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Virtual School Helps Students in U.S., South Asia, Worldwide

By Carrie Loewenthal Massey | Special Correspondent | 27 October 2010
Salman Khan at computer (Courtesy of Khan Academy)

Salman Khan aims to make his Khan Academy “the world's first free, world-class virtual school where anyone can learn anything.”

New York — Many students have a subject in school that excites them while another subject leaves them bewildered. Whether they’re seeking deeper understanding or a new way of comprehending difficult material, the Khan Academy can shed new light on nearly any topic.

Salman Khan, based in California, created Khan Academy as an online classroom with a free database of video lessons on subjects ranging from basic arithmetic to algebra, calculus, finance, history, and many of the sciences, including organic chemistry. Khan plans to make videos that teach “everything,” making Khan Academy “the world’s first free, world-class virtual school where anyone can learn anything,” he writes on the academy’s website.

And soon, “everything” will become accessible to nearly everyone. In September, the Khan Academy received a $2 million grant from Google to build the software needed to translate the site’s content into the world’s most-spoken languages.

“We have some leeway, but we are planning now to do Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Russian, French, Portuguese, Arabic, Japanese and German,” Khan said in an interview with America.gov.

“We’re going to do the first wave of translation over the next two years, and what we’re hoping is to really establish a process that makes it possible to go beyond those original languages,” he added.

Khan, who grew up in New Orleans with an Indian mother and Bengali father, looks forward to extending Khan Academy’s global reach with the translation project. He noted that the Hindi translations alone could reach as many as 400 million students, building on the site’s already prominent South Asian presence.

“By nature of where my family is from, Khan Academy has gotten quite popular in South Asia, especially Bangladesh,” Khan said. “The country is proud, but it’s very humbling for me. They’re proud that one of their own is out doing something helping other people.”

More than 10 percent of Khan Academy’s viewers come from India, Khan told the Hindustan Times.

“I happen to have the same name as an Indian movie star, so whether it’s deserved or not that gives me some flair,” he joked to America.gov.

Celebrity status aside, Khan is also making a name for his school in remote villages that do not have a regular electricity supply. Through a partnership with World Possible, a California-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) that works in part to bring computers and Internet access to poverty-stricken schools, Khan Academy supplies the educational content to some classrooms in Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and Ecuador.

“We hope over the next five to 10 years that … other NGOs will keep working on the technology issues and we just need to hand the content to them and they figure out the best way to get it to students,” Khan said.

BUILDING A VIRTUAL SCHOOL

Khan has personally created the more than 1,800 videos available to students. Each module runs for 10 to 20 minutes, with Khan explaining in a conversational style the concept at hand while incorporating underlying principles and real-world connections that he thinks can help with students’ understanding.

“I teach the way I wish I was taught,” he writes on the website. “These videos are my expression of how the concepts should have been expressed in the first place, all while not compromising rigor or comprehensiveness.”

Khan began recording the video lessons after he saw how his teaching style helped his cousin. In 2004, when she was struggling with her middle school math class, Khan began tutoring her remotely, eventually videotaping himself and posting the sessions on YouTube so she could access the help at her convenience. Her subsequent success in math, and her brothers’ use of his other video tutorials, led Khan to post more and more videos to the Web. In September 2009, he quit his job as a hedge fund manager to run Khan Academy full time.

With plans to “keep making videos until the day I die,” as he writes on his site, Khan wants to create simulation games to add to students’ depth of understanding of the topics they watch and build a community of learners who use the site to interact and discuss the subject matter. He would like to see physical schools use Khan Academy as the basis for their curriculums.

“In the long term, we hope that we can be teaching people as [well] as anyone,” Khan said. “We are redefining a good part of the educational experience.”

Learn more at the websites of Khan Academy and World Possible.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov)

Academic categories on screen (Courtesy of Khan Academy)

Using videos such as this one outlining the various subjects available at the Khan Academy, Salman Khan teaches students from around the globe.