Khan-do approach rips up the rule book on learning by rote
'Most admired tech person." Who do you think of? Steve Jobs? Bill Gates? Sheryl Sandberg? All have achieved phenomenal things. But look at any industry poll and one name keeps popping up: Salman Khan. The 37-year-old former hedge fund manager, who set up the free online education service KhanAcadamy.org, is one of the world's genuine disruptors.
His site has one mission: "learn almost anything you want for free". There are no ads and no pay-walls. What started as a maths and science tutorial service – but now includes subjects as diverse as economics and art history – now has 10 million regular students and 350,000 registered teachers delivering a staggering 380 million lessons. In an era where schools and colleges have become industries as well as national resources, it's hard to think of a more disruptive notion.
Critically, The Khan Academy is a hit, too. Bill Gates uses it with his kids. British Prime Minister David Cameron's office describes it as the future. And millions of people are now learning complex subjects in thousands of areas, completely free.
In Ireland, The Khan Academy has not gone unnoticed. It has been incorporated into a national online schools' maths competition ('The Mathletes Competition') used by more than 200 schools. Khan, now a global superstar, has taken an interest in the endeavour.
"So far during the competition, 3,200 Irish students have spent nearly a million minutes learning on Khan Academy, with most of the practice time outside of school," says Khan. "It's the first time that Khan Academy is being used to support a competition at a national scale so, for us, it's wonderful to see how organisations are using our platforms in ways we did not originally design it for. It's also a fun way to engage with the Irish community and deepen student learning."
So far, teachers and students say they love it. But can Khan's system go further? Ireland, like other countries, is slowly moving toward an education system with a basic level covered by the state supplemented by more and more private schools for those with money to back up their educational aspirations. Khan won't be drawn on political decisions here. But he does say that the Khan Academy is only one part of the jigsaw.
"We value in-person learning and, in the long-run, believe that technology should not be a replacement for it," he says. "Before the Prussians came up with the current educational model 200 years ago, the only people who got an education were typically male nobility. So the Prussian model has served us incredibly well, democratising education, and allowing us to have it at an industrial scale, so to speak."
This may be a way of saying that governments should really be doing a little more to prioritise aspirational education for everyone. However, reality and national budgets bite. This is where Khan Academy's tutorial system comes in. For Peig-toting traditionalists, online lessons forming a bigger part of kids' education may be a challenging concept. Khan knows this.
"The question really is 'what is the ideal experience?'," he says. "If the computer can give students the right problems at the right time and give the teacher feedback, then teachers don't have to use time for homework review and can instead spend that time to drive deeper learning. Our tools offer a way to strengthen foundational skills, and hopefully open the door for other learning organisations and institutions to encourage deeper and applied learning."
Part of the problem, he says, is the way the education curriculum now treats classrooms. This can sometimes result in Ferris Bueller-style borefests where lessons drone on and kids are spoken at instead of spoken to.
"In the traditional academic model, you're passive," he says. "You sit in a chair and the teacher tries to project knowledge at you. Some of it sticks, some of it doesn't. That's not an effective way to learn. Worse, it creates a mindset of 'you need to teach me' so that when the child is on their own, they think: 'I can't learn'."
The solution should be obvious, he says. "The physical classroom should be changed such that learning is not as passive an experience as it has been traditionally. Students shouldn't just be listening to a lecture, they should be interacting with peers and they should be working at their own pace. They shouldn't be isolated from people who are more advanced than they are or people who are less advanced than they are."
And it's not just about being able to recite verses from a poem or regurgitate boilerplate case studies.
"At the conclusion of my education, I should be able to prove to you that I am a critical thinker," he says. "I should be able to prove to you that I can write and articulate my ideas and show you a portfolio of creative work as evidence of this capability."
This, arguably, could be the Irish education system's greatest challenge. Because to assess such critical faculties, one should be in possession of strong, advanced critical abilities oneself. Indeed, it is debatable whether generations of Irish teacher-training colleges have prioritised such an approach.
"The one other part of learning that we strongly believe in is making the experience human, where people interact with each other, ask questions, debate issues and peer tutor each other," says Khan. "What better way to learn than to teach?"
Against this backdrop, Khan believes that people probably need to take more control over their own education.
"The most important lesson is how to take agency over your own learning," he says. "Anyone in any industry will tell you there's new stuff to learn every week these days. So you have to say: 'what information and people do I have at my disposal? What questions do I need to ask? How do I gauge whether I've really understood it?' Khan Academy is designed to give students that agency."
He has high praise for some Irish people helping, as he sees it, education along.
"We're very excited by the response from Irish teachers and students," he says. "And we've been working with the O'Sullivan Foundation, which has been the driving force to make this happen. They have been incredibly proactive about exploring ways to engage Irish students in learning."
He also thinks that students should be able to walk before they run.
"We need to move to a world based on mastery, where it is more important to learn algebra really well before trying to build calculus skills on top of a rocky foundation. And so I would like to move to a world where you learn at your own pace, in a personalised way."