Former Bay Area hedge fund manager Sal Khan’s virtual YouTube school, The Khan Academy, is on a mission to provide an excellent education to anyone, anywhere, and for free. Started in 2004 with videos Khan created to tutor his cousins, this Harvard MBA's lessons now have over 10 million YouTube views- more than the free lectures posted by Khan’s other alma mater, MIT. His videos teach math concepts from basic addition to calculus, almost every science topic imaginable, and even break down the Geithner Plan. GOOD's Liz Dwyer talked to Kahn about how virtual schools might revolutionize the educational landscape.
Can online learning actually help close the achievement gap?
Yes. The first thing is you flip around the model of lectures and homework. Videos are watched on the student’s time because that’s passive learning. Then you do exercises in the classroom where you have your teachers and your peers with you and you can solve problems together. The big difficulty for students doing homework is you’re doing it in a vacuum where you wish you had your teachers and your peers around. You get no feedback, and if you get all the problems wrong, there’s no time in class the next day to actually practice it with feedback. Online learning changes all that.
You receive glowing emails from users about how your videos help them, but do you have data?
I’m developing software to teach kids and get data on what happens before and after the video interaction because otherwise the videos just exist in a vacuum. I worked with a summer program here in the Bay Area with rising eighth graders from a low and middle income, mainly minority student population – and the whole point of the program was to prepare them for algebra. When they worked on the exercises, a couple things jumped out. One, you can be the best algebra teacher and I can be a promising student, but if I don’t know basics and you don’t have the capacity or time to make up for my gaps in knowledge, I’m not going to get higher concepts and everyone’s frustrated. Online learning closes those gaps. The other big takeaway is it’s completely impossible to predict where kids are going to end up if you let them learn at their own pace. When you and I were in school we took an assessment and someone said hey, “Sal is a great math student so let’s put him in the honors class, but Liz is not so let’s put her in the remedial class.” That impacts us for the rest of our life.
You're talking about the end of tracking?
Exactly. When you see kids working at their own pace you can take a snapshot at any time, and order the kids based on where they are - and then do it six weeks later. I don’t want to be cheesy but with this method, no child really does get left behind.
As opposed to how teachers have to move on even if every student hasn't mastered a concept?
That word “mastery" is the key. The way the school system is set up now, very few kids master anything. You get an “A” if you get 95%, but what was that other 5% you missed? Meanwhile the pacing plan keeps moving forward and the kids keep falling behind. With my software and videos, you’re only proficient when you get ten in a row on the same concept, when you don’t make mistakes on this stuff anymore. These YouTube videos are something technology brings to the table. Before, logistics would tell us that we need at least fifty minutes to an hour with each other, but the reality is that you may only need ten minutes. Kids don’t have to sit through an hour lecture just to fill one gap in knowledge.