It all started when an aunt who was visiting Salman Khan in his Boston home told him that her daughter Nadia was falling behind in maths. Nadia herself thought she was no good, especially in converting weights and measures.
So Khan, who has a Master’s from MIT and an MBA from Harvard and who was working as a hedge fund analyst, started helping her over Skype and instant messaging. That worked. Nadia’s grades improved and word spread among the other cousins and Khan’s family friends.
A friend suggested that he scale up his tutorials by uploading them on YouTube. “My initial reaction was, ‘YouTube is for cats playing the piano, not for maths’,” he said at the launch of Khan Academy-Hindi at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi. But he went ahead and, by November 2006, started recording his tutorials as videos.
Soon, the videos went viral and Khan quit his hedge fund job to make maths and science videos. Today, the online Khan Academy offers more than 2,600 free, 10-minute videos on a range of topics — maths, science, computer science, history, economics and more.
Excerpts from an interview with Uma Vishnu:
When you look at India’s education system from outside, what is it that you see? Is the picture depressing? Is it promising?
Maybe not depressing, but daunting, yes, given the complexity of issues, the number of languages spoken, access issues, etc. We realise there are huge gaps. If we can fill some of those gaps with high-quality stuff, there is a bigger, greater potential here. We wouldn’t have been here if we hadn’t seen that potential. In India, we don’t address literacy at the moment. But maths we do address. The world over, the traditional model says if you are poor in maths, there’s nothing we can do. You’ll have to go around with a stamp on your forehead that says, ‘Failure’. We are trying to change that, remove that stigma. You help the child catch up with the rest of his class, but at his own pace, not before he understands the concepts.
But critics of technology in classrooms say most of these interventions have no proven benefits.
That’s not true. There are data that points to show how helpful it has been. I don’t claim that all you need to do is drop Khan Academy in a room and that will solve all problems. A small charter school called Oakland Unity High School in California combined Khan Academy with their school curriculum and they said that it helped push up the school’s state placement from 22 percentile to 99 percentile. Also, we hear anecdotes from people who have used Khan Academy and who tell us that it has made a difference to their learning, and our own experience at the Khan Lab School — these are things that tell us that it’s time to look beyond the traditional methods.
Can you tell us a bit more about Khan Lab School?
We set up the school in September 2014 as a place to try out some of these ideas. The school runs out of our premises at Mountain Hill in California. The plan was that children would work together across age groups and spend most of their day on creative projects. They would work at their own pace. In the traditional model that I was talking about, a classroom can have children at different levels of learning. So one student gets 95 per cent and the other gets, say, 55. But both of them go to the next class and the child who has scored 55 per cent doesn’t get a chance to fill that gap and remains an underperformer. This is something we are attempting to disrupt at the Lab School.
Maths is something most child struggle with. Are you attempting to change that?
That’s because there are gaps in understanding and these gaps remain unaddressed but the child keeps moving from one grade to the next. And then, by the time the child is in Grade 9, the gap is yawning and it’s too late to fix. And then it gets stressful for the child; he is made to feel smaller and so on. If only there was some way of telling children that maths is the purest form of truth you see around you.
Will initiatives such as yours make the teacher redundant, replace the teacher?
There is no replacement for teachers. What Khan Academy does — if it is integrated in the school set up — is that it frees up teachers from tutorials. The teacher can then focus on that child who needs his help and ultimately make the classroom more interactive.