Another real-life superhero (picture from Wikimedia Commons). Yes, he is good, smart, and handsome too, but keep your eyes to yourself girls, he’s married.
If one looks at the daily news, the future may look bleak. But then you come across projects like the Khan Academy, a global non-profit school on the Internet, and suddenly the future looks so bright you may want to put on shades. Chances are your local news channel is not likely to feature news like this on a regular basis, so today I will pick up the slack and tell you why this is amazing and awesome.
The Khan Academy starts with first-grade math of the 2+2=? Type, and continues all the way into the depths of calculus. It also features physics, chemistry, history and various others, but seems to avoid languages so far. New courses are added constantly, though, so perhaps one day even that will be covered. For the time being, it requires you to be fluent in English though.
To sum up the principle of the Khan Academy in a couple words, it is self-paced mastery. The student works at his or her own pace, but is expected to demonstrate mastery in more basic skills before continuing to the more advanced. The problem with ordinary school teaching is that you have to follow a set pace. If you are running ahead, you will get bored and distracted, and you certainly won’t get any help from the teacher. If you are lagging behind, you will hopefully get help, but it may not be enough, because now the class must move on and sorry if you only understood half of it but the time is out! At the Khan Academy you can watch YouTube videos explaining and demonstrating concepts, as often as you want. You can then do exercises to make the knowledge into skill. Only when you have reached mastery of the skill, will the software on the website direct you to the next step.
It is true that intelligence has a generic component, but there is some randomness in this world also. Someone may have a hard time “getting” a particular topic, but have an easier time with the next… but if they fall off the wagon at the first difficulty, they may be running after and never get the chance to excel. When you can work at your own pace, you can overcome any difficulty by spending more time on the basics. Of course, this requires you to actually want to learn. Luckily children and young people tend to be naturally curious. But just in case, the site hands out badges and maintains counters, making learning into a bit of an online game.
In addition to the instructional videos, you can ask your fellow students if you are in doubt. Experienced students are encouraged to tutor those who come after them, because this is another way to cement your skills into long-term memory. In fact, teaching is one of the best ways to learn anything, especially when the knowledge is still fresh. It helps you to see the knowledge from different angles and adds a personal, even emotional component in relating to a human rather than just a book. (In Norway we have a saying: “One learns as long as one has pupils.” This is a local pun on another saying: “One learns as long as one lives”, but I’d say teaching is more effective than just living. Your teacher may vary. ^_^)
Let me remind you once again that this is a free, non-profit service available over the Internet. By using YouTube for its many instructional videos, it lets Google take much of the heavy bandwidth load, but the videos are embedded seamlessly in the learning interface. Even in the middle of solving an equation, you may call up a related video that explains the principle, and then continue where you left off without ever leaving the browser window.
The site started with math (Mr. Khan made the first videos for his relatives) and this is where the site shines most brightly. Even if you fell off the math bandwagon the day you should learn two-digit addition, you can catch up here and continue all the way to calculus on your spare time. I don’t personally believe that all humans need to be skilled in calculus, but the point is, if you dropped out at school in first grade and you feel the urge to learn calculus, time is the only thing you need. You don’t need to be intelligent; if you learned the numbers and can read, you can simply keep repeating the exercises until you master them. And if calculus is not your thing, at some point you may want to scoot over to a neighboring domain such as statistics, economics or physics. Once you have the necessary math automated in your head and your fingertips, these fields become wide open to you. Just listen to the explanations and do the exercises until you master each little step along the way.
Do you now see why this makes me optimistic about the future? Not so much my future. I have reached an age where I am happy to still be breathing when a new morning dawns. But with literally a billion people having the opportunity to learn an ever growing range of topics to the point of mastery, for free, in their homes (or the library) … well, as I said, children are naturally curious. Right now most of them don’t even know that this opportunity exists. But the rumor is going to spread. I am spreading it now, and I ask you to do the same. Bookmark http://www.khanacademy.org/ or just type “Khan academy” in your favorite search engine, and a life of fun, easy learning is waiting for you and/or your kids.
The Khan Academy is founded by Mr Salman Amin Khan. He quit his job as a hedge fund analyst to “empower an unlimited amount of people for all time.” That’s a goal I can respect!