Thursday, November 8, 2012

Q&A with Salman Khan

An amateur teacher who rocketed to fame on the Internet tells us how he’ll take his free video tutorials to the next level

By Antonio Regalado

Technology Review, November 7, 2012: What kind of crazy teacher would put high-school math on a site known for cat videos?

In his new book, The One World School House: Education Reimagined, Salman Khan recalls how, eight years ago, he uploaded his first mathematics tutorial to YouTube. “I had no preconceived notions about how people learned; I was constrained by no orthodoxy regarding the ‘right’ way to do things,” he writes.

Today, Khan’s throw-out-the-rules message has turned him into a pedagogical star. CNN and Charlie Rose have called him to explain where education is headed, and his nonprofit Khan Academy, in Mountain View, California, is rapidly branching out from videos into educational software.

Khan’s book retells details now familiar to anyone who has followed his sudden rise. Beginning when he wanted to help his 12-year-old cousin Nadia pass a math test, Khan ended up recording more than 3,000 videos explaining long division, plate tectonics, and much more (they’ve been viewed 204 million times). He was soon discovered by wealthy philanthropists like Bill Gates, who’ve showered the Khan Academy with $16.5 million in gifts.

One World School House is a partly a hymnal for future donors, in which Khan gamely plugs a riches-to-rags storyline. A Louisiana native, he was president of his MIT class, earned an MBA at Harvard, and later made a tidy sum working at a hedge fund. But he gave up all that when he discovered his true calling as an online teacher. (His first big contributor, the wife of powerful venture capitalist John Doerr, was moved to write him a $100,000 check when she discovered he was living “off of savings.”)

The rest of the book is an erudite and accessible call to reorganize education. In much of the developed world, Khan writes, schools use a top-down teaching model first developed in Prussia, a Germanic kingdom known for “stiff whiskers, stiff hats, and stiff way of marching in lockstep.” Students must march ahead even if they haven’t understood what came before. Eventually, some stumble and tune out.

Khan’s big idea is that using online technology for lessons, quizzes, and constant assessment will create an affordable way to implement a different teaching ideal known as “mastery learning.” Everyone advances at his or her own pace. Don’t try algebra until you know your arithmetic. Spend less time in lectures and more in hands-on problem solving.

MIT Technology Review spoke with Khan by telephone.

Read the interview.

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