Now that’s about to change. The cost of education has gotten so high, student achievement has become so disappointing, and the technology and computerized pedagogy are now sufficiently developed and ubiquitous that the long-awaited revolution in education is about to begin.
It’s not just me who thinks so. Just last week, at a digital run-up to the G-8 summit meeting in France, Rupert Murdoch announced that his News Corp. would be getting into the business of developing digital learning content and systems “in a big way.” There is now an entire ecosystem of venture capitalists, social entrepreneurs, angel investors and philanthropists eager to provide risk capital for technology-based education startups. A blue-ribbon advocacy group, the Digital Learning Council, was launched last fall by former governors Jeb Bush of Florida and Bob Wise of West Virginia. And, naturally, there’s even a new blog devoted to the subject, EdSurge, launched by my former Washington Post colleague Betsy Corcoran.
The person who has emerged as the pied piper of this movement, however, is Salman Khan, a former math geek and young hedge fund analyst who five years ago began making 10-minute videos to help his struggling nieces with their math homework. For convenience sake, he posted them on YouTube and found to his surprise that other people liked them, as well.
Today, the Khan Academy Web site boasts 2,300 separate math tutorials, from simple addition to vector calculus, that have been viewed more than 50 million times by more than 2 million students and are in active use in more than a thousand classrooms across the country.
Khan has no training or experience in teaching, and his videos are relatively crude by the standards of online course material produced by traditional educational publishers. They consist almost exclusively of Khan explaining things in conversational English while doing the equivalent of writing on a blackboard, which he does without benefit of a script or even a second take.
“I teach the way I wish I had been taught,” said Khan, who majored in math at Massachusetts Institute of Technology before earning masters’ degrees in computer science, electrical engineering and business administration.
Khan’s “lectures” are now accompanied by exercises that test whether the student has mastered the concepts, powered by an algorithm that makes the questions harder or easier depending on how well the student did on previous questions. There’s also a “dashboard,” where coaches, teachers and parents can monitor how their charges are doing. In addition to math, there are a few offerings in accounting, economics, history and preparation for the SAT, with more on the way.