William's home for discarded gems and concepts-in-progress.

Welcome to William Van Winkle's blog, home for everything from notes on his latest ebooks to leftovers from his articles in CPU, Tom's Hardware, Smart Computing, and other media outlets. Check out his author pages at Amazon and Smashwords!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Salman Khan of Khan Academy Questions Viability of University Lectures

I just turned in my Q&A to CPU magazine, which will appear in the next issue's Back Door column. A little behind the scenes story on this one:

I originally became aware of Khan Academy when Bill Gates tweeted about how much he and his children were enjoying the site's classes. I looked into it and was stunned at the wealth of knowledge just laying there. It was like YouTube had spent its whole existence just waiting for this man. The first time I queried Mr. Khan about being interviewed, I received no reply. In my second attempt, I promised to only ask five questions and not require more than 15 minutes of his very precious time. That got an answer.

In the prelude to my five -- OK, six; I cheated -- questions, I wrote the following paragraph. I repeat it here in the hope that it might inspire some others to enjoy Khan Academy and give it the use it deserves.

"The longer I think about this interview and the more I read and watch about your work, the more daunted I am at trying to do any justice to your accomplishments. I'll be totally unprofessional for a second and admit this: When I was about nine, my dream was to stay in school forever and just learn everything. Two decades later, part of what drew me to journalism was a desire to share what I could learn and hopefully help millions of people through enriching their minds. But you've managed to fulfill both of these dreams in a simple, elegant, and fundamentally powerful way. My admiration for what you've done cannot be overstated. I wish I could shake your hand and convince you of my sincerity. At age 39 with two children, I'm not above still having heroes...and you are a hero to me. Thank you so much for what you do every day."

Here is a snippet of our email conversation. Watch for the full piece in CPU soon.

CPU: While you can't offer the science labs and fevered English Lit. debates of traditional schools—yet—do you foresee Khan Academy, MIT OpenCourseWare, and similar programs ultimately transforming America's higher education system?

SK: Yes. At the simplest level, it calls into question whether the 300-person impersonal lectures that occur at almost every university are even necessary anymore. On-demand video is better in almost every way. It also makes us think harder about whether current schools are learning institutions or filtering institutions. Is a Harvard degree impressive because something magical happens in the four years at Harvard or because we know how competitive it is to get in to Harvard? I think students will help transform what goes on in the physical environment once they see that they potentially learn more from these free, online tools.

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