AlexJ's Computer Science Journal

Online Education: Khan Academy

While people, like those at Coursera, are trying to bring education in the new century, others try to redefine it. Such a person is Salman Khan who decided to start  his own academy.

Khan Academy is a project that plans not only to provide higher education courses, but all kinds of lessons to all age groups. Rather than having entire courses, the information is delivered in the form of microlectures. These microlectures are organised into different topics and categories.

This might sound kind of chaotic, until you introduce the idea of a Knowledge map. This something that links topics together. It tells the user that after you finish topic X you can go topic Y or maybe to Z. It’s not necessarily a hierarchy, telling you that you need to finish topic A to go to topic B because you have to remember the target users: everybody and anybody. You may be a high-school student and you want to learn Calculus without having to relearn first grade math. The knowledge map is a graph and just suggests to you similar topics. And if you do want to learn Advanced Calculus, but you don’t know anything about that subject, maybe you just start with Basic Calculus. And if you start that and you find out we are not able do do that, maybe you should go back to Pre-Calculus. The map shows you the resources you have available.

But how know that you are ready to move on to another topic or need to move to a less advanced topic when there is no teacher to evaluate you? Well, you could evaluate yourself. Or, if you don’t trust your own evaluation, besides the videos there are a set of interactive activities that generate questions on the current topic. When you respond to enough of them, you can move on. Or you can respond to more. Or what the videos again. It’s all as you want. If you don’t understand why the answer to a question was what it was, you can just click for the activity to solve it for you step by step (you can just let the system solve the part you don’t know and solve the rest yourself).

Coursera, Udacity or Khan Academy are successful because of their infrastructure. All have organised information (videos, lectures, assessments) and more important: forums. Khan Academy goes one step further. Their videos are posted on YouTube so they are easy to manage and share. All content is open so you don’t need to have an user or register for a course to access the content. Want to ask a question? Just post a comment on a Reddit-style board for each video and the community will answer.

But since most users of Khan Academy are children, learning also needs to be fun (since we are talking about modern education).  And if pictures and videos instead of text or a multicolor digital screen instead of white chalk on a blackboard or a HTML5-written digital protractor to measure angles isn’t fun enough, you have badges. Most activities earn you points, but you don’t level up, you just keep track of the effort you put in. Earn a number of points, get a badge. Earn a number of points fast, get a badge. Finish all videos and activities in a topic, earn a badge. Ace all activities on a topic, get a badge. Post comments on a topic, get a badge. Points and badges give users the sense of accomplishment and a reword for their effort. You can post your profile publicly (here is my profile).

So it all comes down to the infrastructure, and Khan Academy has a very good one. Like Coursera it’s based on open course ware and the power of the community (peer-to-peer education).  But it adds extra things, like the uniformity of the site. Unlike Coursera where every course has its own rules, Khan Academy has the same look and feel when taking math lessons or taking chemistry ones. And that allows the points and badges system. Also, the site is very modern because it’s very “social”. You can login with Facebook or Google, you can share the videos, you can post comments or discuss topics on Reddit and you can publish your profile.

And more important, because of the well-thought infrastructure, Khan Academy could accomplish its mission: to provide education for the entire world. Because, although currently materials are mostly in English, any language can be integrated. With the help of the network of contributors, transcripts are available in a large number of languages (from Spanish to Chinese).

Hear Khan himself present his Academy at TED:




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