Alternative Education

Thanks to Forbes magazine’s The Names We Need to Know in 2011 for bringing the Khan Academy to my attention.  From the Forbes article (emphasis added):

Salman Khan was a hedge fund analyst educated at MIT and living in Boston in the summer of 2004. The job was okay but he so much more enjoyed recording Web videos to tutor his younger cousins in New Orleans in math and science. Other people started asking him for tutoring help so started putting math videos up on YouTube. He’d put 70 videos up in a row on algebra, geometry and calculus. Soon a lot of people started watching  the Khan Academy

Since Khan started putting videos up, his Khan Academy videos have been watched 24 million times. You Tube told him he has the most popular open-course video library on its site, with more views than MIT, Stanford or UC-Berkeley. Khan has produced 1,600 videos so far, all simple 8- to 20 minute takes on subjects such as torque, ebitda, debt loops, probability, exchange rates, the Paulson bailout, binomials and the battle of Trafalgar.

Sal Khan at Gel 2010 (founder, the Khan Academy) from Gel Conference on Vimeo.

The video of Mr. Khan presenting at the Gel conference was worth 20 minutes.

Here are some of my thoughts:

If true, it’s amazing that this one person has more people watching videos than MIT, Stanford or UC-Berkeley.  But, applying my analytic mind it could be that his videos target a wider audience.  Even so, it’s still a commendable accomplishment.

Khan’s relative success also could be evidence of a few things:

  • Repackaging the same product (lectures) for a different distribution channel (youtube) isn’t as effective as a format tailored specifically for the distribution channel.
  • Folks don’t attend MIT, Stanford and UC-Berkeley just learn specific skills, but also for the social affiliations (value proposition).
  • Folks on youtube go to Khan Academy to learn specific skills and not so much for the social affiliations (value proposition).

In the Gel video, Khan explains how he started by recording videos to tutor his cousins and it seemed to work for them.  He accidentally stumbled upon his tutorial format and it seems to work better for his students than other formats.   That’s a black swan.  A relatively cheap one at that.

I particularly like the reason his voice, not his image, appears on his tutorials.  When he started, he didn’t have a camera and that worked well for his cousins (market testing).  From that accidental experiment emerged the knowledge that not showing the tutor made it easier to learn.

While watching Khan’s video, I thought about the debate on paying teachers based on performance.  When folks discuss whether pay for performance would produce higher quality education, they tend to assume that the people who would teach under pay for performance would be the same people who teach today.  Then they cannot imagine how pay for performance could motivate these same teachers to do better.

They fail to consider that pay for performance might draw other people into the profession.  Khan is a good example.  He initially chose to be a hedge fund analyst because it paid better, even though he liked teaching.

Khan found an innovative, productive and far-reaching path into teaching.  Which brings up another point, he doesn’t appear to have teaching credentials, though I could be wrong about that (I didn’t research that thoroughly).  I think credentials are an unnecessary barrier to becoming a teacher, a barrier that benefits holders of those credentials more than students.

I don’t think the Khan Academy will replace schools just yet (but after hearing the last letter Khan read in the Gel video, I’m not so sure).  The Academy already appears to be a great supplemental resource.  It could further evolve into a better alternative for education and others might choose to get in the game with different variations that will be even more successful.  Perhaps large swaths of secondary and college course work could be commoditized.

I will be interested to see what emerges.  It seems promising.   I might even try producing something similar with some of my topics of interest.

In the meantime, I have a few Khan tutorials I plan to watch.


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