Khan Academy Teaches the YouTube Generation

Published October 15, 2010

Eastern Kentucky University’s Chemistry II summer course was no picnic: Tough concepts and lectures chock-full of technical content regularly vex students. But physics/astrophysics major Wendy Brock aced the course, thanks in part to a nonprofit, online tutorial service called Khan Academy.

“I watched just one video on reaction rates, and I was sold. I was delighted to see so many areas covered, especially physics and differential equations,” said Brock. Now a senior, she’s using Khan Academy this school year to help her review for calculus.

Khan Academy, located online at, offers a library of more than 1,800 video lessons for history, science, and all levels of math, plus portions of the GMAT and SAT exams. Economics gets intensive coverage, too. More than 120 videos explain economic matters such as IRAs, compound interest, and the Consumer Price Index.

All videos are available for free. The Web site has won praise from students and parents—including the second-richest man in the world, Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

Began to Aid a Cousin
Proprietor Sal Khan, who has run his Web site full-time since 2008 from a converted walk-in closet in his San Jose, California home, says the idea evolved from his previous line of work.

“I was working in the financial industry, and it was my job to understand the stuff. But there are a lot of young people—and even adults—who don’t understand it,” Khan explained.

In 2004 Khan was a financial analyst for Connective Capital Management, LLC. A middle-school-age cousin in another part of the country sought his help with math.

He created short instructional videos for her. The videos were a hit, and soon more cousins and their classmates started asking for them. Over time, Khan Academy took off.

“For students who are in algebra but don’t know third-grade math that well, it’s embarrassing to raise your hand,” said Khan. “But here, you can look something up and get your question answered and there’s no shame.”

15-Minute Answers
Each video presents a visual example and step-by-step directions on how to solve problems. Viewers can stop, pause, and rewind to any portion of the lesson.

Every video spans no more than 15-20 minutes. This is intentional, as the short time spans are easier for viewers to digest.

“Usually people have a question in their brain that can be answered in fifteen minutes. By the time a lecturer might get around to it, they’ve already zoned out,” Khan said.

The short videos offer another advantage: They fit well on the YouTube platform. Khan’s videos gained millions of new fans after he started uploading them to YouTube for mass distribution a few years ago.

Boon for Struggling Students
The videos can be very helpful for students with learning challenges. Kerry White, who graduated in 2006 from University of Texas-Arlington with a degree in chemical engineering, said Khan’s videos helped him succeed in his classes despite his severe attention-deficit disorder.

“It is hard for me to concentrate for very long,” said White. “With his videos, I can tell myself, ‘Kerry, you can at least sit and watch a 10-minute video before you do anything else.’ I allow myself a short break after finishing a video, maybe a minute, then watch the next video.”

Teachers love Khan Academy, too. Paula Jackson, a teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico, discovered it through a friend and then told all her fellow teachers about it, many of whom now share it with their students. Jackson’s own kids—one in middle school and another in high school—boosted their math skills by using Khan Academy videos.
“He’s teaching them and using words and cues that are exactly how I have taught them to students in the past, and how I have taught them to my own children,” Jackson said.

Motivation Required
Prerecorded online sessions such as the Khan Academy lessons have pros and cons. They only work if students are committed to watching and learning from them.

Not every student has that level of self-motivation, cautions Maria H. Andersen, a math professor at Muskegon Community College in Greater Grand Rapids, Michigan. She places responsibility on parents and teachers to make sure students are studying.

“Khan Academy can put up thousands of great videos. Others can put up thousands of great videos. But the real problem is engagement,” she said. “There needs to be human involvement to push people to learn what they’re capable of learning.” 

Cost-Effective Schooling
Online learning through the free Khan Academy or tuition-based distance learning programs can be engaging and cost-effective, says Paul Peterson, director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, as online learning enables one tutor to reach many students at once.

“Tutoring is extremely expensive because it’s a one-to-one ratio,” he said. “If you can find ways of providing something comparable for free or next to nothing, it’s something to think about.”

And although instruction through prerecorded videos is less interactive than real-life instruction, it can be better crafted and more finely tuned. Unlike real-life tutoring, it allows for retakes and do-overs. 
“Whereas every tutor has to reinvent the wheel, with online videos you can standardize the product and bring it to a higher level of excellence,” he said.  
Peterson noted many brands of online tutoring have come about in the last few years. He expects many more to debut and achieve similarly high levels of popularity.

“In the next few years we’ll probably be seeing lots of different approaches get tried out,” he said.

Rick Docksai ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.