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Salman Khan Academy
Salman Khan is offering free, world-class education from his wooden desk made of antique telephone poles in the heart of Silicon Valley. - Photo by Sahar Habib Ghazi

MOUNTAIN VIEW: What if your child could get a free, world-class education from a man with an MBA from Harvard and three Bachelors degrees in Math, Electrical Engineering, and Computer Science from MIT?

Salman Khan is offering just that from his wooden desk made of antique telephone poles in the heart of Silicon Valley.

“My life gets to be this dude who gets to learn everything, and teach it,” said Khan smiling with a tablet and computer in front of him. “When I’m 80 (years old), it will be a lot more satisfying to think that a billion kids benefited.”

He is known as Sal in the valley, and Bill Gates famously called him “his favourite teacher.”

Forget classrooms, black boards, textbooks and teachers. Now students around the world, even in Pakistan, can learn everything from calculus, organic chemistry, finance and even the French revolution, by logging on to KhanAcademy.org through their Facebook or Gmail account.

The Khan way

“A lot of my own educational experience was spent frustrated with how information was conveyed in textbooks and lectures.” explains Khan on his website. “I felt like fascinating and intuitive concepts were almost intentionally being butchered into pages and pages of sleep-inducing text and monotonic, scripted lectures.”

In simple 10-15 minute videos, Khan’s friendly and excited voice leads you through concepts as he pens colourful illustrations on his tablet. After watching the videos, students can check to see if they have grasped the concepts by taking practice tests. As they pass practice tests they earn points and “badges worth bragging about”; by quickly and correctly answering five exercise problems in a row, students earn 100 points, and a Meteorite badge called “picking up steam,” and by quickly and correctly answering 42 exercise problems in a row, students can earn an Earth badge called sub-light speed. “(We are) adding layers to make learning more meaningful,” said Khan from behind his desk.

As students’ work on problems or watch videos, the Khan Academy tracks their progress and generates graphical data that each user can privately access. “The next step is, peer-to-peer learning; more immersive games, a shared white board.”

The site has even been piloted in two public schools in California, where 5th grade students log on to Khanacademy.org in class, and their teachers track their real-time progress from their desks. Whenever a student gets stuck on a problem, the teacher goes to their seat, and gives them individualised attention.

“In the future, people will look at this as the right way to learn” said Shantanu, Khan Academy’s President and Sal’s childhood friend. “We met at a (inter-school) Math competition.” They ended up at MIT for college, where they were roommates. “We used to compete for how many classes we could take.” Shantanu left his job at McKinsey to join Khan about a year ago.

How it started

Khan’s family is of Bengali origin and he grew up in New Orleans, which he says is “the one part of the US that looks like India: big roaches, humid weather, corrupt government and spicy food.”

Six years ago, Khan was working as a manager of a hedge fund in Boston, when he found out that some of his younger cousins were having trouble with Math in school. He started tutoring them long distance and soon realised that a lot of people were benefiting from his YouTube videos.

“I quit my day job as of September 2009 to work on this full-time and was digging into my savings until recently. In May 2010, some generous individuals gave large enough gifts for me to take a salary.”

Till date, Khan Academy has delivered 45.5 million lessons worldwide, now operates as a non-profit, and all of its site's resources are available to anyone.

From the website: “it doesn't matter if you are a student, teacher, home-schooler, principal, adult returning to the classroom after 20 years, or a friendly alien just trying to get a leg up in earthly biology. The Khan Academy's materials and resources are available to you completely free of charge.”

So where does Pakistan come in?

“Where the content is right now, we can take people who have the literacy (in Pakistan) and make them more competitive with the middle class. We are ready for that,” said the dynamic teacher who is married to a Pakistani and even celebrated one of his wedding functions in Karachi.

Khan has already started tackling the highly competitive Indian Institute of Technology entrance exams called IITJEE.  And he says he would like to get to past O-levels and A-levels exams as well, “at minimum (we can offer) tutoring back.”

Currently, students pay hundreds of thousands of rupees at tutoring centres across Pakistan to simply prepare themselves for these exams.

Khan and his team are also working on a translation project. According to Bilal Musharraf, their Dean of Translation, the goal is to have 1000 videos ready in 10 different languages in a year or two. And the project is mostly volunteer-driven. Khan academy offers best practices of “how-to-dub or re-do Sal’s existing videos, and volunteers take it from there. At present, someone in Japan is working on an Indonesian playlist and engineering students in Saudi Arabia are working on an Arabic playlist. In a matter of months, hundreds of videos have already been translated. You can now learn the Khan way in Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Arabic, Bengali, Cantonese French, German, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Polish Sinhalese, Tamil, Thai and Urdu.

But Khan doesn’t plan on stopping just at translation to create his global classroom. He wants a classroom, where there is more than one kind of narrative. “I am really eager to do those issues, (like) the 1971 War, Kashmir, and Palestine,” said Khan. “ I think there is an opportunity to really give balance.  Invite thoughtful people on either side to discuss. I think it undermines government’s ability to give one narrative. It would be hugely powerful in undermining extreme views.”

Sahar Habib Ghazi is a 2011 Journalism Knight Fellow at Stanford University and blogs at www.outsideislamabad.com