In the September 27th issue of the New Yorker, columnist Nicholas Lemann wrote about the state of American education, calling it “a narrative of crisis.” In my personal equation, education is better served up as “a narrative of conflict.” Anytime I attempt to fill the gulf between classroom teaching and my child’s learning I am usually trapped in a quagmire of blame and accusation. One high-schooler, who requested anonymity, touched on some of his issues with classroom education: “The teacher goes too fast. She covers one section a day and the next day she leads from where she left off. Other kids seem to know what she’s saying, so I don’t ask questions. I plan on coming home and figuring it out.” But, as the teenager experienced, “catching up” becomes the catchphrase for the entire quarter, semester, and then the year. Is the school system weighted down with teachers intent on teaching the material, and not teaching the kids?

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As a concerned parent, I am always on the lookout for resources that would address this apparent gap, gully, or gulf. So it was with considerable interest that I researched the story of a young educator, Salman Khan, who has been slowly building a bridge to learning and doing it with altruistic intent.  Khan is the sole founder and faculty of the online teaching institution, Khan Academy (khanacademy.org) and his story is a hearwarmingly defiant riches-to-rags tale.

Khan was raised in New Orleans, La. His parents—mother from Kolkata and father from Bangladesh—divorced when he was three. His father died when he was thirteen and his early childhood memories are largely limited to his single mother and protective older sister.

Khan charts his own prodigious success through school and college. Asked how he performed at school, Khan states baldly, “Finished first in my class of 300.” Indeed, he was the valedictorian at Grace King High School where he got a perfect math SAT score. He received a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Computer Science, Electrical Engineering and Math from MIT and an MBA from Harvard Business School. He was also the 1997 recipient of the Eloranta Fellowship, awarded to MIT undergraduates for novel research of student-initiated ideas developed outside the normal curriculum. After Harvard, Khan acquired work experience at Xerox PARC, Oracle, and MVC Venture Capital. But like journalist David Brooks recently put it, “success has a way of depersonalizing its beneficiaries.” The real story about Salman Khan is about conviction, and has heart.

In 2004 Khan’s young sixth grade cousin, Nadia, needed help in mathematics. That simple request was to careen him into a career hardly anticipated. Khan agreed to remotely tutor Nadia and created some videos on Youtube. As she began to do well, other student cousins logged on to his tutorials. In Khan’s words, “Very soon random people all over the world started watching them and began sending me letters and testimonials. I got excited about it and just kept going.” The going just got better, for Khan realized that there was tremendous power in the possibility of educating over the internet. He quit his day job as a hedge fund analyst and launched Khan Academy as a non-profit “with the mission of providing a world-class education to anyone, anywhere.”

Today the Khan Academy library has close to 2000 videos in math, physics, chemistry, biology, history, finance, and test preparation with about 22 million cumulative views among them. Each video is about five to fifteen minutes long. Initially this time limit was because of Youtube’s constraints, but Khan quickly realized that short, quick bursts of instruction are ideally suited to today’s multi-tasking student.

The concept of creating online free tutorials is not new. Colleges like MIT, UC Berkeley, and Stanford, among others, offer open courseware. Yet, there is something unique and engaging about the Khan academy tutorials. “When you watch them, you just comprehend everything; you just get it,” said one student.

I decided to test it for myself. The video starts with a disembodied voice that first announces the topic and then works through a problem on “Solving Equations.” A jerky cursor maneuvers its way on the screen. Not in any of his videos is there an image of his face. “It’s distracting,” Khan says. The focus is on the moving cursor and solving the problem. Then there is his voice. Khan mentions that one student hears Khan’s calm voice in his head when he takes his tests. It helps the student anchor the lesson.

The other detail that comes through strong and clear is his patient step-by-step manipulation of the problem. Khan’s tone is conversational, his explanation simple and limited closely to the problem being discussed. Khan explains that people heading classrooms sometimes tend to be pedantic and use vocabulary not suitable for the audience they are addressing. He says he is more intent on the depth of his explanations. But the most revelatory comment he makes in the hour that I interview him is when he says, “I don’t talk down to students.” Bingo. His advantage, of course, is that his class is faceless, too.

“But why non-profit?” I ask Khan and his response gives me an insight to his overall ambition. “I want to reach as many people as possible,” he says. “Several investors have approached me, but then the videos would not be free. Right now, I have students in Africa, in India, in Dubai, homeschooled kids in remote parts of our country. Their investment is just the cost of a computer.” Maybe those same investors could invest in computers for kids around the world?

Khan ventured into the teaching terrain with few credentials other than a natural knack for explanation, but his desire to touch the lives of people across the world compelled him to give up a lucrative career, rely on his wife’s income, and hope that one day it would lead him into the history books. At the time of my interview, he was making a few thousand dollars from donations and advertisements. But late September 2010, Google announced Khan Academy as one of the winners of the 10-to-the-power-of-100 Project, rewarding him with two million dollars for inspiring and impacting the lives of people by “making educational content available for free.” The riches to rags story seems to be reversing trend.

Bill Gates and venture capitalist John Doerr have emerged as fans of Khan Academy. In August 2010, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Bill Gates announced that the Khan Academy videos were “unbelievable” and that he uses them with his kids. The immediate effect of Bill Gates’ validation was seen in the huge spike in viewership numbers—300,000 users before to 700,000 users after. Khan drolly comments about his own rise in popularity after Gates’ shout out, “A Khan Academy student gets the same instruction as Bill Gates’ kids. Tells you something about the quality of education.”

“Do you see videos replacing teachers in the classroom?” I ask. “Yes,” he answers without hesitation. “It can redefine the role of teachers.” Certainly one advantage to his videos is that students can fast forward, pause, rewind and watch the same mathematical concept over and over again, as compared to the traditional model of teaching where the teacher stands at the blackboard and solves the problem. With the latter model, there might be one, two, several students who fail to understand and also fail to raise their hand or question the teacher. On the teacher’s end of the spectrum, the same problem probably has to be demonstrated and explained over and over to multiple students. By the end of the day, teachers combat fatigue, boredom, and a distilled memory of their noble commitment. Khan merely has to create one video to explain a concept and its place in Internet memory is permanent. There’s no need for repetition.

I doubt if videos can ever replace classroom learning completely. Learning in the classroom has a lot to do with physical and social space. Khan admits that the social aspect is important. For his own eighteen month-old son, Imran, Khan dreams of a one room schoolhouse where kids between the ages of five to 18 years will mingle and mix and where learning would occur through Khan academy videos and interactions with older students.

“What books lie by your bedside?” I question, after Khan has dealt with a hungry toddler and a telemarketer. “Oh, I’m not into anything heavily literary. Right now I have Arthur C. Parks and Wuthering Heights.” Wrapping up the interview, I ask him a loose, overarching question about his goals. I’m rewarded with another surprisingly off the cuff remark: “I’d like to make videos on everything, career advice, even dating advice!” Dating advice?

Now there, I might draw the line!

Jaya Padmanabhan is a prize-winning fiction writer.

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