Yes, we Khan: pioneering education for anyone, anywhere

The Khan academy is trying to bring education to the world, but how? Online learning image from

From preschool to PhD, education is afflicted by a malaise. Many students, teachers, parents and politicians, feel that with all the effort and money spent, we should be doing better.

Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, is a quiet revolutionary whose book The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined released last week, offers an inspiring vision for restructuring education.

It’s an entertaining and provocative look at how one entrepreneur is changing the world, one lesson at a time.

Khan’s Academy

The Khan Academy is best known for its short educational videos – available online, for free, and for any student.

The idea famously had its beginnings when Khan was tutoring his relatives remotely. Eventually, he developed short videos on YouTube, and added automated assessment and feedback to help them.

The popularity of the videos meant Khan gave up a lucrative job as a hedge fund analyst to develop the idea fully. His is the classic Silicon Valley success story: self-funded and struggling until Gates, Google, and the like noticed, and turned on the money taps. He explains more about the “Khan-style videos” below:

Salman Khan: Let’s use video to reinvent education,

Where the academy fits

Khan is a leader amongst those who have challenged the education establishment. The effective pedagogy used in his videos has strongly influenced the Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC movement and is part of a larger drive to make education open and online.

Khan’s central principle is that each student should be guided along their unique path to their full potential. They should progress at their own pace in their own direction.

This subsumes the tried and true idea of mastery learning – that students should learn 100% of foundational material before moving on, rather than have only a partial grasp that may come back to haunt them later.

The ideal classroom

In Khan’s ideal school, foundational instruction is provided using the flipped classroom model, in which content and assessment come from something like the Khan Academy. He claims that this delivers content up to five times more efficiently than does conventional instruction. This frees up valuable, human, teacher time for personal interactions with students. He calls this “humanising the classroom”.

The Academy assesses students’ understanding in parallel with the instruction, providing automated help for students and guidance for the teachers’ interventions.

In his new book, Khan starts by diagnosing and dissecting the underlying problem in education – our attachment to a 19th century Prussian inspired model of education. This model separates students by age, requires them to progress synchronously, and fragments learning into discrete subjects.

According to Khan, the objective of such systems is to produce loyal and submissive citizens. This model, he argues, has been left behind by the 21st century, with its need for creative and diverse workers.

By contrast, in the Khan classroom, students of all ages work together organically. This alternative to the one-size-fits-all broadcast approach sees a year 9 student mastering year 8 maths, while a year 8 student may be mastering year 9 English, and each may be tutoring the other. Teachers assist as required, informed by learning analytics – the collection and analysis of learning data.

Just do it

Critics have focused on the Khan Academy videos, rather than on Khan’s broader educational ideas. This is because the Academy is open for all to see. Openness means that problems can be identified and corrected. So when experts identify errors in an Academy video, it shows the collaborative system is working.

How much notice should we take of Khan’s outlandish ideas, which are many more than touched on here? After all, he’s no doctor of education, his book is short on scholarly evidence, and he reports no controlled trials of his methods.

In classic entrepreneurial style, Khan just went ahead and did it. The evidence he presents is directly from the classroom. The Los Altos School district, in the heart of affluent Silicon Valley, was the first to implement his ideas.

It’s the sort of community where deep innovation is possible, because that’s what people do for a living. Google, Apple and Facebook headquarters are nearby. These people know that technology is changing everything.

The One World Schoolhouse

The experiment in the Los Altos district has been running for a couple of years and is expanding to other districts in California. But at the other end of the affluence scale are schools in developing countries.

Their problems are greater: if you don’t have a teacher that consistently turns up to class or reliable access to the internet or electricity, then there are serious problems with the Khan model.

Nevertheless, volunteers have already translated most of the Khan Academy videos into many languages. By putting these onto DVDs, and restricting internet usage to low bandwidth for assessment and feedback, Khan describes how it might be made to work.

The One World Schoolhouse of the book’s title has all these Khan Academy outposts interacting. Let’s hope that in some way, this book will be one of the catalysts for reforming education; to make it a deep, rich and lifelong experience for everyone.