One of the problems facing students in countries like Bangladesh is the high price of imported textbooks. It's no secret that a lot of the copyrighted materials which are pirated are textbooks, particularly the expensive foreign textbooks used for O-levels, A-levels, and university courses in science, business and economics. Most students know that they are breaking the law by buying pirated textbooks, but feel that they have no alternative; they simply cannot afford the genuine textbooks.
Fortunately, there is now an alternative to textbooks. Khan Academy has created a new way of learning, based on educational videos which are freely distributed on the internet. In the schools of the future, students will not be studying dry textbooks; they will be studying instructional videos on the internet.
If this sounds farfetched, take a look at the Khan Academy website. There you will find thousands of instructional videos. The videos already cover an astonishing breadth of subject matter. Mathematics is covered in the most detail; there are thousands of math lessons, which systematically teach arithmetic, geometry, trigonometry, algebra, calculus, probability, statistics, differential equations, and linear algebra. Other subjects covered are physics, biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, computer science, microeconomics, and macroeconomics. More subjects are gradually being covered; there are already many lessons in art history and history.
Traditionally, math has been taught in schools in the following way: the teacher explains a concept in class, shows the class how to solve a few example problems using the concept, and then assigns more problems as homework. The traditional math teaching method accepts implicitly that there will be some lower-performing students who cannot do the homework. The traditional method does not do a good job of helping the lower-performing students to improve their performance.
Source: Khan Academy
Some schools in America have used Khan Academy to “flip” their math classes. The teacher asks the class to watch certain Khan Academy videos as their homework assignment; in the next class, the whole classroom works on the problems which would “traditionally” (in the traditional math instruction method) have been assigned as homework. Flipping the classroom achieves remarkable results; the students who were previously lower-performing very quickly catch up to the higher performing students. It is worth thinking about why this happens.
The traditional math teaching method forces the teacher to spend all her time explaining a concept in a lecture format. Students who become lost at some point during the lecture are often reluctant to ask questions; this might be because they are shy, or simply because they don't want to admit in front of their classmates that they have not understood. Khan Academy delivers the lecture in the form of a video, so that the student does not have to ask the teacher to repeat herself; the student just has to rewind the video and watch it again. Students can watch it as many times as they need to until they understands the content. They can watch it again to review before an exam.
The traditional math teaching method forces students to grapple with homework problems without any assistance (unless they are fortunate enough to have a tutor, or a very helpful parent). The real strength of a human teacher is that she can interactively help students to solve problems which they find difficult. Assigning Khan Academy video lectures as homework allows the teacher to spend all her classroom time doing exactly this. That's how the Khan Academy method ensures that students are not left behind simply because they do not have a tutor at home.
Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, will keep on adding more videos on more subjects to the Khan Academy library; he says he will continue doing this until the day he dies. He foresees a time when the school experience will no longer revolve around the study of schoolbooks; students will spend their days involved in interactive learning activities which will create a richer experience for both students and teachers.
It's strange that lots of parents in Bangladesh spend money on math tutors but have never heard of Khan Academy. One of the funny things about our capitalist society is that brands are established by the people selling them. Most people use Microsoft Office because Microsoft does a great job of selling it and making you believe that you can't work without it; very few people use OpenOffice which is free. OpenOffice is a less popular brand simply because no one is selling and promoting it; it's free for anyone to download and use.
The Khan Academy videos are already being translated into Bangla. The question now is: how do we make these amazing videos available to all the students in Bangladesh, most of whom do not have a computer or an internet connection? Every school needs a computer with the Khan Academy Bangla videos on its hard disk. Khan Academy will give permission for anyone to copy and distribute these videos on one condition: they must be available to students for free. There is an opportunity here for companies who want to spend their CSR funds to make these resources available to schools.
The difference between haves and have-nots in most societies is defined by educational attainment: the wealthy attain university degrees; the well-off finish high school; the poor do not finish high school. Khan Academy probably provides the highest quality educational materials which exist today, and they will get better every year. Students who have access to these materials will do better than students who do not. We must find a way to give Bangladeshi students access to these materials, or they will fall further behind their peers in India and China (where millions of students already have internet connections and computers).
Khan Academy is unquestionably the world's number one brand in educational material; it started in 2006, and in just six years these videos have been viewed over 150 MILLION times. The only reason that most people don't know about it is that nobody is selling it. However, if we can deliver Khan Academy’s videos to every student in Bangladesh, they will get the best educational materials in the world (which happen to be free). There will be no need for them to buy pirated copies of foreign textbooks. Should we fail to deliver these materials to Bangladeshi students, then they will fall far behind their peers in other countries where students will use these videos as their primary means of learning. Bangladesh will be the last place where students will still be studying boring textbooks.
The story was first published in INTELLECT Issue no.2, dated July 2012.