Khan Academy

In the old days, I mean before the Internet, “education” meant formal education that you had to go somewhere to get, from a teacher whose interest and expertise in a subject and in teaching per se, might be limited. Education was restricted to those who lived in a country where it was either provided for free or affordable. Even if you did go to school, learning about a subject required that you have books on it.

Those days are over. Today I’ll share with you a website review that was a pleasure to do. Almost lost in the explosion of information about celebrities that you don’t really care about, and the ability to argue politics ad nauseum with people all over the world, is a breathtaking fundamental change in access to basic education. Khan Academy is a site that is a perfect example of how the Internet makes high-quality self-education possible, for free. Among other things, it’s a profound opportunity for individuals to empower themselves, and potentially change their lives.

Sal Khan has created a nonprofit organization whose stated mission is to provide free education to everybody, everywhere. The concept couldn’t be simpler. The homepage consists of links to hundreds of short videos, hosted on YouTube, that are mostly mathematics- and science-related. Khan has a Masters in electrical engineering and computer science as well as a BS in math from MIT, in addition to an MBA from Harvard business school. In addition to this first-class educational pedigree though, he has a gift for clarity in his presentation of subjects that are often considered quite difficult.

One could start with basic arithmetic, move from pre-algebra to algebra, into statistics and trigonometry, pre-calculus , calculus and right into differential equations and linear algebra! I watched a video on his introduction to limits, and his style is conversational and very casually pedantic. The sections of the site devoted to chemistry, physics and biology are quite comprehensive as well, and there is also a section on economics, banking and finance.

It is hard to know how many young people in Western countries will break away from their video games long enough to immerse themselves in these videos, and after all they will encounter most of this knowledge as they go to school anyway. Oftentimes though, having an additional source of education beyond the teacher and textbook you are assigned in middle school and high school can be an invaluable way to “get” a subject with which you’re having trouble. Khan Academy is a perfect place to point a young person for a clear, short explanation of hundreds of concepts. In fact, part of the brilliance of this site is the way the lessons are broken into such short chunks. Rather than being overwhelmed by an hour of pre-calculus, one can know that they made progress in understanding a complex subject after a video tutorial that lasted less than 10 minutes.

On the subject of universal access to education, it is true that knowledge of English would be required to benefit from these wonderful educational videos (one wonders if offerings in other languages is coming), and obviously Internet access is also required. Still, it potentially opens the world of knowledge to people in places who do not have a teacher of these subjects near them, available at any time.

Even if differential equations and all the other subjects do not interest you at all, it is nice to know that there are young people in the world with a thirst for knowledge that can be quenched by a site like this, for free. Having an educated population pays profound dividends in the long run, and it’s exciting to think of the changes that people who might not have received much of an education may make in their own lives, and to improve their countries and the planet.