One of the most celebrated new developments in education technology is the Khan Academy. Founded by Salman Khan, the Khan Academy offers instructional videos around a variety of topics but is most noted for its math related content. Key features include powerful dashboards and analytics which let instructors and users monitor performance and identify and reinforce needed focus areas. Khan’s site has about 2 million visitors a month and in total has offered around 54 million individual lessons. Khan is now drawing attention from many prominent people in the education, technology, non-profit, and social entrepreneurship sections. Bill Gates said about Salman Khan “I see Sal Khan as a pioneer in an overall movement to use technology to let more and more people learn things,” says Gates. “It’s the start of a revolution.” Additionally, mainstream media is now reporting on the success of the concept, for example, this week’s Business Week has a lengthy article about Khan and the Academy.
One interesting passage in the Business Week article is from 5th grade teacher Richard Julian from Los Altos, California, who is using Khan’s videos in his classroom.
Often, the lagging students are tutored by the students who are ahead. “The kids know whom to call on,” says Julian. “It happened on its own. They just began to get out of their seats and work with each other. They’ve identified their trustworthy peer tutors. They know they can call on Sriram and Akhil and Albert, and that they know what they’re talking about. Mainly, I’ve had to spend time teaching them how to teach.”
The concept of child peer teaching that Julian is recognizing builds upon an important theme that researcher Professor Sugata Mitra has observed in his Hole in the Wall research projects. Mitra first introduced children in a Delhi slum to computers in 1999 by embedding a computer in a wall facing the slum. The computer was left there with no adult monitoring the computer or providing training on how to use the computer. It was left there for anyone to access. Here’s a passage from a BBC article on what happened next when children started to use the computer on their own.
“The children barely went to school, they didn’t know any English, they had never seen a computer before and they didn’t know what the internet was.”
To his surprise, the children quickly figured out how to use the computers and access the internet.
“I repeated the experiment across India and noticed that children will learn to do what they want to learn to do.”
The experiment has been repeated in many more places with very similar results
He saw children teaching each other how to use the computer and picking up new skills.
One group in Rajasthan, he said, learnt how to record and play music on the computer within four hours of it arriving in their village.
“At the end of it we concluded that groups of children can learn to use computers on their own irrespective of who or where they are,” he said.
His experiments then become more ambitious and more global.
In Cambodia, for example, he left a simple maths game for children to play with.
“No child would play with it inside the classroom. If you leave it on the pavement and all the adults go away then they will show off to one another about what they can do,” said Prof Mitra.
Now, if the $10-$35 laptop which the government of India is sponsoring and says will be available in 2011 (although their January launch goal has come and gone) ever comes to fruition, there may be a cheap computing device available in developing countries. These devices, which would have browsing, communication, and basic educational capabilities and need provisions for internet connectivity and power access, could allow children to explore and develop on their own if they aren’t fortunate enough to have teachers or go to schools. As Mitra points out in this lecture, “There are places on Earth, in every country, where, for various reasons, good schools cannot be built and good teachers cannot or do not want to go. ” Of course, those children would ideally get some formal education but this could offer real improvement in poorer areas around the world. And as the success of the Khan Academy’s videos and offerings in Los Altos, California point out; innovative use of technology, access to that technology, motivated facilitators, and allowing children to complement and even propel each other’s learning can have a dramatic impact on the education of children of developed countries education. While based on only a small sample size, these two concepts could offer real improvements in education for children in both developing and developed countries—isn’t that a great use of technology!