Monday, January 10, 2011

It's The Largest School in the World... And It's Free!

For a while now, I've been wanting to blog about the Khan Academy, a collection of educational videos on the web. Most of the collection is made up of math videos, from 1+1 all the way to high end college math. However, there are also videos on science and even History (actually, history is only on his YouTube channel).

One guy makes all of the videos. His name is Salman Khan. No, he's not Jewish, but he is someone who believes in and is doing so much good for the world. He has credentials to end all credentials. He had a perfect math score on the SAT exam. He was valedictorian when he graduated high school. He went on to get degrees from MIT and Harvard which include a background in electrical engineering, computer programming and business. After college he worked at what he refers to as "a good hedge fund" where he was an analyst.
Sal went into the business of free education, like many good things, rather by accident. He was living in Boston and an aunt and uncle of his brought his cousins for a visit from New Orleans where they live. He was deeply impressed by the precocious nature of his cousin Nadia who was about 11 or 12 years old.  So, he encouraged her that she should go to MIT and become a hedge fund analyst, as anyone who is impressed with a youngster might encourage them to follow in his footsteps. Her parents, Sal's aunt and uncle, overheard and quietly broke him the news that Nadia wasn't doing so well in math. Well, he couldn't believe it. He set out to correct it by offering to tutor her over the web.
He started out on Yahoo doodle, but needed to give her some way to practice on her own time. He programmed some modules, or practice problems to do on his website, for his cousins to use. That's right, he eventually started tutoring various other cousins-her cousins as well as her siblings. These modules are still available to us, the public. Then one day he was telling a co-worker at the time about his modules and the co-worker suggested YouTube videos to supplement the modules. Sal realized that he was repeating a lot of lessons so this might not be such a bad idea and he went ahead and created his first video. His cousins immediately gave feedback that they preferred the YouTube videos to live interactions. The nice thing is that you can pause the video to digest the material if you need to.
So, Sal continued on in making videos and he continued to get excellent feedback from his students. He currently lives in California, as his wife, Umaima, is a resident doctor studying rheumatology. I'm assuming they moved out there when she started studying at Stanford. While the modules were first, the videos cover far more material and they are more well known. Eventually Sal got a heart-wrenching letter from a student who had previously been slapped with labels and tossed aside, so to speak. This young lad spent a summer living in front of his computer monitor watching Sal's videos. When he returned to school in the fall, he was given a math placement exam to see what he would study that year. He got every single solitary question right-on a PLACEMENT test. Sal had a heart to heart with Umaima and became a stay-at-home-dad and full time internet tutor, extrodinaire.
I, myself, stumbled across his videos on YouTube when I was looking to find out how scary Statistics would be. I used his videos. I got an A- in Statistics. Then when I discovered I would need to learn calculus for my degree, I discovered he had videos for that. I got an A- in that class. 
While in his interviews he says that he wants to do everything, in one video he teases, "I don't make spelling videos. I make math videos.
Why are his videos so appealing and so effective? There are many reasons cited in the various news interviews of him which you can watch on his website, but I think how he speaks to person on the other side of the internet video is a large factor. He often says things like, "I think you can understand this." I think it just speaks worlds for him. I had a professor who had his PhD from Harvard and he constantly talked down to the students and said things like our school is just above Kingsboro which is a community college. While I also had a little help from an awesome tutor (if you are in Queens and need a math tutor, let me know) and some friends, it is Sal Khan's videos that helped me the most.
Salman Khan, thank you for teaching me math!


  1. Oh, yeah and I forgot to mention that Nadia ended up taking Calculus in 9th grade and college math starting her sophomore year of high school.

  2. Wow....this is remarkable. Thanks for posting this. There are at least several lessons on the site I'm going to try out.