The Khan Academy – any good for science and engineering?

  • In many ways the education system of the Western world is based on the flawed philosophy that “one size fits all” when children and adults learn at a different pace.
  • Initially seen as an additional resource to traditional education, the Khan Academy is now a part of that traditional system.
  • The way in which Salman Khan explains often difficult subjects in a calm and controlled manner, with self-explanatory diagrams, is something which adults as well as children can benefit from.
  • Over the years the Khan Academy has built up a massive back catalogue of priceless content which is available free of charge.
  • As more young children are given the building blocks to their further education we will see an increase in the number of engineers and scientists in years to come.

The Khan Academy ( is something which will become more visible in the years to come especially for those who have young children at school. It is a non-profit educational organisation built by Salman Khan in 2006 with the aim of “creating a set of online tools that help educate students” all free of charge. While opinion is divided as to the quality of the service, if you ask those who have viewed the Khan Academy educational videos they will more than likely be extremely positive about them.

Personally, I have been onto the Khan Academy website and clicked on a video covering the subject of “electric current”. I found the video to be extremely simple and easy to understand; with surprisingly informative images and the talk-over by Salman Khan (as well as the subtitles) were professional and un-rushed. So, why is the Khan Academy such a hot topic amongst critics?

Khan Academy

What is the Khan Academy?

Initially the Academy was created to fill a void of background information for important subjects which for many children are the building blocks of a successful long-term education. Mathematics was a prime example; if students are unable to grasp the basics of mathematics then this will eliminate many career options in years to come. It may have been something as simple as a teacher was moving too quickly for them to grasp the basics or perhaps they needed more time to let things “sink in”.

Salman Khan began to build up an enormous back catalogue of informative and educational videos which could be viewed at any time. The videos are available in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Turkish, French, Bengali and Hindi. The Academy has also partnered with other groups around the world to physically take these videos off-line into areas of the world where there is no Internet access and in some cases limited if any education. Supplementing the education system of the Western world will have major benefits going forward but planting the seeds of education in areas of Africa, for example, where schools are near non-existent will for many people be a life changer in years to come.

The history of the Khan Academy

Salman Khan had the idea of an online tutorial system unlike any other available at the time back in 2004. It was not until 2006 that he created the Khan Academy but by then he was well aware of the impending success and popularity of his “different way of teaching”. The early years of the Khan Academy can be traced back to a time when Khan’s cousin required assistance with their homework. Initially they used the telephone to chat with uncle Khan and Yahoo Doodle Images to create accompanying illustrations to complement the subject matter.

After a short while it became apparent that individual subject videos were the preferred option as news of Khan’s service spread around his family. The telephone connection went out of the window, online videos were created with voice-overs and then came accompanying subtitles. The success of the videos (initially listed on YouTube) continued to grow and back in 2009 Salman Khan quit his day job to go full-time with what was then known as the “Khan Academy”.

Salman Khan’s educational videos

Even though the Academy has grown into a massive operation, funded by donations, Salman Khan still personally creates each and every video. He is never visible in the videos, instead using an online blackboard, but his soothing tones and his helpful demeanour make online learning a joy. He himself has a very in depth and wide-ranging academic background (and speaks with contacts to learn about subjects where he needs more information) although he readily admits to having no formal teaching qualifications. However, in many ways it is his basic approach to online video education which makes his system stand out, makes it more understandable and makes it more user-friendly. You don’t feel as though you are being talked down to, there is no pressure to keep up with other members of your “class” and it is beginning to make a significant difference to younger students around the world.

Salman Khan has mentioned on numerous occasions that he sees his Khan Academy as an addition to traditional education systems and not a replacement. However, in an interesting development one school in America has tipped the classwork/homework balance on its head.

khan academyOnline tutorials and classroom homework

In what some believe will be a sign of things to come, the Santa Rita Elementary public school in Los Altos, California is making great use of the Khan Academy educational videos which are free to everybody. In years gone by research into education systems has highlighted a major flaw, teachers are basically educating those in the middle group of a class while those at the lower end of the education system are left behind and those at the higher echelons are left unfulfilled and bored. The problem is that there is no one pace suits all when it comes to educating students in class. So, what did the Santa Rita Elementary public school decide?

One teacher at the school, Kami Thordarson, uses the Khan Academy system with fifth-grade students but not as you might expect. Students are given links to the online Khan Academy tutorial videos allowing them to go through the videos at their own pace in their own time at home. They are then tested with random questions about the subjects they have just covered with the opportunity to go back and revisit educational videos if they are struggling. When they answer a defined quota of questions correctly they will simply move on to the next subject matter and the education process continues. This allows students to go through the online tutorials at their own pace effectively replacing classroom tuition with video tutorials in student’s own time and environment.

The second part of this innovative process sees classroom time used to complete homework and because the tutor is able to see the progress of individual students, via the Khan Academy system, they can see at what homework level they are working. So, in effect we have one-on-one tuition because each individual student will be at a different stage of the homework timetable because they are at a different stage of the tutorial video cycle. Those who perhaps take longer taking in new subjects and complicated issues have time to review the videos time and time again until they fully understand the subject matter. Those who are perhaps more academically minded will not be held back by the average pace of the class and therefore they will be able to focus their minds going forward – more challenging work.

Is Salman Khan qualified to educate children?

If you visit one of Salman Khan’s videos you will have the answer. He does not profess to be a teacher, he has no educational background but his subtle tones and unique way of explaining often complicated matters in simple terms is revolutionary. If you don’t believe us, log onto the website, choose a subject of which you know nothing about and by the time you finish the first video you will know exactly what we mean.

In some ways it is ironic that education systems around the world have been crying out for an online answer to the world of teaching. While the Academy initially focused on younger children there is no reason why the system cannot progress and mature in line with students who have been helped over the years. This creates a massive back catalogue of priceless educational videos which can be viewed time and time again until an individual understands (they are regularly updated and corrected where applicable). The ability for teachers and parents to monitor progress and activity is also vital but perhaps not as important as the ability for children to learn in their own time, at their own pace and without time pressures or people standing over them.

The Khan Academy has been discussed at great length by people such as Bill Gates, whose children regularly view the educational videos, and the philanthropist himself has donated millions of dollars to the cause. We’ve also seen the likes of Google, AT&T and South America’s richest man Carlos Slim helping to fund this no fee revolutionary education system.

Building blocks for the future

As we touched on above, adults let alone children learn at a different pace and will pick up certain subjects faster than others. The current Western world education system of a “one size fits all” is in many ways fatally flawed therefore the idea of children reviewing online tutorials in their home time and completing their homework in class time is in itself potentially groundbreaking. The ability to monitor progress and assist those who are struggling is priceless, the building blocks of the future such as mathematics have for many children been out of reach but not anymore.

Simple subjects such as English and mathematics are explained in extreme detail but a manner which is easy to understand and pictures which paint a thousand words. These two subjects alone are the building blocks for many advanced educational courses and it has been shown that this style of teaching does improve individual and group qualifications. So, if more children are given the building blocks to expand and extend their education in the future, this could and should lead to a significant increase in the number of scientists and engineers worldwide?

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