Summary:

Sal Khan, a former hedge fund manager, turned some personal tutoring videos for his niece into an online educational academy with backing from Bill Gates and Google. The Khan Academy is providing students with powerful online tools to accelerate their learning in ways traditional teaching hasn’t.

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Sal Khan initially had a dim view of YouTube. He thought of it as a repository for lame videos, not a place to put up serious educational material. But he was stuck. In 2004, the former hedge fund manager had begun tutoring his cousin Nadia in mathematics using online tools but more and more people started following his lessons. So he turned to YouTube to host lessons and lectures, though not without some reservations.

“YouTube is for dogs on skateboards, not serious mathematics,” he said.

Millions of viewers later, Khan has become an online educational pioneer with his own free non-profit academy and backing from Google, Bill Gates and Ann Doerr, wife of venture capitalist John Doerr. The success of the Khan Academy prompted Khan to quit his lucrative hedge fund job in 2009 and devote himself to remaking the way people learn. Khan shared his story yesterday at the Wired Business Conference and described how simple tools like YouTube and online learning software can motivate hard to reach students, bring high level education to the masses and revolutionize the way teachers relate to their children.

Khan started out teaching his cousin using Yahoo Doodle to work through math problems. He added some simple Javascript problem generators backed with a database to record her progress. Eventually, as more people started following along, Khan recorded his lessons and lectures before moving them over to YouTube. That’s when things took off: Millions tuned in and were thankful for Khan’s concise 10-minute lessons, a time limit brought on by YouTube’s rules. He kept adding more content and subjects, and now hosts a library with more than 2,100 lessons. To date, more than 52 million lessons have been streamed.

The secret of the Khan Academy comes down to providing compelling and useful videos and pairing it with good software that forces students to master a subject before they move on. Dashboard software tools are also available to track the progress of a student and allow teachers and coaches to easily see who needs help and attention. It’s an interesting use of online tools and speaks to the power they have in changing the way people learn. It’s also nice to see the Web used in positive ways to benefit people, not just entertain them.

Khan’s package of resources has helped many teachers subvert the way they conduct lessons. For some teachers using the Khan Academy, students watch the lessons and lectures at home and complete the homework in class, where the teacher can provide instant feedback. Khan said it’s actually helped restore many teachers to the role they first envisioned for themselves, working closely with students.

“We’re taking a lot of the blocking and tackling off the teachers plate so they can do more one-on-one and one-on-two teaching,” Khan said.

Along the way, Khan got the attention of Bill Gates, who spoke about him at the Aspen Ideas Festival and later provided a two-year grant through the Gates Foundation. Google also awarded the Khan Academy with $2 million last year as part of its Project 10^100 search.

Khan said current education resources are often built with an eye toward selling to school districts. But the products often don’t connect with end users. He said the Khan Academy was built with students in mind, letting them learn at their own pace while filling them in on some of the thinking behind the lessons. Many students fall behind with traditional learning but are intimidated to speak up. This online approach has helped turn on a lot of students who are not classically motivated, Khan said, but have responded to the videos and feedback through the academy.

Khan said he’s looking over the next six to 12 months to build more community into the academy, allowing peers to help each other learn. The system will reward students with badges and reputation points for teaching their fellow students. It will be built with safeguards in mind for children but should extend Khan’s goal of using online tools to facilitate learning. Ultimately, he said the Khan Academy has the ability to democratize education, making it available to an audience around the world.

“We see the Khan Academy can become an institution on the Internet,” Khan said. “I hope in 50 years, as your kids expect clean drinking water… I hope people can take a world class education for granted in the same way.”

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