GUEST POST: Introducing a Virtual School for the Real World

By Bill Allison, Allison Advisors

In 2004 while living in Boston, Sal Khan began tutoring his cousins in New Orleans by phone, writing out problems for them over the Internet on Yahoo Doodle.

In 2006, as demand for his tutoring skills spread through his extended family, Sal began posting screencast lessons online so others could follow along without him needing to be on the phone.

What had begun as a family project spread virally over YouTube. By September 2008 YouTube “Khan Academy” channel had over 3,000 subscribers with nearly 60,000 channel views.  By March 2011, there were over 111,000 subscribers, 4.8M channel views and nearly 50M views of Khan Academy YouTube videos from people all over the world.

Khan scrutinizes attention metrics for each YouTube screencast.  The graph to the left of the video in the picture below shows how users respond to that video compared to the YouTube average for videos at any given length — if the attention curve for any video clip drops off, Sal can examine that moment in the screencast and edit, annotate or re-record it until seeing improved user response.

While the feedback the videos have provided is invaluable, in Sal’s mind, the videos are the low-hanging fruit and his much larger ambition is nothing less than reshaping the delivery of education worldwide by turning Khan Academy into a data-intensive “operating system” for modern education.

The traditional approach of lecturing in the classroom squanders the potential for rich in-person interaction on a one-to-many broadcast of information better served by video.  Sending students home to work out problems leaves them unproductive if they get stuck.  Some teachers report they are flipping around their approach to the classroom — having students watch Khan Academy videos at home and working on homework in school.

The Khan Academy software provides students exercises, tracks the time a student takes to complete the problem, and adapts the instructions depending on the progress being made.  When a student successfully completes 10 problems in a row, the system considers them understand that module and offers the next module.

Khan Academy’s instructor dashboard identifies if students are struggling with a particular module, so teachers can focus very specifically on helping where help is needed. Teachers can use reports to match students who have mastered the concepts as peer tutors for those who need help. Sal has also discussed having the system similarly match Internet users for peer-to-peer tutoring, including mechanisms to record the tutoring session for later use by others.

Figure 17: Progress Tracked and Lessons Adjusted to Ensure that Foundational Concepts are Understood by All Students

The above screenshot shows data plotted by the Khan Academy software from a math summer camp class.  The black line represents the mean performance of the class in terms of modules completed over time (the green lines indicate one standard deviation from the mean).  Khan plots two “interesting students”, one whose performance fell nearly two standard deviations below the mean (tracked with the purple line). In the traditional model, this student might have been left behind, forced to move along at the overall pace of the class without understanding a foundational concept, and thus at risk of falling further and further behind.  After initial delays with understanding some of the introductory concepts, these two students shot ahead, ending up among the top performers in the class.

Sal Khan harnessed two key pieces of Google’s infrastructure, Youtube and AppEngine – which have truly leveled the playing field so that one motivated individual can launch a web service used by millions. Mitch Kapor, the CEO of Lotus Development recently told the New York Times, “We’re in a golden age of start-up innovation because the cost of starting a company has crashed through the floor”.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the cost of running traditional education has shot through the ceiling.  The U.S. spends $562B for 50M K-12 public school students taught by about 3M teachers (not including private and charter schools). Khan imagines a scenario where, through use of his technology, schools could use a different approach to delivering education – with a ratio closer to 100:1 with teachers on high-value interactions such as “focused interventions” as opposed to one-to-many lectures.

The Bill Gates Foundation and Google have both given millions to Khan Academy in what Sal describes as social investments.  They now have a person to coordinate crowdsourced volunteer translators around the world and have begun translating modules into languages including Arabic, Spanish, Russian and Mandarin. As Sal says, “With just a computer and a pen-tablet-mouse, one can educate the world!”