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Khan Academy sparks passion from fans, skeptics

Google CEO Eric Schmidt is a big fan. So is Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who calls California-based Khan Academy "a glimpse of the future of education.” Founded in 2006 by Bengali-American Sal Khan and profiled on “Sixty Minutes,” the academy's free online video tutorials on everything from math to finance to cosmology reach some 5 million global viewers a month. Google awarded the academy $2 million to expand its reach. “We were looking for approaches that were new in education,” Schmidt explained.

Khan and his approach are not without passionate critics, too.

Shantanu Sinha, president of Khan Academy, is slated to speak at the West Michigan Policy Forum’s  2012 conference on Wednesday. Bridge Magazine caught up with Sinha to get his sense of where education reform is headed.

Bridge: Can you put your finger on why Khan Academy succeeds where other Internet education ventures do not?

A: I think the biggest thing to me is our focus on students and student needs. A lot of existing ventures are focused on selling to the education system. We take a little bit more of a philosophically-aligned with-the-student perspective. What does the student need? How can technology help? A lot of it is the craftsmanship of what we build, how we bring a sense of humor into our videos, the type of questions that we create. You have to make your execution really resonate with users.

Bridge: Is this about a generational shift in how we learn? That those who grow up on video games, Twitter  and Youtube demand new teaching approaches?

A: I think everybody actually learns better when they are learning information that's personalized to their needs, instead of being taught what 30 kids around you need. If you are taught what you need, it is more likely that you will learn. Everyone learns better -- whether they are at home or traveling or in a classroom -- when it's on their own pace. I think the fundamental principles we are pushing are universal. Obviously, kids who grew up with the technology are pretty adept at it.

Bridge: If you could change one practice in a typical classroom what would it be?

A: The big thing would be the one-size-fits-all lecture model where you have the teacher delivering the same topic to everyone regardless of whether we recognize that everyone has a different need. I would replace that with a much more interactive, collaborative classroom, where everyone can reach their individual potential rather than trying to squeeze everyone into the one specific standard, where on Nov. 7 you have to be learning fractions, that no matter where you are, I am going squeeze you into the same standard rather than embrace a world of letting a student reach their potential.

Bridge: You've written about the value of gaming technique in motivating students, referring to a 45-second interval for keeping a young person engaged. How would this best be done in a classroom?

A:  I think the key is that technology can be great in providing feedback back to the user. We don't have feedback loops in education now. Right now you give an exam and grade levels at the end of every quarter, A,B,C, D. It's a really slow feedback. You need things to help you intervene in real time. Technology can help you do that.

Bridge: Critics assert that your lessons can be shallow and leave the “heavy lifting” of learning to traditional teaching? What do you say to that?

A: Obviously I would disagree that the lessons we are using are shallow. There are two parts to the issue there. When you actually provide users with the information that they want and you provide accessibility to high quality materials that are personable and relatable to the user, you definitely see a huge impact. We get thousands of emails every day, comments on our Youtube channel, comments underneath our videos, saying how people truly understand, not just on a superficial level, but on a conceptual level, the subject matter. The second part – the implication that we are somehow replacing the importance of the teacher and the importance of that relationship -- is completely false.
The ideal goal of Khan Academy is one where we are trying empower students, parents, teachers, everyone, with the information whenever they need it. In our view you are never going to replace the interactions that the teacher has. Those are still very important. Hopefully, we are empowering them more.

Bridge: Grand Valley State University University of Michigan professor David Coffey says there is nothing new about the I-talk-you-listen approach used in Khan Academy lessons. How would you respond to that?

A: I don't think Khan Academy is about the I-talk-you-listen approach. It's about making information accessible to as many people as possible and personalizing the interaction as much as possible. Students working through Khan Academy are going through it at their own pace. One part of it is the videos but maybe we focus on that a little bit too much. When a student struggles with a problem the first line of defense are things we have in the system to help them through those problems. The second line are these the videos. The third line is a community of users where people all around the world can help answer the problem. The fourth line is data we are providing to the parents and teachers, where they can see immediately you are struggling with that. There are a lot of different components to what we are trying to build here.

Bridge: If you could wave a magic wand at the American public school system, what would you do?

A: The biggest thing would be ensuring accessibility to technology, ensuring that users have connectivity at home. That's a big problem right now. The second thing is just the teacher training, really leveraging technology well in the classroom, training teachers so they understand the best way to do it. I would focus on those parts of the problem.

Bridge: Can the teaching methods of Khan Academy and its reliance on technology will be able to reach the most disadvantaged students in this country?

A: I think it definitely can reach them if they get the technology and I see it in a lot of the pilots we are running, in areas with disadvantaged students like Oakland and East Palo Alto (Calif.) and other areas we are actually running pilots with students. Students who are behind grade level tend to have Swiss cheese gaps in their knowledge. They are in algebra class and they don't understand fractions. We actually see some of the biggest gains with the students who are the most disadvantaged. The fundamental  problem to that is they have to have the technology. There are creative ways you can do that – wi-fi hot spots, opening the labs after school. The reason I am optimistic about the future is the cost of technology is going down. There are going to be really good  tablets available for under $100 in the future. Solving that problem, ensuing that everybody adapts to technology, is something that we are capable of solving.

Bridge: Is it possible that Khan Academy cannot be easily replicated, since it may depend on the rare teaching skills of just a few?

A: I think being a great teacher with strong skills, and being approachable and being humorous and being able to relate to students, is key. But I think there are a lot of people that can do that. There are a lot of people who would love to be involved in education. They can make a contribution.

Bridge: Khan Academy started with one man, Sal Khan, crafting video lessons in his spare time. How many employees do you have now and how big can this venture get?

A: We are now roughly 35 employees. We don't have any target on exact scale and growth. We are over 5 million unique users per month now. In terms of the number of people who need access to great educational material, it's obviously a much, much larger number. It could be in the hundreds of millions if not billions.

Bridge: How did you happen to join Khan Academy?

A: I joined when we were getting off the ground as an organization. I've known Sal for 20-plus years. We were high school math competitors out in New Orleans. We were freshmen roommates at MIT. I talked to him when he was tutoring his cousin about better ways that we can leverage technology. We were math-science people who had gone into the tech world and then were actually in the business world and when (the opportunity came) to try to build out this organization, I joined.

Bridge: Who funds Khan Academy?

A: We have a number of funders. Obviously one of our most famous is Bill Gates and the (Bill and Melinda) Gates Foundation. Google has provided some funding. And then we have thousands of individuals. A lot of people come to our website and give us 20 bucks here and 50 bucks there. It really comes from all over.

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