New Math for the Internet Generation

From BusinessWeek, a new teaching strategy seems to be reaching students in ways that classrooms do not.

In August 2004, Salman Khan agreed to help his niece, Nadia, with her math homework. Nadia was headed into seventh grade in New Orleans, where Khan had grown up, but she hadn't been placed in her private school's advanced math track, which to a motivated parent these days is a little bit like hearing your child has just been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. In particular, Nadia was having trouble with unit conversion, turning gallons into liters and ounces into grams. 

Math was something Khan, then 28, understood. It was one of his majors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with computer science and electrical engineering. He had gone on to get a master's in computer science and electrical engineering, also at MIT, and then an MBA from Harvard. He was working in Boston at the time for Daniel Wohl, who ran a hedge fund called Wohl Capital Management. Khan, an analyst, was the only employee. 

Being a bit of a geek, Khan put Yahoo!'s (YHOO) Messenger to work to help Nadia, using the Doodle function to let him illustrate concepts for his niece as they spoke on the phone. Then he wrote some code that generated problems she could do on a website. With Khan's help, Nadia made it into the fast track, and her younger brothers Arman and Ali signed on for Khan's tutoring as well. Then they brought in some of their friends. Khan built his site out a little more, grouping the concepts into "modules" and creating a database that would keep track of how many problems the kids had tried and how they had fared, so he'd know how each of his charges was progressing. 

Messenger didn't make sense with multiple viewers, so he started creating videos that he could upload to YouTube. This required a Wacom tablet with an electronic pen, which cost about $80. The videos were each about 10 minutes long and contained two elements: his blackboard-style diagrams—Khan happens to be an excellent sketcher—and his voice-over explaining things like greatest common divisors and equivalent fractions. He posted the first video on Nov. 16, 2006; in it, he explained the basics of least common multiples. Soon other students, not all children, were checking out his videos, then watching them all, then sending him notes telling him that he had saved their math careers, too. 

Less than five years later, Khan's sideline has turned into more than just his profession. He's now a quasi-religious figure in a country desperate for a math Moses. His free website, dubbed the Khan Academy, may well be the most popular educational site in the world. Last month about 2 million students visited. MIT's OpenCourseWare site, by comparison, has been around since 2001 and averages 1 million visits each month. He has posted more than 2,300 videos, beginning with simple addition and going all the way to subjects such as Green's theorem, normally found in a college calculus syllabus. He's adding videos on accounting, the credit crisis, the French Revolution, and the SAT and GMAT, among other things. He masters the subjects himself and then teaches them. As of the end of April, he claims to have served up more than 54 million individual lessons. 
His program has also spread from the homes of online learners to classrooms around the world, to the point that, in at least a few classrooms, it has supplanted textbooks.

The Khan Academy has also been introduced in two seventh-grade classrooms for struggling learners in the Los Altos district, and the district is considering using it in all schools next year. "Their improvement has been dramatic," says Khan of the slow group, who notes that his studies are small, not peer-reviewed, and just intended for him to get a sense of whether Khan Academy methods are working or not. "We're seeing 70 percent on average improvement on the pre-algebra topics in those classrooms. It definitely tells us it's not derailing anything. All the indicators say that something profound looks like it's happening." 

 

Link: BusinessWeek, Salman Khan: The Messiah of Math

Link: Khan Academy, http://www.khanacademy.org/

What Happened to Self Reliance?

How often do you hear the phrase "Self Reliance" these days? I never hear it.

Apparently being self-reliant is out of style. It seems that we the people have become a nation of consumers, and consumers are not self reliant. Oil producing countries, advertisers, government, political parties, and employers, to name a few, want us to be consumers and not self reliant. They want us to spend our money and depend on them for information, compensation, energy, food, entitlements, loans, tax breaks, etc. (Likewise, the United States government consumes more than its revenue; it depends on purchases of debt by China and other countries to fund the endless overspending.) But the really ugly skeleton in the closet is our dependence on fossil fuels.

Cutting back on our energy use is critical. Leadership in this realm has been mixed at best. Many of the celebrity Americans who promote energy conservation and alternative energy don't walk their talk. Al Gore and his huge mansion are a glaring example.

Blogger and writer John Michael Greer is preparing for a future where fossil fuels are very expensive and scarce; he intends to be self reliant. He writes extensively about why and how to conserve energy. Does he walk his talk? He recently reported:

I've never owned a cell phone, a car, a microwave, a television, or most of the other conveniences so many Americans think of as essential to life. I do own a computer — it's essential to the way I make my living — and my compromise there is that I don't buy new computers; I take the old ones that would otherwise end up in a landfill, and keep them out of the ecosystem. I still use a very modest amount of grid power — our power bills run in the $30-$40 a month range — since my wife and I bought a home of our own for the first time in 2009, and we haven't yet raised the money for an off-grid system (or for several other improvements I have on the list, such as solar water heaters and composting toilets). 

Some of my food comes from a backyard organic garden; much of the remainder is from the farmer's market in season; almost none is processed and packaged, though that's as much because I have a hard time choking down standard American food products as anything else. Organic wastes, almost without exception, go into the composter out back. I don't use mainstream medicine, though that's a complex issue in its own right — I've had too many family members killed or harmed by MDs to trust my health to them, among other things. (see Comments)

His sacrifices are rather shocking to most of us in America. It's easy to say he's weird and ignore the fact that he is much more self reliant than anyone we know.

Most of the poor in this country own a cell phone and a TV. (Government programs often pay for cells phones for the poor.) Many of these same people are unhealthy, in debt, and utterly dependent on someone else's money to pay for their lifestyle. They are not self reliant and never will be.

Why am I bringing this up? Dependence weakens individuals and countries – self reliance strengthens. The US needs to be stronger to weather the storms that loom on the horizon. What if… Iran and Israel go to war. Would Israel destroy Iran's oil wells? Would Iran destroy Saudi Arabia's oil wells? The price of oil could jump to $400 – $500 a barrel. Gas prices in the US could be $16 – $20 per gallon. Heating and cooling our homes could quadruple in price. How quickly could our government adapt? How would unprepared people adapt?

Maybe self-reliant people can teach us a thing or two. What do you think?

We Are Stardust

Lawrence M. Krauss is an American Theoretical Physicist who is Professor of Physics, Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Director of the Origins Project at the Arizona State University. He is the author of several bestselling books, including The Physics of Star Trek.

http://99faces.tv/ met him at the World Economic Forum WEF) in Davos in January 2011. Eli de los Pinos, herself a great scientist, interviewed him about his research focus: the beginning and end of the Universe.

More info: http://99faces.tv/lawrencemkrauss/