By Bill Kirk
---- — For many, YouTube is a great place to watch videos of cats and people doing stupid, but funny things.
But for local educators and students, the power of the Internet as a vital teaching tool was brought home during a recent visit to Phillips Academy by Sal Khan, creator of an online library of math and science lessons that started on the popular video-sharing site, but has now become a global phenomenon in its own right.
Since putting a couple of how-to videos on YouTube for a cousin struggling with math in Louisiana, Khan has created thousands of educational lessons, mostly in math and science, which have been viewed by 85 million users. To date, more than 1 billion problems created by Khan and his growing team in Mountain View, Calif., have been answered by students all over the world.
And he’s just getting started.
Khan, creator of Khan Academy, spent May 9 at Phillips, lecturing to students and meeting with faculty and staff from the academy as well as Andover and Lawrence high schools as part of a speaking and book tour. But he was also there for perhaps a more important reason: He needs more content for khanacademy.org.
“I’m hoping we can work together,” Khan said during an interview earlier this month with the Townsman. “I’m hoping to enlist more and more people from Phillips and around Andover.”
This summer, a half-dozen teachers from Phillips will be heading out to the headquarters of Khan Academy, where they will help a team of 35 people, mostly software developers and engineers, generate more online lessons for a growing army of users from nearly every corner of the planet.
“We are excited about the teachers coming out,” Khan said. “Broadly, they will be curating and creating content, helping us write exercises, and articles on our site.”
He is hopeful that the current crop of lessons on the site, devoted mostly to math and science, can be expanded with help from local educators.
“They will be looking at where we have gaps and need more coverage so we can fulfill that world promise,” Khan said. “There’s no way our small team can create all the content. If we want to do history, literature and who knows what else, we need more content.”
John Palfrey, head of school at Phillips, said the teachers will be part of a history-making enterprise.
“This is a hugely transformative moment in education,” said Palfrey, an advocate of using technology to advance education. Khan, Palfrey said, is “doing something that’s extremely interesting at a key moment in history.”
“At Phillips, we have 1,100 kids and we are educating them in an intensive, high-touch way,” he said. “Khan has 34 staff people and 6 million users a month. His problems have had 1 billion views. There is a potential match between education the way we do it and a newfangled, broad-reach way that Khan does it.”
Andover High School Principal Chris Lord said Khan offers a “world-class education for anybody anywhere in the world.”
Locally, however, teachers are using it as a supplement for students struggling with certain subjects.
“They may give homework, which is to watch the video,” Lord said. “Some teachers are making their own videos like Sal did.”
A few teachers at Andover are experimenting with what’s known as the “flipped classroom,” in which teachers make videos that include the lesson for the day. Students watch the videos at home, and when they get into class, they work on problems that in the past they may have worked on alone at home.
“They get into groups and work on the problems they learned about,” Lord said. “Homework is done in class, with teachers helping them. It’s like our own Khan Academy with an Andover High School twist to it.”
Khan himself welcomes all iterations of his ideas, since he’s not in it to make money.
His organization is a nonprofit started about five years ago after he quit his job as a hedge fund analyst. A graduate of public high school himself — Grace King High School in Metairie, La. — Khan has advanced degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard.
After making some money in the financial world, but not enough to retire on, he took the plunge and quit in 2009 to start Khan Academy. After putting some problems online for relatives, he saw the power of using the Internet as a teaching tool. With a background in software development, Khan has been able to make the problems interactive, so that students can work on them on their computers using their computer mouses to navigate around.
After a year or so, the popularity of the site began to grow. And so did donations.
He had set up a PayPal account where, for a long time, people made occasional, small donations. In May 2010, he got a donation of $100,000. That was followed by other large donations, and Khan realized, “I could keep doing this.”
Then Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates got on board, after he used the site with his son, and Google joined in after learning what he was doing. Together, they donated $3.5 million.
In March 2012, CBS-TV news magazine “60 Minutes” aired a segment on Khan and his academy. Hits on the site went up by 1 million the very next day, he said.
While Khan welcomes the plaudits and superlatives of the media and other supporters, he is also wary of it.
“This grew literally out of me helping my cousins,” he said. “This is a passion of mine, but my team and supporters see this as a unique opportunity based on where we are. This is a once-in-millennium opportunity. We are trying to rethink in a positive way how learning happens and how schools can be re-thought to be more supportive of students’ and teachers’ needs.
“A lot of things have come and gone in education,” he said. “We need to prove we are not one of those things. Yes, we are at a special time in history, but we have a long way to go.”