Khan Academy - an online, open school that really works

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Update 25/9/2010: some good news! @khanacademy awarded $2m from Google as part of 10^100 project Sal, you deserve it! ♥

The internets is full of surprises. Every day something interesting comes out, and you feel like sharing links and stories. Facebook, Twitter, Google reader and alike have made this process fairly easy, so we do it quite often. But every now and then, you stumble upon something extraordinary, and boy you feel like taking the time to write a blog post about it.

In this case, it's not just a blog post. I shared this story everywhere I could possibly imagine: I posted it online, I talked with all my friends about it, and I presented it during my weekly podcast. Gather round children, this is the story of a man who is devoting his life for the benefit of all humanity.

In late 2004, Salman Khan began tutoring his cousin Nadia over the internet in mathematics using Yahoo!'s Doodle notepad. When other relatives and friends sought his tutelage, he decided it would be more practical and beneficial to distribute the tutorials on YouTube which he joined on 16 November 2006. At the time he was a Hedge Fund analyst, making quite a lot of money and in the process of becoming a successful businessman.

Money, power, stability. What more could anyone ask for?

Purpose. The conscience and the realisation that we are helping other people, building an emphatic civilisation, based on the sharing of scientific knowledge, for the betterment of humankind. Now, that's something worth waking up for in the morning.

He quit his job in late 2009 to focus on developing his YouTube channel, 'Khan Academy', full-time. Salman Khan is now considered internationally as an educator, who has produced (as of 2010) over 1600 videos elucidating a wide spectrum concepts in mathematics and the sciences in his home studio. His official channel, 'Khan Academy' has, as of July 2010, attracted more than 17 million views.

During an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in December 2009, delineated his motive: 'With so little effort on my own part, I can empower an unlimited amount of people for all time. I can't imagine a better use of my time.' Programmes are being undertaken to use Khan's videos to teach those in isolated areas of Africa and Asia.

His videos proved popular, attracting, on average, more than 20,000 hits each. Students from around the world have been attracted to Khan's concise, practical and relaxed teaching method.

I bet you remember those times back in college, when you and your friends tried to figure out the intuition behind a concept, or how to solve a specific problem. It would take hours, four minds working non stop to find a solution, and a considerable number of headaches, when finally somebody screams "Eureka!" (or "Fuck yeah!", in some cases). He then explains the solution to the riddle to everybody else, which typically takes 10 minutes. Wouldn't it be great if you could just skip the 2 hours and have the teacher explain it in an intuitive and practical manner? I thought it was a mere dream, until I saw Khan's videos.

The whole story is absurd and fascinating at the same time. One guy who takes on MIT, Stanford, and Harvard, becoming more popular and appreciated than those established institution throughout the world? One person who wants to build the biggest online university, center for reason and science, by himself? Yep, apparently he's really doing it.

It's been a couple of years since I decided I wanted to learn chemistry. When I discovered MIT opencourseware and iTunes U I was blown away. Lessons from Stanford, Harvard and MIT recorded, available for free on the internet? Wow. I need to take some time off to learn a ton of subjects, I thought. But of course, that time never comes. I get back form work at 8 PM I feel exhausted, and while I enjoy keeping my brain working, I usually watch a TED talk or a conference from the Singularity University, but it's difficult to follow a course on Quantum Entanglement or Biochemistry at 11PM. With Khan's videos, in their 13 minutes format, I can enjoy learning any time of the day. At lunchbreak, on the train, after dinner, you name it.

The concepts are easy, very well presented, and I cannot stress this enough: it's intuitive. I've always been interested in why something happens, how does it work, what makes it work, what are the conditions under which it doesn't and so on. Anybody can apply a formula, especially computers. But can you derive the formula? Can you explain how did they came up with it? With the advent of Wolfram alpha, it becomes clear the inadequacy of the educational system. What matters most is the idea behind, the concept, the intuition.

I immediately started to follow the chemistry lessons, and I feel the excitement of discovery and understanding every time I watch one of his videos.

It all seems quite strange, but it makes a whole lot of sense if you contextualise it. The exponential growth of information technology and the advent of the free software movement lead to a groundbreaking shift in our mental paradigm: information is ever more accessible, reliable, and most of all free to all. GNU, Linux, Creative Commons, Wikipedia, Opencourseware, and now the Khan academy. It's a logical consequence of the exponential growth.

Salman expressed his desire to teach as many subjects as possible, possibly every subject. It surely crossed your mind the following question: who is this guy? What qualifies him to teach such a variety of subjects? Khan was valedictorian of his high school class and attained a perfect score in the math portion of his SATs. He has a Bachelor of Science in mathematics, another Bachelor in electrical engineering and computer science, and an Master of Science in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In addition, he also holds an Master of Business Administration from Harvard Business School. And he's 33. He knows what he's talking about.

All I can say for to Salman now is: thank you, thank you, thank you. Don't ever stop, I will support you in any way I can.
To all of you: spread the word. It's really something that deserves everybody's attention.