About a year ago, I was browsing the web in search of good information about the human neuron. I needed to refresh what I must have learned in my biology class many years ago and stumbled across a YouTube video called “The Anatomy of a Neuron”. The video was done in a very simple style: Basically, you heard a voice explaining the anatomy, and an invisible hand was drawing a neuron with all its parts on a blackboard. The teacher himself was nowhere to be seen. Despite its “low-tech” approach, the video was incredibly effective, and I really liked the guy’s voice. The whole recording was only about 6 minutes long, but after watching it, I had a very clear picture of the different parts, and how everything worked.
I thought, maybe that guy has done more than this one. Sure enough, I found more videos on the neuron, and a variety of other topics. The YouTube channel was called “Khan Academy”. I had never heard of it, but I knew I had found a gold mine. I probably consumed 10 more videos on the same day. They all followed the same format, they all were between 5 and 15 minutes, and they all were to the point and easy to understand. After a bit more research, I established that these recordings were actually part of a library of thousands of videos in a variety of subjects, including math, biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, finance and economics, history, American civics, SAT and GMAT test preparation, and what have it.
Welcome to the Khan Academy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the education of our kids and everyone else. Khan Academy was founded in 2006 by Salman (Sal) Khan, who left a profitable career at a hedge fund to become an educator and a producer of educational videos. Sal’s leap into online education was actually a pure coincidence: In 2004, while still working as a hedge fund analyst in Boston, he tutored his cousin Nadia in New Orleans in math via the Internet. She was under-performing and had just been moved to the slower math track. Sal was so successful with her that he soon found himself tutoring his other cousins as well. Not wanting to give the same lecture over and over again, he recorded his first couple of short videos and put them on YouTube. As it turned out, his cousins preferred his video recordings. Now they could just rewind a video if they needed to hear a part again.
And, his videos caught on. Soon, thousands of students in the U.S. and around the world watched them to fill in the blanks their regular classes had left. At the same time, Sal Khan had found his calling. In 2009, he decided to leave his hedge-fund job and record educational videos full time. According to his own account, he initially considered to create a business, but eventually decided to establish Khan Academy as a nonprofit organization and rely on donations. He wanted to do the educational videos he liked and considered beneficial, rather than looking for areas which could most easily be monetized. Among his early backers were Ann and John Doerr, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Google.
As of today, Khan Academy has produced around 3300 videos, which have been viewed more than 170 million times. Sal’s initial videos were aimed at supplementing pre-college education, but he has long ventured into an amazing range of different areas interesting for people of any age: “We’re a not-for-profit with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere” (Website Khan Academy). Whether you are a student, and just cannot get your head around your math or physics teacher’s cryptic doodling, or a life-long learner like me, and just don’t remember what genetics and DNA are all about, you will likely find an easy-to-understand 10-minute video. Do you need to know what caused the financial crash of 2008, brush up your statistics, or understand the function of insulin in the human body? It is all there, in bite-size short videos.
Sal Khan is incredibly inspiring and radiates pure passion for what he is doing. Allow me to end this post with a quote from his commencement address for the class of 2012 at MIT: “Be as delusionally positive as possible, and smile with every atom in your body.”