A treasure called Khan Academy

Sun Sep 19, 2010


I have many friends who, like me, grew up in Mallorca but live abroad. We usually visit the island a few times every year. When I coincide in Mallorca with my friend Andrés we take part of a ritual: we drive with the car to the other side of the mountains. Few people live there. We walk to some lonely rocky place by the sea shore. We dive and explore the under water world, we jump into the sea from high places, we have some salty snacks and a beer while watching the sunset and listening to music, and we discuss life on this planet.

In one of these discussions a few weeks ago we talked about education. How education evolves so slowly, in part because of laws and traditions, and how education does not yet use the technology available that would make learning a more productive experience. I was proposing one idea. In my head was Carl Sagan, who was fantastic at explaining science and astronomy with lots of passion, in a way people could understand. I asked myself why do I have to be taught by anyone who is less passionate than Carl Sagan? Why do I have to be taught by someone who is not able to communicate ideas clearly, or someone who doesn’t even like the topic? 

When I was a kid, in my school class there were between 30 and 40 students. Only a few really understood math. To me the subject was a game, because I had a computer and used it to create sounds and graphics. But my teacher did not like my methods, based on intuition and creativity. I mostly blame the teachers for that situation where students do not understand a topic. I believe students are usually capable, but it has to be taught in the correct way. I realized this when I studied 12th grade in the Watkins Glen High School, NY, where I met one of the most amazing teachers I’ve had, Mrs. Melveney (in the photo). When she talked about math often her eyes would shine. I would be looking forward to the next lesson she would teach, wishing all my other teachers were like that.

The idea I mentioned above: having the best teachers in the world recorded in video, and let students learn from those videos. Videos coming from teachers who love their subject, educators who know how to make it interesting, so you want to know more about it. 

Today I read in twitter something that made me very happy: an article about the idea I had, but with a link to a website that exists today, the Khan Academy. It’s a site with over 1800 educational videos that helps many people understand math, physics, chemistry and other topics. I had imagined creating something like this from inside the current educative system, not the “hacker” do-it-yourself way. It’s surprising how disruptive the Internet can be: think about how difficult it would be to change the educational system in any given country, full of national and state laws. Then someone comes up and posts some videos on Youtube. Suddenly some students start using this online resource that helps them understand things, skipping altogether the “official” books and teachers. I find it amazing. The quality of those videos is not so high, but it shows what’s possible. Imagine designers and artists collaborating online to produce educational content the same way programmers collaborate to create open source software. Like in P2PU. Internet empowers people to create some very beautiful things that benefit us all. Awesome.

Update: I watched Salman Khan’s presentation and I’m very happy to finally see someone pushing education in this direction. I admire his work and strongly agree with most of what he says. I have sometimes complained that even technology is progressing at amazing speeds, education, justice, politics and social conflicts seem stuck, making this gadget-mania feel absurd. It’s very exciting to see improvement in one of those areas, education, which can influence all other aspects of life.

Dedicated to Mrs. Melveney, my math teacher in 1992 in WGHS, NY.


Categories: text Tags: khanacademy education Places: unimportant

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