In 2006 Salman Khan logged on to YouTube and uploaded a handful of videos he had made to help his cousins with their homework. Three years later Khan’s videos had so many users that he quit his finance job to focus full-time on his free, nonprofit online education project. Bill Gates and Google soon got involved, and the media spread Khan’s story far and wide. Today six million students visit the Khan Academy each month where they watch lectures on subjects ranging from arithmetic to differential equations. Scientific American talked to Khan about the state of American education, his critics and the future of the Khan Academy.
[An excerpt of the edited transcript of the interview follows.]
What do you think is the primary problem with education in the U.S. right now?
People are asking the wrong questions about how education can be improved. Everyone assumes the model of kids being batched together in synchronous cohorts. Credentials, for the most part, are based on seat time versus competency. I think students should be able to learn at their own pace. They should master concepts before moving on. Credentials should be competency based. If you learn something on Khan Academy or at your community college or at Harvard or on the job, you should be able to prove it, and also show that you’ve retained it over a period of time.
Beyond flipping the classroom—watching video lectures at home and doing homework on class—how do you think Khan Academy addresses those issues?
We’ve kind of been glued to the idea of flipping the classroom because, eight minutes into my TED talk, I talk about it. But frankly, we don’t really view ourselves as a flipped learning model. Flip is kind of a neat idea, and I think it is better than giving the lectures in the classroom and doing homework on your own. But we consider ourselves advocating a self-paced, mastery-based model that frees up teacher time and class time to focus on higher-order tasks.
Our team is now pushing 40 people, and the site is changing as we speak. I’m not the only one creating video content anymore, and the interactive platform is getting much more substantive. In the next nine months you should be able to go to Khan Academy site and say, “I’m interested in algebra,” and we’ll give you a state-of-the-art, adaptive test that will pinpoint what you know and what you don’t. Based on that, we will recommend activities we think will be valuable for you. We will try to pace you, to be a virtual tutor.
There have been some great stories about really young kids using Khan Academy to learn calculus when they’re 10. What happens when they’re 12 and doing graduate level mathematics? Are there limits to how well self pacing can work in a traditional classroom setting?
My take is, if a kid’s doing that, that’s awesome. They should keep pushing the envelope. Depending on where a child is, maturitywise, it’s probably a good idea that they stay at their traditional school, with similar age cohorts. But they should have an outlet, several hours a day, especially if they’re off the charts in math or science or something else. Those students who, by age 16, know as much as a normal computer science major—for the summers let them get an internship at Google. Let them start doing some stuff with that knowledge. That only helps society.
Who is this approach better for—those 16-year-old Google interns or kids who are struggling?
I would have assumed, going into this, that it would have been the kids who are classically self motivated. But we are seeing that it’s great kids who are demotivated or checked out, or who have a lot of basic, fundamental weaknesses that, in a traditional class, they’re embarrassed by. There’s no way for them to address it. It’s hard for the teacher to even diagnose those weaknesses—and now, this is kind of a very powerful remediation tool for those students to do it in a very safe way.