Khan Academy: a free tutorial home for learners around the globe

Maswood Alam Khan
EVERY person encounters some bijou moments at some stages of his or her lifetime when some gleams of light light up and flash across his or her mind from within. Some people miss out on the flash that shines only for a moment while others can detect and watch vividly those gleams. Those lights spark within the selves of some rare personalities a newfound energy, an energy that drives them to dedicate their life selflessly to serve the humanity. Salman Khan was one of those very few who could see those gleams of light flashing inside his inner-self, and instantly jumped to embark upon a journey that has already earned him the global eminence of being an ever-vigilant teacher who gives free lessons to the ever-eager learners, scattered around the physical world but inter-connected in the virtual world of the internet.

In late 2004, Salman Khan used to work in an investment company in Boston as a hedge-fund analyst. At that time his cousin Nadia, living in New Orleans, which is 2,184 kilometres away from Boston, was having some trouble with her pre-Algebra lessons. Nadia sought Salman’s help over the telephone. Salman Khan said to Nadia: ‘How about you and I do some remote-tutoring after I come home from work and you come home from school? We’ll get a conference call going, and maybe we’ll use instant messenger or we’ll find something else.’ Nadia was immensely benefited by her cousin’s remote-tutoring over internet and the word got around among friends and families.

Relatives and friends started calling Salman Khan, more known as Sal Khan, for tutoring their wards and children. But, Sal Khan found it pretty difficult to cater tutorials to so many learners.

The bijou moment for Salman Khan arrived one day when it dawned on him: ‘Why should I not distribute the tutorials on YouTube?’ He instantly decided to hand out tutorials in small video clips through YouTube which he joined on November 16, 2006, while still working as hedge-fund manager.

He began recording videos and putting them on YouTube with the help of Microsoft Paint and a piece of $20 software called Screen Video Recorder, which let him capture his screen and record it at the same time. Later, Salman Khan added more pieces with more sophisticated software and shareware for his drawing and writing lessons for video clips.

Many school-goers wrote him saying they were able to pass algebra or trigonometry because of him. Many teachers wrote that his tutelage had saved many students from dropping out of school. He received so much positive feedback that it inspired him to keep on creating videos. A sense of dedication, accompanied by an inner urge to quench the learners’ thirst for knowledge, motivated Sal Khan to quit his job as a hedge-fund manager to employ his full time on creating lessons in videos to distribute on YouTube for free.

Salman Khan’s official channel, ‘Khan Academy’ (www.khanacademy.org), is now perhaps one of the largest virtual schools on the web and it is absolutely free. The web site has, as of November 2010, attracted over 30 million views. Initially, Khan’s videos covered only math, chemistry and biology. Subsequently, instructions on many more subjects were added in the web site of Khan Academy.

On September 24, Google awarded $2 million to Sal Khan for his contribution in educating the world through his math and science videos. When asked what he was going to do with the money, he explained that he was going to translate the videos into all the major languages of the world.

Salman Khan has already created over 2,000 learning videos on subjects such as algebra, basic math, calculus, chemistry, economics, finance, geometry, linear algebra, physics, venture capital, statistics and trigonometry.

In October 2010, Khan was tied at number 36 in popular magazine Fortune’s annual ‘40 Under 40’: a list recognising business’s hottest rising stars.

Who else could be better-qualified to learn from than Sal Khan? Salman received a perfect score on the math portion of the SAT exams in his high school. He earned three degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: one in mathematics, one in computer science and one in electrical engineering. He earned two master’s degrees: one MS from MIT and an MBA from Harvard.

Sal Khan, now in his early 30s, has an exceptional ability to present complicated concepts in surprisingly simple ways, evoking in learners’ mind great interest and curiosities to extrapolate complex ideas from science to practical, tangible and visible applications. Students from around the world have greatly been attracted to Khan’s concise, practical and relaxed teaching method. One who would be watching his videos would feel as if Salman were physically present before them, writing out equations with a chalk on a blackboard inside a classroom. His delivery is so engaging that even some inattentive learners, who used to find classroom rituals boring and tiresome, found themselves glued to his educational video clips.

Salman Khan has also been dubbed as Bill Gates’s favourite teacher. ‘This guy is amazing,’ said Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and one of the wealthiest men in the world. Gates has used Salman Khan’s videos to help his own children learn biology and algebra. No wonder, in 2009, Salman Khan was awarded the Microsoft Tech Award for education.

Salman Khan is an American because he was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, but we Bangladeshis have reasons to feel proud of Salman Khan because of his roots in the soil of Bangladesh. Salman carries in his veins the bloods of Bangladeshis and Bengalis; his father was born in Barisal, Bangladesh and his mother in Calcutta, India.

Khan Academy established by Salman should open our eyes to a rare model of charity, a rarity in philanthropy exemplified by a single person who could make a difference in the convention of imparting knowledge to learners around the globe. Khan Academy is an example of how, propelled by a sense of dedication and imbued with a desire for spreading education, one can win millions of pupils throughout the world. Salman Khan has emerged as a pathfinder in introducing a new revolution in education; the revolution may be termed as ‘a revolution for free education for all’, a revolution that may rid the world of learners of vices that are spreading due to commercialisation of education.

Khan Academy should give the policymakers of developing countries like Bangladesh an emergency wakeup call to inspire people to wage a war to eradicate the curse of commerce from the domain of education and to liberate learners from the clutches of the money-making private tutors who, in the name of teaching, are in fact sucking the blood of the weak and the poor.

In his previous write-ups this scribe had made appeals to make arrangements for dedicating a few channels of BTV or introducing transmission centres for separate terrestrial channels for imparting free lessons to the students of the secondary, higher and university levels. Subsidies, I suggested, might be given to students to buy small portable television sets with recording devices that may be manufactured in such a fashion that those sets can be used for tuning in to the transmission of education channels only, not to any other entertainment channel. Such a free remote-learning system through television could be a great bonanza to the poor students of our country and help them get away from the torture of greedy private tutors.

Inspired by Khan Academy of Salman Khan, which is spreading free knowledge through internet, we hope, the present government of Bangladesh may also introduce an ‘Open Education Television’ institution for spreading free lessons through television, a cheaper mode than a computer, before introducing an internet-based institution that may be possible only when each and every family in our country owns a computer with broadband internet access.

The present government may miss a grand opportunity if they fail to introduce such a free television channel for free education soon. There is a chance that Bangladesh Nationalist Party, if they form a government in future, may steal the show by introducing such an open television channel for free education as the party chief recently gave an inkling of such an idea.

It may be mentioned that BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia, in June this year, while unveiling a shadow budget for 2010-2011, said: ‘In addition to measures to improve the quality of instruction at the schools, colleges and universities, we propose more effective use of television for education. A separate channel in Bangladesh Television (or via the studios of the Open University) dedicated to the transmission of model instructions (lectures) by reputed scholars and teachers on various subjects based on the approved curricula and syllabus is proposed. These programmes could also be reproduced as CDs and distributed to students at moderate costs’.

Maswood Alam Khan writes from Maryland, USA.

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