The Khan Academy brings Disrupting Class to life


Sep 30, 2010

If you haven’t yet seen it, there is a fascinating video of Sal Khan speaking at the Gel 2010 conference. For those who haven’t been following, Khan is the creator of the Khan Academy—a non-profit that has over 1,800 videos for free on the Web that teach topics in Math, Science, the Humanities, and so forth—and have attracted such an impressive following that they have more viewers than even MIT’s open courses on YouTube. The Khan Academy reaches people all over the world with these videos, and recently Google awarded it $2 million to create more videos and translate them into additional languages.

In the video, Khan talks about the origins of the Khan Academy—which are a far cry from an organization that receives millions from Google and improves the lives of people around the world. In fact, there is a strong parallel to what we suggested in Chapter 5 of Disrupting Class would be the spark for truly customized learning—the creation of a facilitated network. As we wrote (to take one excerpt): “Notice that these sound more like tools for tutors—and that’s the point. We’d love for every student to be able to afford personal tutors who have the skill to tailor the way they teach each subject to their students in a manner that matches the way the students learn. But it’s too expensive; hence, we’ve settled for monolithic instruction. These stage 2 tools disrupt the tutoring business; they can make it so affordable and simple that each student can have a virtual tutor through these tools. Over time, the modules that students, parents, and teachers employ to help students solve individual learning problems in individual courses will be combined into complete custom- configured courses—the consummate purpose of modularity.”

And Khan? He simply wanted to help out his cousins in New Orleans with their math homework, and so he made some videos from San Francisco, where he lived, to tutor them about certain concepts. And then he posted them on the Web, so that they—and anyone—could see them. It turns out that there is quite a demand for free quality online educational videos.

In the video, Khan goes on to talk about the advantages of online learning—how, in classic disruptive fashion, many assume that it can’t be good enough because we tend to think an in-person experience is better and a free one on the Web can’t be all that good. But instead online learning enables convenient learning at the needed pace (you can fast forward, stop, rewind); counter-intuitively removes the distance from learning—the teacher in front of the class at a distance from students is now brought right to you; if you’re not sure about a concept on which the lesson is built, you can stop, learn about that concept (even if you’re in “5th-grade math” and the concept is a “3rd-grade one,” which you could almost never do in a traditional classroom!), removes the pressure for the student of having to look good or perform for the teacher or tutor; and so forth. And by the way, he has received letters that suggest that it works for everyone—students with ADD, gifted and talented students, special needs students, and so forth. This is not just a nice add on, as computer-based learning has been typically treated; there is a fundamental hunger and need for this.

Lastly, toward the end of the video Khan talks about his surprise that it’s not just him and other math geeks who want to learn and understand these concepts—and get pleasure from it. He reads a letter about someone who solves a derivative and smiles. This resonates and matches our new chapter in the new edition of Disrupting Class—that a fundamental job people have to do is to feel successful and achieve. Education as it has often been structured doesn’t allow most students to hire it to do this job, but when it is structured correctly, it’s a beautiful candidate for this job to be done, as Khan relates. Indeed, as Daniel Willingham wrote in his book Why Don’t Students Like School?:

“Solving problems brings pleasure. When I say “problem solving” in this book, I mean any cognitive work that succeeds; it might be understanding a difficult passage of prose, planning a garden, or sizing up an investment opportunity. There is a sense of satisfaction, of fulfillment, in successful thinking. In the last ten years neuroscientists have discovered that there is overlap between the brain areas and chemicals that are important in learning and those that are important in the brain’s natural reward system. … Many neuroscientists suspect that the two systems are related. Rats in a maze learn better when rewarded with cheese. When you solve a problem, your brain may reward itself with a small dose of dopamine, a naturally occurring chemical that is important to the brain’s pleasure system. Neuroscientists know that dopamine is important in both systems—learning and pleasure— but haven’t yet worked out the explicit tie between them. Even though the neurochemistry is not completely understood, it seems undeniable that people take pleasure in solving problems. … It’s notable too that the pleasure is in the solving of the problem. Working on a problem with no sense that you’re making progress is not pleasurable.”

Khan has discovered this same thing–and has shown us a glimpse into the future in the process.

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently serves as Chairman of the Clayton Christensen Institute and works as a senior strategist at Guild Education.