Monday, September 6, 2010

Week 35: Case in Point, Khan Academy

I created The 52 Week Project in part to prove my evolving thesis that anyone with an internet connection and the desire could learn for free about almost anything. In conversations with family and friends, I pointed out that the revolutionary part of this idea was already complete - tons of free, web-based educational content was online. From content providers like MIT, Stanford and Cornell to the various content delivery platforms like iTunesU and YouTube, an almost unimaginable amount of facts and lessons can be accessed. In fact, there is almost TOO much out there. How could too much free education be a bad thing, you might wonder? Thirty five weeks into this project, I can tell you that at some point those looking for learning (me, in this case) are so inundated with non-standardized content - often without context - it can become almost not worth the time to learn. For instance, I have never thought of a weekly topic for which no free online content exists, but I most certainly HAVE abandoned topics because finding and accessing this content has been too tedious. One post-52 Week Project idea of mine is to create an e-guide of all these education sites just to help people make sense of what's out there. In the interim, my problem - the problem - is that nobody has pulled together a focused curriculum for those wanting access to free online education - a simple, but crucial, step.

Well, I am extremely happy to say that Salman Khan has taken the time and immense effort to begin solving this problem. The Khan Academy is a non-profit site with the stated goal of "providing a high quality education to anyone, anywhere." The site has over 1,600 videos, all done by Mr. Khan, and all covering some lesson ranging from the most basic arithmetic to liner algebra, chemistry, finance and world history. The lessons are grouped together in a way that allows users to either click to a certain lesson (e.g., Calculus 1), or follow a progression of lessons (e.g., from geometry to trigonometry). Mr. Khan started the online academy a few years ago, developing his site while simultaneously working full-time as a hedge fund analyst (sound familiar?). The tremendous positive feedback he received from students and parents around the globe convinced him to quit his job and work exclusively on the project. The success to date has been incredible - aside from millions of millions of clicks and tens of thousands of Facebook and YouTube followers - Mr. Khan got a personal endorsement from Bill Gates, whose children now use the site.

The lessons began with Mr. Khan's strong suit, math, but have branched out at a rapid pace and will ultimately cover the basics and much more. Before endorsing the quality of the lessons, I decided to try a few on a topic that I know something about: banking. I was planning to watch Banking 1 and perhaps 2, but somehow I found myself all the way down to "Banking 6: Bank Notes and Checks", before realizing how much time had passed by! The lessons were excellent - it turns out you never actually see Mr. Khan - the video consists of his voice walking you through his scribbling on an e-blackboard. He distills complicated concepts to their simplest building blocks, repeats often, and helps give the viewer an intuitive feel for the content at hand.

I cannot overstate the importance of his ability to do this for the core concepts of economics, finance and banking. In my opinion financial illiteracy is a major problem in the United States - it was in many ways at the core of events leading to the 2008 financial crisis. While I have always thought the problem emminently solvable, Mr. Khan has actually provided the solution. I am not remotely kidding - here is a way, in under two hours, to learn the basics. I urge you to look through some of these lessons and send them to your children and friends. What is a bank? How does it work and why? What is an interest rate? These are crucial, elementary concepts that unfortunately even people of power simply have not mastered. Now, instead of having to ask the embarrassing question at a cocktail party or read a dull text book or pay thousands of dollars for a course, you can view a free twelve minute video on each of these concepts.

Mr. Khan is on to something huge here. Any jealousy I might have about the fact that I never followed up on that tutoring website idea of mine is overwhelmed by the excitement I have for what he is doing. Once a database of all the basics are put together, using what is by now a tested teaching methodology, the scale and breadth that can be achieved are breathtaking. This is quite literally the type of thing that can help eliminate future poverty, folks. Give people the opportunity to help themselves and you will start a positive feedback loop that nobody could have imagined. You have heard a similar riff from me on Kiva and Apple. Khan Academy is a another example of brilliance that should both inspire us and give us hope that in spite of all the current gloom, the future is indeed bright.


  1. Banking Lesson #2:

    "....and that's my cell phone ringing...I'm going to ignore it...."

    Love it.

  2. Thanks for the shout out for leading you to this great topic :)

  3. Bob - You forgot the... "it's hard to ignore it, but I will." There's DEFINITELY some kind of banking lesson there.

    David G - I'm sorry for not giving you the shout out. There were a lot of things I had to cut out to make this post work, and you were one of them...

    Kidding - for the record my good friend DAVID pointed me to this topic.

  4. Carioca pleads:

    Could your good friend David craft or create some architecture segments for the Khan Academy? :)

  5. If only I had known about the Organic Chemistry section of the Khan Academy about a year ago..

  6. Great find! Bookmarked.

    One of the best explanations of how banks work remains encapsulated in the dialogue of the legendary character actor Paul Ford in his role of Banker CP Ballinger in the great movie "A Big Hand for the Little Lady":

    [upon being offered a poker hand as collateral]
    C.P. Ballinger, Banker: Forty-six years ago, I started lending money in Larry Bingham's back room. My first customer was a drover named Penny. He wanted two dollars on a Brindle cow at six percent interest. He said she gave six quarts of milk a day. You know what I made him do? I made him move that cow into my back yard for a whole week. And I watched him milk her every day. Sure enough, she gave an average of six and a half quarts a day, so I gave him the money at six and half percent interest. Not only that, I kept the 60 pounds of manure she left behind. When you show me collateral, madam, you better make sure it's good collateral. For forty-six years, I've been lending money on good, old-fashioned principles. I stand here now to tell you one and all that I've never been offered a better piece of collateral that I hold in my hand now!

    It is even more relevant to today's economy when considered in context with the overall plot of the movie.