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Khan Online Academy Change Science Education?

Salman Khan, an MIT and Harvard graduate, had been helping his young cousin Nadia with her maths homework over Yahoo! Messenger, but when they couldn’t be online at the same time he began making video tutorials. To check her understanding, he added software that would generate questions related to the tutorial topic. Only once she could correctly answer 10 problems in a row was she allowed to move on to the next topic.

The simple template has now been replicated hundreds of times to cover the maths curriculum from simple arithmetic to calculus. Science videos have also been created, covering topics from evolution to action potentials, atoms to enthalpy, gravity to black holes, and everything in between. Amazingly, Khan still researches, records and animates every single video himself. He has a knack for explaining things very simplistically; his tone is casual yet engaging, which has undoubtedly been a major factor in his success. Now Nadia is just one of 1 million people using the site each month.

But how does this improve the quality of learning for pupils? Khan’s mantra is that the videos allow the “classroom to be flipped”. The pupils watch the videos as homework, moving through each video at their own pace, pausing to take notes or repeating the more difficult parts, without the embarrassment of asking questions in front of their peers. Then when they come into school, the teacher does not have to spend the majority of the lesson lecturing to the whole class; he/she can spend time one-on-one with pupils who are struggling and let the others progress to more advanced topics.

Identifying which pupils are struggling, and with which topic, is made simpler by the Khan Academy’s ‘dashboard’ feature. When a pupil is using the website their activity is recorded and made available to the teacher. The data produced from pupils using the website has shown some fascinating findings. In one example (graph), pupil A raced ahead with the early topics while pupil B took longer to get going. Normally a test would take place at a set time, say 30 days, and pupil B would be graded much lower than pupil A. But when the students are allowed to progress at their own pace, it becomes evident that the stumbling blocks for each individual are different

To help maintain interest, Khan introduced a reward system: points are awarded for every video watched and problem solved with bonuses available for speed, consistency, and perseverance. And what do points make? Prizes, of course, in the form of badges. Like with Pokémon cards or sticker book collections, the kids are keen to improve their repertoire of achievements and compare with others.

One of the main benefits of the system is that it demands students master each subject before moving on to the next, therefore leaving no gaps in the knowledge base. Khan contrasts this to the current system where a topic is taught then tested and, regardless of students’ scores, they move on to the next one. He likens it to learning to juggle with oranges and after a week, whether you are competent or not, moving on to juggling with knives.

However, not everyone is enamoured with Khan Academy. Critics claim that lecturing online is no different from in the classroom and that both are a poor teaching method. Many education experts would profess that students should be learning by enquiry, through using modelling projects and simple programming languages then creating wider knowledge by working in groups. Although Khan believes the lecturing is important, he is also a supporter of interactive learning and suggests the flipping of the classroom allows more time for it.

It received backing from both Bill Gates and Google, who have revolutionised the professional and social lives of the current generation. It would be a good bet to say they will have a hand in the educational revolution.

Regardless of its future direction the Khan Academy is already a remarkable resource where anyone can, as its tagline states, “learn almost anything for free”. And that includes PhD students studying mitochondria who need to brush up on their Krebs cycle!  
For more information, visit www.khanacademy.org.

Callum Johnston is a PhD student in the Centre for Cognitive and Neural Systems

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