Khan Academy

Have you heard about Khan Academy yet? The brainchild of former hedge fund analyst Salman Khan, it’s an educational site that’s got people buzzing. For all the fuss, there are really only a few new ideas here. But they are very well executed and they point the way ahead for education of all kinds, not just in-school situations.

Here’s a TED video about the topic that you can watch if you want to, but the big idea is this:

1. Use videos and screencasts to time-shift the lecture out of the classroom (sometimes called the Fisch Flip).
2. Use the newly available classroom time to maximize collaborative and teacher-assisted time spent solving problems.
3. Use game-based techniques to motivate and track progress on problem-solving.

Video lectures have been available for some time. In fact, this once rare and expensive service is now cheap. They’re all over the place. What do you do with all this freakin’ video content? What was missing was a comprehensive framework to fit these videos into, and that’s what Khan has been able to demonstrate convincingly.

Flipping lecture time and homework time is one of those ideas that’s ripe; once you hear it, it seems obvious. But it also fits a theme that we see again and again with technology. The initial wave of enthusiasm is for the technology itself: Teacherless schools! Robot instructors! Computer-centric training! But once that rather colorless vision fades, the real power of technology is seen to be humanizing. In this case, it lets us make much better use of the teacher’s time. Rather than mass-producing the children and squashing them all into the same seats for the same amount of time, the computer can handle the management complexity of letting kids advance at different rates. The Kansas State anthropologist Michael Wesch has done a good job documenting the disconnect between old styles of learning and the current digital connected world.

Khan’s approach seems to work best for math. This, not surprisingly, is where his curriculum is most fully developed. The central organizing diagram for his math curriculum is the so-called Knowledge Map. Anybody who’s played a turn-based strategy game will recognize this Tech Tree approach to subject matter. Here’s one that I wasted spent many hours on: Alpha Centauri.

The math knowledge map is quite similar, only instead of “Neural Grafting” and “Silksteel Alloys” it has things like “Multiplying Decimals.”

I’ve started to work through this knowledge tree with my 7-year-old daughter, and I can vouch for the fact that the system works. She likes it. I like it. It’s free. Try it!