A Whole New Way to Learn

TED and The Khan Academy Method:

Homework Help or the Future of Learning?

Written by Kimberly Carr

For those who are not familiar, TED is a non-profit organization devoted to “ideas worth spreading.”  The acronym “TED” signifies the meeting of three professional worlds: technology, engineering, and design.  The folks at TED “believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world.”  At its two annual conferences in Long Beach/ Palm Springs and Edinburgh, Scotland, TED brings together some of the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give “the talk of their lives” in 18 minutes or less.

One TED presenter was a man named Salman Khan, who founded a remarkable non-profit called “Khan Academy.”  The academy started out simply as a way to tutor his nephews by using his own YouTube videos.  Some surprising things happened when Salman Khan posted his videos to YouTube.  First, his nephews, apparently, preferred video Uncle Salmon to real life Uncle Salman, but more than that, these videos sparked an idea worth spreading.  That idea being that a simple video could help struggling kids to succeed in school.

This instance is the very thing that inspired “Khan Academy”, which aims to change education for the better by providing world-class education to anyone anywhere.  Khan Academy’s website provides cross-curricular resources and videos on a vast number of subjects and learning levels.  The website states, “It doesn’t matter if you are a student, teacher, home-schooler, principal, adults returning to the classroom after 20 years, or a friendly alien just trying to get a leg up on earthly biology.  The Khan Academy’s materials and resources are available to you completely free of charge.”

Khan Academy currently has over 2700 videos (and that number continues to grow) and a world of exercises with help along the way.  If you need a hint, every single problem can be broken down, step-by-step, with one click.  The website also instantly generates statistics based on your progress, so that you can see whether or not you’ve been hitting your goals.  Finally, teachers and coaches can access all of their students’ data and get a summary of class performance as a whole (or dive into a particular student’s profile to better tailor lessons in the classroom.  Students working with Khan Academy at their side will be better prepared for classroom learning and can earn badges and points for learning.  The more students challenge themselves, the more “bragging rights” they will get.  “We’ve heard of students spending hour after hour watching physics videos and 5th graders relentlessly tackling college-level math to earn Khan Academy badges.”  Khan also reports that an incredibly impressive number of students were active on the Academy website on Christmas day.

The point is, kids are highly motivated and more successful using Khan Academy’s growing number of web resources.  But out of all of the impressive things Salman Khan had to say about Khan Academy, what really stuck with me was the idea that perhaps this method could be the future of learning—could literally flip education as we know it upside-down.  What I mean is this.  Currently, when students learn about a new topic, let’s say, long division, the teacher lectures about plugging numbers into an algorithm, but at the end of the day, students go home and are expected to apply this new knowledge of long division to their homework.

Instead, teachers could assign “lectures” (or Khan videos) for homework. This strategy embraces diverse learning styles and levels by allowing the students to work at their own pace.  Students would quite literally be in control of their own instruction.  They can watch the video lectures on their own time, rewind if they are confused, pause to try something or catch up, and learn at their own desired pace.  In the classroom, students can work on developing a deeper understanding with the support of the teacher.

As an educator, I think this method is absolutely ingenious and I can’t wait to try it out.  Something that started out as “homework help” really could become so much more.  Technology, mixed with the power of ideas, really could revolutionize education as we know it.

View Salman Khan’s inspiring TED Talk here.