Khan Academy: How It’s Revolutionizing Education

September 26, 2014  |  Online Education | E-Learning  |  Share

Khan Academy is a nonprofit organization with the goal of providing “a free world-class education for anyone, anywhere.” The brainchild of Salman Khan, Khan Academy is a repository of lectures and tutorials on a variety of subjects. Khan Academy is free to use, and its breadth and depth of content is putting it on track to be a serious contender for the next big revolution in education.

In the United States, traditional education is failing its students. Over one million students dropped out of high school in 2012. High school dropouts face substantially worse life prospects than their peers who graduate high school. Economically, they find it more difficult to find a job, and their wages are substantially less that high school graduates. The increased risk of economic adversity also leads to a greater risk of poor health and safety. If they start a family, their lower wealth, income, and education will also affect the lives of their children, making it difficult for the young ones to escape the cycle of poverty.

Potential explanations abound. Some blame poor teachers; others point the finger at school funding. A difficult home life certainly contributes. Regardless of the cause, the fact remains that as many as ten percent (in 2000) of recent students do not leave high school with a degree, and are substantially worse off as a result. Enter Khan Academy. Khan Academy provides college and pre-college level educational content in many subjects. Most of the lectures cover math and physics, which are often large hurdles for students. This is also in keeping with Salman Khan’s background- he holds degrees in computer science, electrical engineering, and business. Many of the lectures come from Khan himself, mostly taking the form of videos with visual aids, like drawings and other supplements. Khan does not appear in the videos in person. His intention is to convey information more like a person sitting next to the viewer and explaining a topic than a distant lecturer. The result is an approachable, yet informative presentation that is capturing the attention of millions of viewers.

Khan Academy has two main outlets- a Youtube channel and a website. The channel has accumulated over 300 million views and 1.5 million subscribers. The original set of math-centric lectures now also includes lectures on many different subjects from different experts in their respective fields. This is only equaled in scope by MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative, which still has far fewer viewers and subscribers. All of Khan Academy’s content is free to access as long as the user has an Internet connection.

There are several major elements of Khan Academy that make it a major contender for the future of education. First of all, the ease of access is unprecedented. Khan Academy is a nonprofit funded by donations, so it doesn’t need to set any kind of price for its product. The Academy is free to put up as many lectures as possible without regard to profit, meaning there is no barrier to entry. The quality of the material is comparable to that of a traditional education. This means that the legions of students who drop out of school can still have access to the education they missed. As of yet, there is no way to get formal “credit” for Khan Academy coursework, although the Academy’s website does provide several progress tracking tools for users who make an account there. So as of now, the education is only informal in that it does not confer a diploma or degree. However, the learning comes at the best price of all, free. That makes Khan Academy an excellent use of time for anyone from a dropout up to a college student in need of tutoring- the format makes Khan Academy useful for anything from quick tips to full courses. That is the second advantage of Khan Academy- flexibility.
Traditional education is fairly inflexible, in that there is a particular format of information delivery and a particular schedule of instruction. Khan Academy is ready to teach at any time, for any length of time, and at any desired level of depth. In a traditional school, it is impossible for a student to select only a few interesting topics, or schedule a large amount of learning around a full-time work schedule. Colleges are somewhat more flexible than high schools, but even then the offerings are limited and expensive. Khan Academy has made it their mission to reach “everyone, everywhere” and they are well-poised to accomplish that goal.

The third principal element of Khan Academy is its format. Khan Academy provides lectures, of varying length, and a few different kinds of exercises for some material. There are no grades or deadlines. For those who had trouble relating to their teachers, or those whose teachers were simply poor educators, Khan Academy provides the chance to try learning another way. Not everyone can sit for hours at a time, listening to a lecturer speak in front of a blackboard. Khan Academy’s friendly and casual format makes it less intimidating for users looking for a different way to learn. Furthermore, the mere fact that the lectures are in video form means that it is trivial to pause, rewind, and replay to catch important information- an impossibility with traditional lecturing.

Khan Academy is a signal for how education in the future can change. Students are not the only beneficiaries- experts who are especially good at lecturing and inspiring students can have their influence reach out to potentially millions of students, multiplying their motivational qualities beyond any previous estimates. This is particularly important in the academic world of college education, where many professors find that the job market demands huge expenditures of their time be spent on research, when they would rather be teaching. If Khan Academy is any good indicator, the future of education is decentralized, mobile, virtual, flexible, and accessible to all- a dream that both students and educators can embrace.

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