Anything you Khan do: how a former hedge fund trader is trying to transform education

In 2004 Salman Khan, then a senior hedge fund analyst, began remotely tutoring his cousin Nadia in mathematics. Word got round and other relatives and friends sought his help too. Realizing that it would be more efficient to distribute the tutorials on YouTube, he created an account there in November 2006. The videos proved to be extremely popular and the organization was incorporated as a non-profit in 2008. A year later Khan quit the day job to focus exclusively on developing Khan Academy full-time. Its goal is to provide “a free world-class education for anyone anywhere.” Students can make use of their 4,000 video tutorials, as well as interactive challenges, and assessments.  It can be used by both individual students or in the classroom and the system provides you with personalized data about how you are doing and which areas you are struggling in.

Khan Academy is just one example of the educational resources available online. I have been interested in online learning for a number of years now. Here are a few examples of what you can find out there:

Open Yale This is one of my favourites. You have video, audio and even the mid-term and final exams. The lectures come with the transcript, No course credit, degree, or certificate is available, but it’s a great way to capture a bit of the flavour of this prestigious Ivy League institution. Here is a selection of some of the courses:

Death

Financial Markets

Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics

Fundamentals of Physics

Game Theory

Introduction to Ancient Greek History

Introduction to Political Philosophy

Introduction to Psychology

Listening to Music

The American Novel Since 1945

The Great Courses This company was founded by Thomas M. Rollins, began life as The Teaching Company in 1990. Videos got Rollins, who graduated from Harvard Law School, out of a tight jam when he was a student. He had skipped a number of classes and was facing a difficult exam on the federal rules of evidence. In desperation he sat through ten hours of videotaped lectures by Professor Irving Younger. The lectures were, in his words, “outrageously insightful, funny, and thorough“. He describes it as one of his best experiences as a student. What’s more he got an A. He had initially intended to create a government program to produce tapes for the public, but was unable to do so because of legal restrictions. After leaving his job as Chief Counsel of the United States Senate Committee on Labour and Human Resources, he went looking for top professors to create courses for sale to the public. The Great Courses offers hundreds of courses in such areas as economics, literature, fine arts, music, history, philosophy, religion, mathematics and the social sciences. There are more than 500 available via CD, DVD and Internet download.

Their current top ten shows the enormous range of what they offer:

  1. The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World
  2. The Science of Natural Healing
  3. Physiology and Fitness
  4. Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation
  5. Trails of Evidence: How Forensic Science Works
  6. Mysteries of Modern Physics: Time
  7. Introduction to Nanotechnology: The New Science of Small
  8. Physics and Our Universe: How It All Works
  9. Great Tours: Greece and Turkey, from Athens to Istanbul
  10. Writing Creative Nonfiction

Coursera This educational technology company was founded by computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller from Stanford University in October 2011. Coursera works with universities to make some of their courses available online, and offers courses in engineering, humanities, medicine, biology, social sciences, mathematics, business, computer science, and other areas. Each course includes short video lectures on different topics and assignments to be submitted, usually on a weekly basis. Coursera is able to cut costs by having students grade their peers’ homework and employing statistical methods to validate the assessment.

Coursera is following an approach popular among Silicon Valley start-ups – grow fast and worry about money later. Venture capitalists and even two universities have invested more than $22-million but even Coursera seems unsure how it will monetise its courses. Daphne Koller explained the rationale:

Our VC’s keep telling us that if you build a Web site that is changing the lives of millions of people, then the money will follow“. Possible solutions include:

  1. having companies sponsor courses
  2. offering certification
  3. the sale of information to potential employers

_____

 These online courses offer the possibility for great teachers to leverage their talent. This is just like what happened to singers when new technologies meant that records could be sold or concerts broadcast. Lecturers who could only be seen by those actually in their class can now be enjoyed by people all over the world.

The great advantage is the flexibility; you are not bound by timetables or location. You can listen to a lecture on MP3 or watch it on a smartphone. This is perfect for me. I’m a bit of a commitment-phobe when it comes to online learning. I like to flit from one topic to another. I don’t really want to do an exam – for me it’s just a bit of fun. But there are other models. What Coursera offers is much more like a traditional college class. Students have to do around ten hours of study per week. They can watch the videos any time you want during the week, but they have to finish your assignments by the end of the week. The advantage of this is that everyone is working on the same thing at the same time; if they then want to go onto a discussion forum, they can get immediate help from one of your peers.

Many of the courses, such as Open Yale involve just a lecturer standing up in front of a group of people. That is what inspired Thomas Rollins. I love this format. Listening to an engaging professor talking about a subject that he is passionate about is a guilty pleasure for me. However, some people argue that this is a bad use of this medium. Salman Khan has been critical of the lecture format. He sees it as relic from the past. 200 years ago there was no alternative – but now we have so many technological possibilities. I can see what Khan is getting at. Filming someone teaching is not visually compelling. The great insight of what Khan does is that you listen to the voice, you don’t watch the professor. The material you see on the screen is what engages you visually, not the teacher’s face, mouth, gestures etc. Khan has another criticism of a lot of the material online. He thinks that people can pay attention for ten or twenty minutes. Then they start to zone out. That’s why they have micro lectures, which last less than 20 minutes

For us the availability of this material has meant that we haven’t had to pay for a private tutor for our son. How many tutors would be happy to go over the same point twenty times? That is the beauty of video – it enables you to go at your own pace, pausing whenever necessary and reviewing the material as many times as you want.

What about the classroom? Khan Academy materials can be used for class teaching. Flip teaching is one of the key concepts. This involves students watching the videos on their own, and then coming together to discuss them. A teacher can spend more time interacting with and tutoring students instead of lecturing. In the classroom pupils can then try to apply this knowledge by solving problems and doing project-based learning with lots of peer-to-peer learning.

I hope you find this as inspiring as I do. We are living in exciting times for education. I like the fact that there are different models. Let a thousand flowers bloom. I don’t believe that the traditional university will disappear anytime soon. Some of these ideas will prove to be dead ends. But others will help to transform the way we learn. We don’t really know what the best mix is. We are at a very early stage in the application of these technologies, and I can already see massive benefits.  So, I salute you Mr. Khan.

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