is to integrate more technology into education. With more iPads now in the hands of students, Hensley and Weightman expressed confidence that these tools put MUSD’s students on par with those in the rest of the world.
“The kids can create their own avatars, and earn points … they’re really into it,” Weightman illustrated.
The teachers also use another free application, this one called Edmodo, a discreet social learning network for teachers, students, and parents that is similar to Facebook. It uses the social network environment as an inter-student tutoring tool. Students can “take ownership” of lessons and share experiences with their peers, and even create their own lessons. Edmodo is soon to become part of the District’s common core standards.
Meanwhile, the teachers say the Khan Academy’s lectures can be used on an a la carte basis, and challenges students, which they hope will be reflected in test scores.
“Considering the number of pay programs out there, I’m surprised he still isn’t charging for it,” Jefferson said of Khan Academy’s “a free, world-class education for everyone, everywhere free of charge” mission statement. Khan said he’s exploring how to license a certain amount of content for other users to help augment foundation/philanthropic funding, while still keeping his “free” mission statement sacred.
Flipping the classroom
Khan acknowledges that none of the Academy’s ideas are new, and to a large degree came from teachers, parents and students. “I started getting letters from teachers talking about flipping the classroom. [They said] you’ve already given a lecture on photosynthesis or factoring a polynomial. [Students] can watch your stuff at their own pace, and then in class time we can get into true problem solving, true interactivity,” he said.
Is he worried about the state of education in this country? “One should never be complacent about something as important as education. That said, I think some of the concern is misguided,” he opined. “People always site where we are on these test scores relative to other countries. How can we be more like Singapore, be more like Finland, or be more like South Korea? I take a different view on it. Now, all the innovators — Google, Apple, Twitter — are all being concentrated on the U.S., in this culture.
“The task is not how do we get our schools to implement the Prussian model as implemented in Singapore or Finland, it’s how do we break the Prussian model and make it more American, so that we can have creativity in class time, so that all these things that make America a great engine of innovation are actually happening in the classroom as well.”
Khan, who went to public school in Louisiana, holds BS degrees in mathematics, electrical engineering and computer science, as well as an MS in electrical engineering and computer science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a MBA form Harvard Business School.
Khan has compiled his story and observations in a new book, “The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined,” issued o the Twelve/Hatchette Book Group imprimatur.