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Teaching Math and Science to the World

FullTextImage/img/@altSalman Khan describes the Khan Academy, offering education "for anyone, anywhere." -- VMI Photo by Julie Rivera.

Khan Academy Founder Discusses His Non-profit Online Academy

LEXINGTON, Va., Oct. 2, 2012 – Salman Khan believes that access to education should be like access to clean and safe drinking water – a basic need that can be met for all.

Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, spoke to an audience of educators at the 2012 VMI STEM education conference Monday night about how the academy came to be and its possibilities for enhancing education in both the developed and developing worlds. He then signed copies of his newly released book, The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined.

The Khan Academy is a library of video tutorials and interactive exercises. While most of the academy’s offerings focus on mathematics and science, there are now video lectures on subjects ranging from venture capitalism to art history. The site has had 60 million users to date, with up to 7.6 million unique visitors each month. The academy operates as a non-profit supported by donations, with usage free to all.

During his talk, the Harvard-educated Khan expressed a continual sense of wonder that an effort at long-distance math tutoring that began less than 10 years ago has now mushroomed into an online empire supported by the likes of Google and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“I still feel like I’m living in a science fiction book,” said Khan, who was named to Fortune magazine’s “40 under 40” list in 2010.

In 2004, Khan was living in Boston and working as a hedge fund analyst when his young cousin Nadia came for a visit and said that she was having trouble in math. Khan immediately started helping her via Yahoo’s Doodle notepad. Before long, he had a small audience of 15 appreciative students, all friends and family. In 2006, Khan switched to YouTube as his platform for delivery, and his audience swelled dramatically.

Khan ran the academy as a sideline undertaking until 2009, when he quit his day job to explore, and hopefully expand, the possibilities of online learning.

Khan explained that in a traditional classroom setting, time is the one constant factor. Schools operate within a set time frame, and in order to cover all of the material, teachers must adhere to a strict pacing guide. That works fine for students who have mastered the concepts presented within the set time frame – but what about the others?

All too often, Khan believes, they are forced to move on to the next concept before they are ready, and in a sequential subject such as mathematics, this results in students who are frustrated and ready to give up. The Khan Academy eliminates this problem by allowing students to work at their own pace.

Khan shared the success story of schools in Los Altos, Calif., which are now using the academy’s mathematics tutorials for all students in grades five through eight. “What [teachers] really saw was the attitudinal change of the students,” said Khan. “They learn to learn.”

In the developing world, the Khan Academy is opening doors that otherwise would have remained firmly shut. The academy’s mission statement is, “A world-class education for anyone, anywhere,” and with that mission in mind, Khan has put a special emphasis on reaching the educationally underserved. He’s particularly proud of a 16-year-old girl living in a Mongolian orphanage, who has translated 100 Khan Academy videos for her fellow residents.

Technology, Khan believes, can break down the barriers which have traditionally separated the haves and have-nots. “It makes me very hopeful for the world,” he concluded.

–Mary Price