Ahead of Michigan visit, online academy founder talks about the future of education

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SEE, LEARN: President Shantanu Sinha and the rest of the Khan Academy staff have won fans and critics for their approach to learning which relied heavily on the creation of video learning segments. Sinha says the students’ ability to see and learn at their own pace is a key part of their approach. (Bridge artwork/AJ Jones)

Google CEO Eric Schmidt is a big fan. The same goes for Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who calls the California-based Khan Academy “a glimpse into the future of education.” Founded in 2006 by Bengali American Sal Khan and featured in ‘Sixty Minutes’, the academy’s free online video tutorials on everything from math to finance to cosmology reach some 5 million viewers worldwide per month. Google gave the academy $2 million to expand its reach “We were looking for new approaches in education,” Schmidt explained.

Khan and his approach are not without passionate criticism either.

Shantanu Sinha, president of Khan Academy, is scheduled to speak at the 2012 West Michigan Policy Forum conference on Wednesday. Bridge Magazine caught up with Sinha to get a sense of where education reform is heading.

Bridge: Can you put your finger on why Khan Academy succeeds where other Internet education projects fail?

A: I think the most important thing for me is our focus on students and their needs. Many existing businesses focus on selling to the education system. We take a bit more of a philosophically aligned perspective with the student. What does the student need? How can technology help? A lot of it comes down to the craftsmanship of what we build, the way we bring a sense of humor to our videos, the kind of questions we create. You need to make your execution really resonate with users.

Bridge: Is this a generational shift in the way we learn? That those who grow up with video games, Twitter and Youtube demand new pedagogical approaches?

A: I think everyone actually learns better when they learn personalized information based on their needs, instead of learning what 30 kids around you need. If you are taught what you need, you are more likely to learn. Everyone learns best – whether at home, on the road or in a classroom – when it’s at their own pace. I believe that the fundamental principles that we defend are universal. Obviously, kids who grew up with technology are pretty good at it.

Bridge: If you could change one practice in a typical classroom, what would it be?

A: The big thing would be the single lesson model where the teacher delivers the same subject to everyone, whether or not we recognize that everyone has a different need. I would replace that with a much more interactive collaborative classroom, where everyone can reach their individual potential rather than trying to squeeze everyone into a specific standard, where on November 7 you have to learn fractions, that no matter where you are, I will press you to the same standard rather than embrace a world of letting a student reach their potential.

Bridge: You’ve written about the value of playing technique in motivating students, referring to a 45-second interval to keep a youngster engaged. How would this be best done in a classroom?

A: I think the key is that technology can be great at providing feedback to the user. We don’t have feedback loops in education now. Right now you give a review and grade levels at the end of each term, A, B, C, D. It’s very slow feedback. You need things to help you intervene in real time. Technology can help you do that.

Bridge: Critics say your courses can be superficial and leave the “heavy lifting” of learning to traditional teaching? How about that?

A: Of course, I disagree that the lessons we use are superficial. There are two parts to the question here. When you actually provide users with the information they want and provide accessibility to high quality materials that are personal and relevant to the user, you definitely see a huge impact. We receive thousands of emails every day, comments on our Youtube channel, comments under our videos, explaining how people really understand, not only on a superficial level, but on a conceptual level, the subject. The second part – the implication that we are somehow replacing the importance of the teacher and the importance of this relationship – is completely wrong.
The ideal goal of Khan Academy is one where we try to give students, parents, teachers, everyone, the information they need when they need it. In our opinion, you will never replace teacher interactions. These are still very important. Hopefully we hold them more accountable.

Bridge: David Coffey, a professor at the University of Michigan, says there’s nothing new about the “I talk, you listen” approach used in Khan Academy classes. How would you answer that?

A: I don’t think Khan Academy is on the I-speak-you-listen approach. The aim is to make the information accessible to as many people as possible and to personalize the interaction as much as possible. Students who work with Khan Academy go through it at their own pace. Videos are one of them, but maybe we focus a little too much on that. When a student is struggling with a problem, the first line of defense is what we have in the system to help them overcome those problems. The second row are these videos. The third line is a user community where people from all over the world can help solve the problem. The fourth row contains the data we provide to parents and teachers, where they can immediately see that you are struggling with this. There are a lot of different components in what we’re trying to build here.

Bridge: If you could wield a magic wand in the American public school system, what would you do?

A: The most important thing would be to ensure accessibility to the technology, ensuring that users have connectivity at home. It’s a big problem right now. The second thing is just teacher training, really taking advantage of technology in the classroom, training teachers so they understand the best way to do this. I would focus on those parts of the problem.

Bridge: Can Khan Academy’s teaching methods and reliance on technology reach the most disadvantaged students in this country?

A: I think it can certainly reach them if they get the technology and I see that in many of the pilots that we’re doing, in areas with underprivileged students like Oakland and East Palo Alto, California and other areas with which we run student pilot projects. Students who are behind in grade level tend to have gaps in their knowledge of Swiss cheese. They’re in algebra and they don’t understand fractions. In fact, we see some of the largest gains among the most disadvantaged students. The fundamental problem is that they have to have the technology. There are creative ways to do this – Wi-Fi hotspots, opening labs after school. The reason I’m optimistic about the future is that the cost of technology is going down. There will be some great tablets available for under $100 in the future. Solving this problem, by getting everyone to adapt to technology, is something we are capable of solving.

Bridge: Is it possible that Khan Academy cannot be easily replicated, since it may depend on the rare teaching skills of a few?

A: I think being a great teacher with strong skills, being approachable and having a good sense of humor and being able to relate to the students is key. But I think there are a lot of people who can do it. There are many people who would like to be involved in education. They can contribute.

Bridge: Khan Academy started with one man, Sal Khan, designing video lessons in his spare time. How many employees do you have now and how big can this business grow?

A: We are now about 35 employees. We don’t have an exact scale and growth target. We are now over 5 million unique users per month. When it comes to the number of people who need access to quality educational materials, that’s obviously a much, much higher number. This could number in the hundreds of millions, or even billions.

Bridge: How did you join Khan Academy?

A: I joined when we started as an organization. I have known Sal for over 20 years. We were high school math competitors in New Orleans. We were freshman roommates at MIT. I spoke to him when he was teaching his cousin the best ways to take advantage of technology. We were mathematicians and scientists who had gone into the tech world and then we were actually into the business world and when (the opportunity arose) to try to build this organization, I did joined.

Bridge: Who funds Khan Academy?

A: We have several funders. Obviously, one of our most famous is Bill Gates and the (Bill and Melinda) Gates Foundation. Google provided funding. And then we have thousands of individuals. A lot of people come to our website and give us $20 here and $50 there. It really comes from everywhere.

Ted Roelofs worked for Grand Rapids Press for 30 years, where he covered everything from politics to social services to military affairs. He has won numerous awards, including for his work in Albania during the Kosovo refugee crisis in 1999.

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