Business Book of the Week : The Khan Academy ‘flips’ education (12/03/2011)

“With so little effort on my own part, I can empower an unlimited amount of people for all time. I can’t imagine a better use of my time.”

Salman Khan – founder of the Khan Academy

The history

In late 2004, Khan began tutoring his cousin, Nadia, in mathematics over the internet using Yahoo!’s Doodle notepad. When other relatives and friends sought his tutelage, he decided it would be more practical and beneficial to distribute the tutorials on YouTube where he created an account on 16 November 2006. Their popularity on the video sharing website and the testimonials of appreciative students prompted Khan to quit his job as a hedge fund analyst in late 2009 to focus on developing his YouTube channel, ‘Khan Academy’, full-time.

His videos proved popular, attracting on average more than 20,000 hits each. Students from around the world have been attracted to Khan’s concise, practical, and relaxed teaching method.

Khan outlined his mission as to ‘accelerate learning for students of all ages. With this in mind, we want to share our content with whoever may find it useful.’ Khan also plans to extend his ‘free school’ to cover topics such as English and history. Programs are being undertaken to use Khan’s videos to teach those in isolated areas of Africa and Asia.

An exceptional individual

Salman Khan was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana to immigrant parents from Barisal, Bangladesh and Calcutta, India. Khan was valedictorian of his high school class and attained a perfect score in the math portion of his SATs. He holds three degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: a BS in mathematics, a BS in electrical engineering and computer science, and an MS in electrical engineering and computer science. He also holds an MBA from Harvard Business School.

The website today

As of December 2009, Khan’s YouTube-hosted tutorials were receiving a total of more than 35,000 views per day. Each video runs for approximately ten minutes. Drawings are made with SmoothDraw, which are recorded and produced using video capture from Camtasia Studio. Khan eschewed a format that would involve a person standing by a whiteboard, desiring instead to present the content in a way akin to sitting next to someone and working out a problem on a sheet of paper: “If you’re watching a guy do a problem while thinking out loud, I think people find that more valuable and not as daunting.”

Offline versions of the videos have been distributed by not-for-profit groups to rural areas in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. While the Khan Academy’s current content is mainly concerned with pre-college mathematics and physics, Khan states that his long-term goal is to provide “tens of thousands of videos in pretty much every subject” and to create “the world’s first free, world-class virtual school”.

The Khan Academy also provides a web-based exercise system that generates problems for students based on skill level and performance. Khan believes his academy points to an opportunity to overhaul the traditional classroom by using software to create tests, grade assignments, highlight the challenges of certain students, and encourage those doing well to help struggling classmates.

His low-tech, conversational tutorials – Khan’s face never appears, and viewers see only his unadorned step-by-step doodles and diagrams on an electronic blackboard – are more than merely another example of viral media distributed at negligible cost to the world. Khan Academy holds the promise of a virtual school: an educational transformation that de-emphasizes classrooms, campus and administrative infrastructure, and even brand-name instructors.

If you’ve managed to get this far without checking out the site… go ahead – do so now:

Where he’s going next

In October 2010, Khan was tied for #34 in Fortune’s annual “40 Under 40,” a list recognizing business’s hottest rising stars. In March 2011, Salman Khan was invited to speak at TED by Bill Gates who claims to use the Khan Academy Exercise Software to teach his own children.

At the TED Talks…

But wait, this isn’t a “business book”…

Isn’t it? Well take a look at any one of the video lessons on Banking, the Credit Crisis, Currency, Current Economics, Finance and Macro-economics. Then tell me that you haven’t learnt something – oh, and don’t forget this stuff is for kids!

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