Foundation gives US$5m to academy to boost online education

7 Nov 2011

The Khan Academy website, which offers an interactive learning experience for students globally

Ireland’s O’Sullivan Foundation is to inject US$5m into the Khan Academy to help accelerate the development and deployment of the non-profit’s revolutionary approach to education via the internet, helping to create a test-bed for the ‘school of the future’.

What started out as Salman Khan’s effort to tutor his young cousin in maths over the internet via YouTube has rapidly grown into a mass movement that is used by millions of students monthly in a range of subjects, from math and science to the humanities.

Via Khan Academy, more than 3.5m unique users monthly have already watched 80m-plus videos and completed more than 200m exercises covering subjects from basic maths to college-level biology and chemistry.

The Khan Academy approach has already been adopted by public and private schools throughout the US.

The O’Sullivan Foundation’s support will be used to lay the foundation for three major initiatives:

  • Growing the faculty of the Khan Academy
  • Extending the content to include crowd-sourced contributions
  • Developing curricula for a blended physical and virtual academic experience.

“Some of these initiatives will take years to develop and perfect,” said Shantanu Sinha, president of the Khan Academy, “but with this support from the O’Sullivan Foundation, we start today to turn these dreams into reality.”

Growing the faculty

Until now, Salman Khan has been the sole teacher whose free lessons have been viewed more than 82m times on YouTube.

“Some have wondered if it was the intent of the Khan Academy to have all these lessons to be written and performed by me,” said Khan, founder and head of faculty of the Khan Academy. “The answer is a resounding no. We’re simply looking for unique voices that get traction and engage with students. As we expand our faculty, we’ll enable more teachers to share their enthusiasm with kids everywhere.”

One use of the grant from the O’Sullivan Foundation will be to expand Khan Academy’s faculty from one lesson producer to at least five full-time equivalent teachers, extending the range of subjects taught from primary STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) to the arts and humanities.

Already, the grant has been used to appoint Dr Steven Zucker and Dr Beth Harris to produce content on art, history and the humanities. Zucker was formerly chair of Art and Design History at Pratt Institute. Harris was director of digital learning at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Sean O'Sullivan

Sean O’Sullivan of the O’Sullivan Foundation. Photo by Rensselaer

Supporting crowd-sourced, open educational content

A second use of the O’Sullivan Foundation grant will be to develop, over the next few years, a crowd-sourced content management and curation system for the Khan Academy.

“There are millions of teachers working in not-for-profit institutions all over the world,” said O’Sullivan today. “Many of these dedicated professionals would love to share their enthusiasm for knowledge with students outside the institutions in which they currently teach.”

Similar to Wikipedia, the curated content system for Khan Academy will look to provide a similar outlet for dedicated professionals to develop quality instructional content. This will enable Khan Academy’s tools and analytics to be leveraged by a much broader pool of educators than the relatively small number who will be directly employed by the Khan Academy, said Khan.

Creating a test-bed for the school of the future

The third use of the O’Sullivan Foundation grant will be in the development of a test-bed for physical programs and K-12 curricula. Online learning is only part of a complete education, according to the Khan Academy and the O’Sullivan Foundation.

The real-world test-bed will make projects, simulations and explorations that create a fully compelling blended learning experience between the virtual and physical worlds.

“When I spoke to teachers, administrators and students who use the Khan Academy system for STEM learning, I was blown away,” said O’Sullivan. “The facts on the ground show that engaged students can absorb and master material much more rapidly than we had previously thought possible. Below-average students become above average, and average students can become exceptional. We cannot delay in implementing these systems for our children, for our economy, and for our society.”

First summer school camps – Silicon Valley, June 2012

The first iteration of the Khan Academy physical school will be run as a series of summer school camps starting in June 2012 in northern California.

The camp will be a testing ground for curricula that will, over time, develop into a complete academic experience and serve as a model for real-world schools worldwide, according to the academy.

“The school of the future will not resemble the school of today,” said Khan. “In the past, the assembly-line, lecture-homework-exam model existed because that’s what was possible in the no-tech and low-tech classrooms of their day.”

He said one of the goals is to re-engage students, some with significant gaps in their knowledge, who have previously felt lost and disengaged.

“We can now build a new reality, using today’s technologies, where learning is custom-tailored and collaborative, bite-sized and iterative,” said Khan. “When students learn at their own pace, and become more self-directed, they remain engaged. This helps teachers build strong foundations, so that even students that are labelled as ‘slow or remedial’ become advanced in a matter of months.”

O’Sullivan Foundation gives millions of dollars annually to support targeted causes around the world.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic