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Why Khan Academy is so popular—and why teachers shouldn’t feel threatened

Sal Khan’s nonprofit now contains more than 3,100 free video tutorials, mostly on math and science—but the site has begun expanding its scope to other subjects, too.

Sal Khan, whose online Khan Academy serves up video tutorials to more than 6 million students worldwide each month, wants to reassure teachers that the free educational service isn’t out to take their jobs—nor is it a statement about a teacher’s ability to deliver a lesson effectively.

On the contrary, Khan said, teachers who are using the service with their students feel more empowered than ever.

“It liberates the classroom,” he told attendees of the National School Boards Association’s 72nd annual conference in Boston, “and teachers’ creativity comes out.”

Warm and engaging, with a self-deprecating sense of humor, Khan discussed his nonprofit venture during an April 22 keynote speech to a few thousand school board members, who interrupted him with frequent rounds of applause.

Khan Academy now contains more than 3,100 free video tutorials, mostly on math and science—but the site has begun expanding its scope to other subjects, too.

What started as an idea to tutor his 12-year-old cousin Nadia from a distance in 2004 has now surpassed 140 million lessons streamed online and is helping 10 times more students learn each month than the entire number of students who’ve graduated from Harvard University since 1636, Khan said.

And the reason for the website’s success is simple: Students can access the content “when and how they want it.”

When he first posted his video tutorials on YouTube in 2006, his relatives said they liked the YouTube versions better than Khan’s live tutoring, because they were more comfortable watching the videos privately on their own time. No one was looking over their shoulder, or waiting for them to indicate they understood the material before moving on.

In fact, this ability to engage with the content in private—over and over again, if necessary—was cited as a key advantage in a video testimonial that Khan showed of a man who was able to earn a degree in electrical engineering with help from Khan Academy.

After admitting that he’d had to watch some of the website’s videos 20 or 30 times before understanding their high-level math concepts, the man noted: “There’s no [human] tutor who could sit with me and go over the same material 20 or 30 times.”

In 2009, encouraged by the reaction his video tutorials were getting on YouTube, Khan took a leap of faith, quit his day job as a hedge fund analyst, and established Khan Academy as a nonprofit organization. The site eventually caught the attention of Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, whose Gates Foundation supported it with a $2 million grant. Google also has contributed $2 million, allowing Khan to hire staff and pursue his dream of “providing a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere.”

Now, the site’s video tutorials are sequenced, so students can move through increasing levels of competency on the path to mastery. This is how video games work, Khan said—but until now, it’s not how schools traditionally have operated.

Schools, he explained, are based on a fixed academic calendar, with student mastery as the variable. This should be the other way around, he said, with mastery as the constant and time as the variable … and with help from Khan Academy, it can be.

Many teachers are using the Khan Academy tutorials as part of a “flipped learning” method of instruction, in which they have students watch the lesson content as homework and then ask students to apply what they’ve learned through classroom-based projects or activities. That way, teachers can spend their time walking around the room and making sure every child understands the lesson, providing individual help to students who might need it.

In addition to video tutorials, there are also exercises that let students apply the concepts they’re learning on the computer. As with other instructional courseware systems—most of which would cost schools a hefty licensing fee—the software that underlies the free Khan Academy system lets teachers see which problems their students got wrong, as well as how much time their students spent on each problem.

Armed with this information, teachers can come to class knowing exactly what their students know, he said—and what concepts their students are still struggling with.

In a pilot project with schools in Mountain View, Calif., seventh-grade students made significant progress on their end-of-year state exams after using Khan Academy for a full school year, Khan said. From 2010 to 2011, the percentage of seventh graders who scored in the “advanced” or “proficient” groups jumped from 23 percent to 41 percent, he said.

The national media has picked up on the story as well. One of the major TV news networks recently broadcast a story about Khan Academy, reporting from a school using the free online service. The reporter found one fifth-grade student who was working on trigonometry after watching the Khan Academy videos.

The reporter asked her if she thought that was fifth-grade math she was working on, and Khan said she answered with a sly smile, as if she were getting away with something: “No, I think it’s actually sixth-grade math.”

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