The Math of Khan: Not Just a YouTube Phenomenon, but a Model for Educational Transformation
Watching videos online usually means goofing off. But over the past few years, millions of decidedly enterprising people have turned on their computers to watch, of all things, math and science lectures. At khanacademy.org, Salman Khan, a former hedge-fund analyst, narrates more than 2,700 free lessons, each about ten minutes long, on everything from polynomials to valence electrons. In video after video, Khan’s disembodied voice explains concepts as his pen swiftly draws illustrations on a digital board. Students can also work math problem sets, proceeding through a sequence that stretches from arithmetic to calculus.
Khan began making these videos around 2004. Seven years later, they and his problem sets have become a pedagogical phenomenon, attracting fame, controversy, and, beginning last year, funding from Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates. What makes Khan’s videos so appealing? Has he invented a teaching tool that works? And what do his discoveries mean for the broader goal of improving education?
The quest to deploy computer technology in classrooms has been going on almost since the genesis of personal computers themselves. By the early 1980s, Apple computers had infiltrated many schools, and a whole generation of Americans in their thirties can recall rainy days spent playing Oregon Trail or MathBlaster—ways to turn kids’ love of watching stuff on screens into real learning. With the rise of the Internet, many educational institutions entered the online-learning market, hoping to broaden their reach, and for-profit companies began offering software for schools as well.
So when Khan charged down the Oregon Trail of online learning, he wasn’t discovering new territory. As he describes it, he was just trying to help a seventh-grade cousin—and later, other young relatives—with math. He lived in Boston and they lived in New Orleans, so he’d coach them over the phone. To supplement the calls, he filmed explanations and posted them on YouTube. He soon learned, as he’s joked in speeches, that “they preferred me on YouTube.” Khan’s cousins could watch the videos whenever they wanted, rather than waiting until he got off work. They could rewind if something was confusing, instead of having to ask him to explain a second time. The videos enabled truly individual pacing.
Khan didn’t make the files private, and soon he started hearing from fans. For good reason: he’s a born teacher. He uses simple, straightforward language. He illustrates complicated concepts in visually elegant ways. His voice is smooth, he doesn’t try to tackle too much in any one lecture, and his energy is infectious. In one video, he explains one of math’s most beautiful equations: eπi + 1 = 0. “If this does not blow your mind, then you have no emotion,” he enthuses.