Khan Academy | Globe Editorial

Math instruction goes viral

August 12, 2011

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SUDDENLY, MATH instruction has gone viral. Principals, teachers, and parents have fretted for years about students’ performance in math; the United States ranks 26th in the world on one measure of mastery of the subject, despite spending the most on public education. But an Internet phenomenon that started in Boston could radically change how the subject is taught, and educators should be open to using it.

The unlikely revolutionary is Salman Khan, a 30-something MIT and Harvard graduate with a once-unexplored gift for teaching. In 2004, he was living in Boston and working as an analyst at a hedge fund when his 13-year-old cousin Nadia in New Orleans asked him for help with her math homework. After doing some lessons over the telephone, he posted homework exercises for her on YouTube. Khan’s videos took on a life of their own.

Today, he leads a nonprofit Web-based “school’’ called Khan Academy, whose free instructional videos are viewed by 14 million people annually and have been translated into seven languages. So far, he’s made 2,400 videos - on specific concepts at many levels of mathematics, from arithmetic to calculus and beyond. The results can be striking; one recent news report featured a 10-year-old boy who’s learning about inverse trigonometric functions just for fun.

The videos themselves seem low-tech. Khan records them in a closet off his bedroom in Mountain View, Calif. But he’s stumbled across a way of allowing students to learn various math principles at their own pace, while watching videos at home, or wherever else they happen to be. Students then come to school for individualized coaching by teachers and peers. An on-screen dashboard allows teachers, at a glance, to see which students need help and which are ready to move on.

This approach is turning up in public schools in Los Altos, Calif., where the school district threw out its old math curriculum in two fifth-grade and two seventh-grade classes. Google recently invested $2 million in the Khan Academy. Bill Gates, who does Khan Academy math homework with his own two children, also invested $1.5 million in what is clearly an extraordinary social enterprise. Educators in Massachusetts, where Khan’s method started, would be wise to go online and take a look.