The Future of Education

Salman Khan just talked at TED about the Khan Academy and where he thinks education is going.

Salman Khan was tutoring his young cousins from the other side of the US, teaching them arithmetics and such; since he didn’t see them often and couldn’t be with them on the phone all the time, he put online a bunch of videos re-explaining the basic concepts he was teaching them.

Many other people than just his cousins started to watch the videos, and then they caught fire; there are more than 2,000 of those online now, ranging from calculus to French history to taxonomy to astronomy; and they have been watched by over 1 million people.

This is much more than just a feel-good story about some guy who had an idea that worked; the TED talk makes two interesting points about the future of education.

Re-humanize the classroom

A frequent attack on online education is that it takes the teacher out of the relationship between the student and knowledge. This is misguided.

Lecturing requires no teachers—not more than one. Salman Khan is the universal lecturer and we may not need another one for the foreseeable future.

When talking about education and teachers, we are used to measure the ratio of students vs. teachers, assuming that one teacher for 10 students is better than one teacher for 20. While this is kind of true, the real measure is the amount of available teaching time per student: it’s correlated to the first one, but it’s not the same. There’s little value in having teachers rate tests, for example, or write tests, or do any general lecturing.

The value of teachers lies in the actual mentoring of students, when they need help. Online lectures and tests free more time for this, and so in fact re-humanize the student-teacher relationship.

A “market-place” for education

The “Khan Academy” (or probably others of its ilk) also makes possible for people who want to learn, to meet other students and other teachers, and exchange and work together. It’s not easy, there are language and cultural barriers, etc., but it’s happening. People from the US are mentoring children from India, in realtime, and vice-versa, for free or for a fee.

I used to be a tutor when I was in college (pays better than McDonald’s), but I could only teach kids who lived in my neighborhood, and I had to go to their place; if I could have stayed at home helping maybe twice as many kids from all over the world it would have been fantastic.

But is it bad? It may not be “fantastic” for tutors in the US to find themselves competing with people from India who charge a tenth of the price?

Time will tell, but I very much doubt this will ever be a problem: people will pay as much as they can, and probably more than they can afford, for their kids; cheaper tutors entering the market are only going to make the market grow, allowing more parents to jump in.

Plus ça change?

Of course textbooks are as old as books; the distinction between cours magistraux andtravaux pratiques is not new.

What’s new is technology: a Khan video is very different from a textbook (go watch some now to see the difference); the Khan Academy offers tests that are directly linked to the relevant parts of the lecture; what’s more, it builds a whole “curriculum tree” where each topic draws from previous ones so that each student can follow an original and specific path at her own pace.

But even beyond technology, what’s really new is scale. Anyone can access the Khan Academy at anytime, for free (you may read a textbook at anytime but you still have to buy it—and find out which one you need). For the first time in history, students who sit continents apart can mentor one another.

This is changing the world.

Fri, 11 Mar 2011 • permalink