Turn on, Tube in: a class of its own

 

THAT’S MATHS:GIVEN THE SIGNIFICANCE of maths in technological development, high standards of mathematical education are vital for the health and growth of our economy. Yet Irish universities are concerned about falling standards among incoming students, and multinational companies have been outspoken about the declining technical expertise of graduates. So new ideas for mathematical education should be given due consideration.

Salman Khan, born in New Orleans, holds degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard. In 2004, while an analyst for a hedge fund, Khan tutored his cousin Nadia in maths. The enthusiastic reception of his early YouTube videos spurred him to go full time into education. In 2006 he founded the Khan Academy, a nonprofit body funded by donations. Its long-term goal is to serve as a free, world-class virtual school “where anyone can learn anything”.

This may sound fanciful, but many influential people are convinced of its value. In 2010 Google awarded the Khan Academy $2 million. Bill Gates described the venture as unbelievable and said he was using its resources with his own children. To back this up, the Bill Melinda Gates Foundation gave the academy $1.5 million, and in November last year the cloud-computing pioneer Seán O’Sullivan, founder of the Irish-based O’Sullivan Foundation, contributed $5 million. Khan must be doing something right.

The Khan Academy has about 3,200 tutorials on video, each about 10 minutes long. It attracts more than a million students a month. Initially, the content was mainly second-level maths. Maths is still the focus, but there is growing content on physics, chemistry and biology, as well as economics, humanities and fine art. The videos have been viewed more than 150 million times.

They are casual and relaxed but fit together in a logical structure that enables students to progress, in their own time and at their own pace, from introductory to advanced levels. Khan does most of the voiceovers. He has a direct, almost intimate style, as if he were sitting with you, guiding you through the lesson. An important indicator of their effectiveness is that most students love this approach.

In addition to videos, the academy resources include progress-tracking software, automated exercises with continuous assessment, and a range of aids for teachers. A dashboard tool allows teachers to see immediately how students are getting on, how many videos they have completed, how many questions they have answered and where they need help.

In March last year Gates invited Khan to give a prestigious TED – Technology, Entertainment and Design – presentation, Let’s Use Video to Reinvent Education. In this talk, Khan urges an overhaul of the traditional methods of education, proposing “flip teaching” (also called backwards classroom or reverse instruction). In traditional schooling, the teacher lectures to a class of students, all of whom must proceed at the same pace. This is followed by homework that students do on their own. In flipped education, students take the lessons at home, at their own pace, using the videos. Then the class is used for exercises and applications, guided by the teacher. The novel approach is under trial in several schools in California. It will be interesting to see how it works out.

There are critics of the Khan approach. Some say the videos are impersonal, lack interactive content with live teachers, and encourage repetitive and uncritical drilling. Considering the parlous state of mathematical education in Ireland, new ideas like this should be taken very seriously. Concerted efforts have been made to improve second-level maths education here, leading to the new curriculum, Project Maths. Some are optimistic about this; others are sceptical. We must wait and see.


To see the videos, search for Khan Academy on YouTube

Peter Lynch is professor of meteorology at University College Dublin. He blogs at thatsmaths.com

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