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Math Wiz Adds Web Tools to Take Education to New Limits

February 22, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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From a bedroom in the San Francisco Bay area, Salman Khan is using the Web to teach math and science to millions. Spencer Michels reports on how the non-profit Kahn Academy is providing educational materials through its free YouTube video library.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: the story of a young man teaching math to the world.

“NewsHour” correspondent Spencer Michels reports.

SALMAN KHAN, internet instructor: So, this is a — a quadratic equation, essentially. We’re trying to find the zeros.

SPENCER MICHELS: This disembodied voice is heard every day by tens of thousands of students struggling with math, both in the U.S. and around the world.

SALMAN KHAN: What is X-squared plus four-X plus four? Well, it’s X plus two times X plus 2.

SPENCER MICHELS: Thirty-three-year-old Salman Khan recently quit his job as a hedge fund analyst to devote himself to an unpaid job teaching math on the Internet.

SALMAN KHAN: Welcome to the presentation on basic addition.

These are cancers or cancer cells.

The investors in the mortgage-backed securities provide..

SPENCER MICHELS: He has posted 1,200 lessons on YouTube, which appear on an electronic blackboard, and range in subject from basic addition and advanced calculus to science and finance. And they are free.

SALMAN KHAN: Introduction to trigonometry. This is where I teach people about the trig functions. This is one of the more popular videos. This has 179,000 views. And this is just what sine, cosine, and tangent are.

SPENCER MICHELS: Khan lives in California’s Silicon Valley with his wife, a rheumatologist in training at Stanford, and their new baby. He got the idea for Khan Academy four years ago, when he taught a young cousin how to convert kilograms to grams.

Many American students have trouble with math, and studies show they lag behind their counterparts in Asia and Europe in both math and science. With Khan’s help, his cousin got good at math, and he eventually had a new career tapping into anxieties around the world.

Now he records his lessons from a converted closet in the back of his bedroom. He never goes on camera.

SALMAN KHAN: Kind of feels like the voice in their head. You’re looking at it. It kind of feels like someone is over your shoulder, talking in your ear, as opposed to someone at the blackboard that is distant from you.

Sorry for starting the presentation with cough. But now I want to continue with the 45-45-90 triangles.

SPENCER MICHELS: Although he is not the first person to teach on the Internet, his simple operation has attracted more eyeballs than most university sites. And his fame has spread. The all-girl Castilleja School in Palo Alto invited Khan to speak. And he immediately connected to the student body.

SALMAN KHAN: You tell me that you really don’t know how — you know, dividing decimals is still kind of this little gray area, and if dividing decimals actually is, you’re not alone. Dividing decimals is kind of one of the things that no one wants to admit that they kind of forgot how to do.

SPENCER MICHELS: He exuded pride in his expanding online audience.

SALMAN KHAN: More and more people kept watching it. And now it’s reaching actually on the order of about 100,000 students now a month, and 40,000 video views a day.

SPENCER MICHELS: It was the concept of short, repeatable lessons that attracted high school senior Bridget Meany, who admitted she had had trouble with seventh-grade algebra.

BRIDGET MEANY, Castilleja School: I think the teachers are good, but they can’t go at a pace that’s, like, perfect for everyone. But I like the concept of knowing something in class, but then going back and pressing pause or rewind, and actually getting a deeper understanding of it.

SPENCER MICHELS: Shy students who don’t ask questions in class may benefit the most from Khan’s videos, says Kimberly Knapp, who teaches math at Castilleja. But his lessons aren’t a substitute for the classroom.

KIMBERLY KNAPP, math teacher: But I don’t think that there’s a perfect replacement for the work that we do and just the kind of conversations that students and teachers engage in together.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Khan thinks maybe lecture halls and classrooms have their limitations. Originally, he kept his lessons short because of YouTube restrictions. Now he thinks short is better.

SALMAN KHAN: I have gotten researchers telling me that you don’t realize 10 minutes — we have done studies — is how long someone can have a high level of concentration. And anything beyond that, you kind of lose it. And I think we have all had that experience in — sitting in college, where you can be with the professor about 10, 15 minutes, and then you kind of lose it.

SPENCER MICHELS: A lot of math students apparently agree. I talked via the Internet with Cody Woodward in Anchorage, Alaska, who uses Khan’s lessons at college.

CODY WOODWARD, college student: It has helped me immensely and the grades for my math classes. And I have also learned a lot.

SPENCER MICHELS: Internet instruction, be it the Khan Academy or taped university lectures, could revolutionize education in remote Third World locations, where access to high-quality instruction is frequently unavailable.

That’s the hope of Neil Radia, a young software programmer at Cisco Systems. He and fellow volunteers at World Possible, working on their vacations, are bringing online teaching to Africa and India, for starters. When Radia and Megha Jain first traveled to Ethiopia, they found thousands of brand-new computers sitting idle, because they couldn’t connect to the Internet and therefore couldn’t get online instruction.

NEIL RADIA, World Possible: The great thing to do would to be putting a lot of these resources on a single local server that we could bring to the colleges, to the universities, to community centers. And we came across the Khan Academy. And we e-mailed him and asked him if we could reproduce some of his material on our servers. And he was very willing to help us out.

MEGHA JAIN, World Possible: You would be surprised how fast these kids learn and pick these things up. So, it isn’t strange to them. They have heard of this. And they are excited to use it.

SPENCER MICHELS: For Khan, teaching math and science and finance is just the beginning. He’s ready to expand his YouTube site to include whatever strikes his fancy.

SALMAN KHAN: I want to do everything. I want to do history. I want to do grammar. I want to do literally every — every subject.

SPENCER MICHELS: So far, except for a little advertising revenue, he is donating his time and equipment. It’s a one-man operation, but it’s gotten so big, he expects to start soliciting outside support to keep his academy growing.