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You Khan do it.

The scale of information on the Internet is exploding. But can it be harnessed to deliver quality education, and can this make it to the concrete classroom? If one teacher can give 91 million lessons… then yes it Khan.

If it can be known, then it’s probably on Wikipedia. If it can be shown, it’s already on YouTube. With a million hits and a thousand comments buzzing like a swarm of bees and butterflies, one demonstration reaches the masses. But despite all this potential, is technology being used effectively to educate?

The printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg around 1440. As cultural inventions go, it signaled quite a revolution for the spread of ideas. Nowadays, as the cliche goes, we are living in the dawn of a new age of information. From every angle a constant stream of data is radiated through countless devices, flowing through the dense networks of cables and protocols we call the internet.

Information, of course is not all of equal value. Bias, ignorance, profanity, lies, and enough statistics to interpret a horse as a donkey can engulf browsing brains and leave them no more learned than before; perhaps even less so due to confirmation of false beliefs or confusion of others. How can the Internet be leveraged to actually promote learning and not just entertainment, indulgence, or fact checking? Is the effect of the net really that great for developing brains?

Recent researchers have postulated that the mind of today has changed its tack thanks to the nature of altered information delivery. Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” has argued that the new style of consuming data is physically altering how the brain functions. This controversial opinion is not widely accepted, but even the lesser charge that our habits of thinking are changing is fascinating. An ability to search and scan and quickly jump from totally different contexts (e.g. shopping for new shoes while reading movie reviews while writing an email) may be replacing the capacity for deep thought specific ideas. Given the limited resource of mental powers and memories that we have, we are becoming dependent on artificial online memory to store our information and personal history, and our thinking patterns are now analogous to search engines. In an article in the Guardian, University of East Anglia professor Sarah Churchwell noted that:

“In 10 years, I’ve seen students’ thinking habits change dramatically: if information is not immediately available via a Google search, students are often stymied”1

“Do you know X? No, but there’s no value in knowing X because I know how to look it up, and I fully expect to be enlightened about X whenever I choose.” It’s more efficient to remember where to find information than to remember the information itself. Yet knowledge and wisdom must be born from deep thinking and learning that has been chewed and digested, mulled and mooted over a long period of time. Making good decisions or wise choices is not something you can look up. And even if you do look something up, can it be trusted?

The results given by a search engine will generally be arranged in favour of the most popular and most linked-to webpages. A majority of the searchers will click on the first link. More will try the second or third. A tiny percentage will go to the second page of results, and after that, the rest of the pages are pretty much anonymous, regardless of how many million of them there are. So instead of having a wide range of differing opinions and interesting viewpoints, the bulk of learners will follow the same well-worn paths and by that process make them even deeper. If every student working on a class assignment looks up the very same piece of text and set of pictures, then there will hardly be a diverse set of resulting submissions. It’s like a library where for each topic, the same few books take up 90% of the shelves, and the other contenders gather dust well away from eye level.

Here though, it is important to take a step back and acknowledge the amazing accomplishments and wealth of detail available via portals like Wikipedia or Google. As of December 17th 2011, the English version of Wikipedia reckons itself to have 3,824,473 articles. From January 1st 2010 to the same day one year later, around the time of the website’s tenth birthday, the number of articles jumped by 1025 per DAY.2 Every nook and cranny of the world of fascinating facts is being explored, explained, uploaded, and more than that, monitored, maintained, and updated. A living encyclopaedia that ties current news to existing information, run with no ads or charges, created by the public for the public. Wow!

It is easy to forget how young the giant online content providers are. The first YouTube video was uploaded by one of the founders, Jawed Karim, on Saturday, April 23 2005, at 8:27pm3. By their sixth birthday in May 2011, the official blog reported that they had gone “past the 3 billion views a day mark”, and that “more than 48 hours (two days worth) of video are uploaded to the site every minute”4. Google, YouTube, and Wikipedia have arrived not with a gradual whimper, but with a precocious bang!

There is an incredible amount of material online, but again, it is quality not quantity that matters. You can find more ways to skin a cat than there are cats to be skinned on YouTube. Real education demands explanation, understanding, and practice. How can information created by the public be structured enough and consistent enough to turn short videos into concrete learning? Another young website, similarly free but with content created by one person instead of through public contributions, takes the role of a teacher, not a provider and organizer of information:

Salman Kahn was born in New Orleans, has three degrees from MIT, an MBA from Harvard, and left his job as a hedge fund analyst after a chain of events that began with him giving his young cousin some help with her math homework. He left what was surely a pretty good job to sit in a room all day and create videos. Videos and videos and more videos, none of which contain his face, but all of which contain his even, enthusiastic voice and steady straightforward explanations of everything from one plus one to the nature of black holes and central banks. The videos are hosted on YouTube, but are also accessible in a more organized way on the Khan Academy’s website, a not-for-profit enterprise with funding from the likes of the Gates Foundation.

There are now over 2700 videos on, and while this seems miniscule compared to YouTube or Wikipedia, it is a fundamentally different exercise. This is one teacher covering the foundations of education in a way that is digestible, testable, and encouraging. Rather than skipping and jumping from one dry authoritative-sounding article to the next, dizzy from finding in each references to a dozen others that are required reading for a thorough understanding, we have a single mind that starts at the start and leads a merry path through the core components of education. Math, science, and the humanities. Ninety-one million lessons delivered, and counting.

Unlike the relentless debate that characterizes the wealth of knowledge and insight hidden away in forums and blogs, this is a singular vision with remarkable breadth, clarity, and accessibility, all presented with the learner in mind. The video format combining reading with a human voice and active demonstration, backed up by exercises, is a great way to learn. The extremely simple drawings are humanizing and as familiar as a blackboard. On the ‘About’ page, Sal surmises his approach:

“I teach the way that I wish I was taught. The lectures are coming from me, an actual human being who is fascinated by the world around him.”5

Beyond the videos is a practice area where students can set about a large tree of practice exercises. Starting with basic number properties and algebra, and slowly building towards harder stuff like calculus and trigonometry, this growing set supports the videos and creates a game-like environment with points and bonuses and progress tracking.

Wikipedia offers a remarkable reference set. The Khan Academy offers new ways to educate. Salman Kahn, or Sal, as he is known by his many students, is an educator from the open source generation, and believes that students should learn at their own pace, mastering each basic building block at that pace until they are ready to move on. In Los Altos schools in California, schools are testing a new style of teaching using his videos. Children watch the videos for homework, and spend class time solving problems and answering questions. The classroom is ‘flipped’, and the essential ingredient of application that is normally left to the unseen desks of homes is now the main focus during school hours. Could this be the way of the future? Teachers can log in at any time to look at progress and quickly see any weaknesses, and spend classtime giving vital one-on-one attention to those that need it.

For Kahn, the current one-speed-fits-all approach is akin to learning how to ride a bike for two weeks than immediately switching to a unicycle. Some learners will have mastered the bike and are ready to move on while others who needed more time on two wheels will find one wheel impossible. Thus the student who struggles with basic algebra is not ready to move on to more advanced topics, and will probably give up and begin to resent math.

However, is the Khan academy another enemy of diversity when it comes to learning? Just as the success of the one-speed approach to education is limited to some learners, so too is the one-source search limited to particular viewpoints. The aforementioned nature of search engines and most-popular most-emailed hottest-topic most-commented lists can give a weight of agreed truth to the highest ranked sources. The danger is that Wikipedia or Mr. Khan or any other single source is regarded as the be all and end all, and whereas every Justin Bieber view might be at the expense of a less heralded but equally or (heaven forbid) more worthy artist, the dominance of Wikipedia and co. might be at the expense of similarly worthy claims for intellectual attention.

The argument against these reactionary responses might emphasise the intentions of the entrepreneurs behind these ventures and the approaches that they take. The goal of the Khan Academy is not to become an authority or Gradgrind-style fact force-feeder. Sal’s approach is that of a curious and fascinated explorer, always open to discussion; far from a dogma-enforcing intellectual know-it-all, despite being introduced as “The man who knows everything” in a Financial Times article6.

At the NewSchools summit in Aspen in 2011, moderator Ted Mitchell introduced Sal Kahn as “the icon for destructive innovation in education”. Like the vinyl record was doomed by the tape, which was then replaced by the CD, now being upset by digital players, these innovations and technologies have to ‘destroy’ to improve. As education is generally a public state-run enterprise, then there are extra barriers that will oppose approaches causing major disruption. However with increasing class sizes, cheaper digital devices and growing demand from education stakeholders (parents, students, and society as a whole) the pressure is on.

A mentor-like figure with great delivery and knowledge that uses the power of the latest platforms and tools to provide a coherent and well-organized library of educational videos available to anyone who can get online? That is surely a seriously valuable resource. The nature of learning and the process of education is taking its time to catch up with the flood of networked technologies, but not everything is as accelerated as the lifespan of the latest gadget, and surely the next generation of classrooms will have no choice but to embrace new approaches.

As for me, I’m going back to the Kahn classroom as an oversize student to relearn some stuff I’ve spent a decade forgetting.

  1. Accessed December 2011 []
  2. How big is Wikipedia? Ask Wikipedia!: []
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  5. accessed December 2011 []
  6. Article by David Gelles, accessed December 2011 []
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