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Will Online Khan Academy ‘Educate the World’?

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EWA’s 66th National Seminar, held at Stanford University, took place earlier this month. We asked some of the journalists attending to contribute posts from the sessions. The majority of the content will soon be available at EdMedia Commons. Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing a few of the posts, including the ones from our keynote sessions. Justin Pope, higher education reporter for the Associated Press, is today’s guest blogger.

Is Sal Khan the Messiah? No, seriously. At EWA’s 2013 National Seminar, veteran PBS reporter John Merrow introduced Khan—the charismatic former hedge fund adviser who turned the math tutorial videos he made for his cousins into an education website with thousands of videos watched by millions around the world—by recalling meeting a group of five Hasidic rabbis who had come to hear Khan speak recently in New York. They mentioned the Torah’s prediction of a man in the fifth millennium who “will come to educate the world.” They didn’t seem to be joking – more like scoping out a candidate.

Khan’s talk at EWA’s conference was an engaging hit, and a perhaps heartening reminder that people still matter even at a time when technology and innovation are the dominant topic of conversation. How else to explain the success of Khan Academy, where more than 6 million people a month watch his tutorial videos? Khan himself acknowledged that the idea of using technology to educate a wide audience is decades old, and that his technology is nothing special. “I wasn’t even the 2nd person to make math videos, I was probably the 50th” he said. But something about Khan’s teaching style resonated, and now he’s scouring the globe for other experts who can replicate that magic in the subjects (not many, it seems) he can’t teach. He’s up to 7,000 videos in seven languages.

Merrow teased him, “you must be a huge disappointment to the hedge fund industry” as Khan laid out his vision to keep Khan Academy a nonprofit. Khan said he didn’t leave much wiggle room, declaring the enterprise “non-buy-outable.” Khan has, however, started a partnership with Bank of America to develop videos on financial literacy. “We were skeptical. We thought they were going to throw ads all over their site,” he said. “It was literally six months of us throwing edge cases at them.” He insists he got the answers he needed, and he faces no limitations on his teaching.

So, is Khan Academy a threat to teachers? Khan says he hopes not, though he admits that’s the perception — that Khan Academy is and teachers are the traditional bookstore. “For us it’s all about how do we take the physical experience of the teacher and move them up the value chain,” he said.

Some things to watch for Khan Academy: The site’s starting to realize the pedagogical gold mine it has in the form of data from the millions of people watching its videos and working through its exercises. Khan Academy has more students than all the MOOCs (companies that offer massive open online courses) combined. Such information hasn’t always been nobly used by others Khan admits, but what will he do with it? Its potential— already it can run massive experiments on intriguing questions like whether an inspirational quote at the top of a test improves performance – could produce transformative insights into how students learn and create a rapid feedback loop of teaching improvement.

Second, how will Khan Academy coursework fit into the broader movement to expand credentialing? Of those millions of users, many will no doubt be clamoring for ways to prove to employers or schools they’ve mastered the material. Khan says the world is moving to competency-based learning, but what role exactly will his academy play? Evolutionary? Revolutionary? Messianic?