Sunday, September 12, 2010

Wikipedia, Khan Academy and The Price of Knowledge in the Digital Age

Being twenty-six years old and having been heavily-involved in technology since my early teen, I've had a chance to witness a lot of big things from the beginning. I remember when Audioscrobbler (the thing that drives was still a grad-school project.  I remember when OpenID was just a post on Brad Fitz' LiveJournal. I remember when Wikipedia got it's 1000th article. My first contribution as a registered user dates to September 2002. Back then Wikipedia was a sort of wild-west and I didn't even know what "peer-review" meant. I've been programming for the better part of the last 12 years and and remember making contributions to the software that runs Wikipedia before it even had a name. I remember the site being down for hours and hours--sometimes even days--when the servers were overloaded or a hard drive failed.

Anyway, one of my favorite memories is showing my father Wikipedia and him laughing. He attempted to explain the concepts of authorship and authority, why he was skeptical about the quality of the site, and how the concept of it all was a radically different from the status-quo--naturally, I had no interest. As time went on, he increasingly became a believer too. We were seeing this massive revolution happen before our eyes, in the shadows of the .com crash, when nobody gave a flying fuck about tech anymore. I didn't realize what it all meant then, but I remember my father talking to his friends about it and heated debate happening; they were all genuinely interested and excited about what it meant. In the true, original spirit of the internet, Wikipedia was democratizing access to knowledge, leveled the playing field like few things before, and it was all capital "F" Free. The price to access it was $0.00 and the value of it was increasing exponentially as the network of information nodes became increasingly interconnected and of increasingly better quality. The most relevant comparison in my mind is probably the Gutenberg press.

Recently, I had a feeling of deja-vu as I signed-on to the Khan Academy. I first learned about the Khan Academy a little over a year ago. I was having a little bit of trouble remembering some mathematics concept and someone suggested I look for it on Youtube, as there was this "Sal dude" posting instructional videos. I searched, found, learned, and didn't really give it much thought again. Since then, Sal Khan was gotten a ton of press, and so recently, idle from my lack of employment, I logged on to the Khan Academy. I was totally shocked by what I found. Not only is the library of lessons huge but I finally used the problem-generating component, and I was totally floored by what I found. Sal created a "Knowledge map" (accessible once you sign-in with a Google account) wherein as you complete certain lessons and the set of problems satisfactorily, new areas are suggested.

The system is basically a tree of nodes that correspond to a specific lesson, each of which has an instructional video. Each node has zero or more parents, with the root node being "Addition 1". As nodes are completed, new ones are recommended, organically building upon the previous ones. Completing "Addition 1," recommends "Addition 2" and "Subtraction 1". As nodes are completed,  the student can continue to explore each branch of the tree independently. Likewise, someone who is interested in learning, for example, linear algebra, could look at the map and follow it back until he or she found the first familiar subject and then beginning with the next lesson.

The videos--mostly math-related at present time--are both focused and engaging. Khan is a gifted teacher, able to distill lessons to their core and present everything you need to know about one thing in a few minutes.  With 20-30 minutes a day, one could easily follow the knowledge map and become proficient in most any mathematics subject in a couple of weeks or months. Any motivated learner has the ability to learn whatever they want, at whatever speed they want, at no cost at all. For parents who lack the knowledge to coach their children or are unable to afford tutors; adults that need additional education but lack the economic means or time to do it at a traditional venue; and students wishing to place higher in college math-placement exams in order to save themselves an unnecessary and expensive introductory or remedial course, the implications are huge. Khan has singlehandedly, in a remarkably short time, changed the landscape for mathematics education.

To test it all out, I decided to "attend" the Khan Academy. I started with lesson 1, "Addition 1." and worked myself up to calculus over a couple of days. I didn't watch the videos for the simpler subjects like addition and subtraction, but I did start skimming through once I got to Algebra II and started really watching in the later parts of Trigonometry. I was amazed of how fast time went, and how rewarding it was to complete the subject examinations--you must get 10 consecutive questions right in order to advance. Both the videos and problem-sets were generally completed before my attention span was exhausted, which means 10-15 min. As I completed problem sets and worked my way up the map, I started feeling like I was opening new levels on a video game or something, it was really strange.

The process is not limited to individuals working on their own. Pupils are able to enter a "coach ID" and be linked to a "class". The interactive problem sets generate data that the coach can use to identify students that are stuck on a certain type of problem or are working at below/above average speeds. Because the students can work independently of one another, no one student is held-back or left-behind. Someone having trouble with, for example, variable substitution can simply re-watch the short lecture, rewinding or fast-forwarding as needed to focus on the points he or she doesn't grasp.

I understand that this is not the first experiment of it's kind, I'm familiar with Open Course Ware and I've used iTunes U, but this is definitely different. The casual approach, accessible language, narrow focus, instant availability, lack of requirements and flexible structure all combine to create something orders of magnitude more accessible to the casual user. Not everybody knows how to use a podcast, but everyone knows how to work Youtube. Just click "play," and look at your screen, it's that simple. Have a question? Under each video is a list of previously-asked questions and responses, and if yours is not on there, you can add it instantly and someone is likely to respond promptly. I'm not saying this approach will work for every subject, but I have no doubts it could work for at least undergrad-level physics, chemistry and finance. As someone who barely passed high-school chemistry, something like this would have saved me a lot of angst as I tried to cover a month's worth of skipped classes the Thursday night before the test.

With the recent press the Khan Academy has been receiving, including public accolades from Bill Gates and sizable donations, the project has been able to pay Sal a salary and will be able to fund it's continuing existence. As momentum builds, it is not unreasonable to expect the number of contributing teachers to increase--some volunteers are already helping translate and close-caption the videos. Because the subjects covered don't change, there is no reason why these videos couldn't be used for generations to come--although, admittedly, some of the earlier ones could use a quality upgrade. The value produced by the Khan Academy is accumulative and increases with each additional topic and translation--I can't even imagine what a textbook company would be willing to pay for it--yet the price to access it, like Wikipedia, is zero. Of course, the free ability of content online is not enough, you have to give people access to the internet first, but with the ubiquity of mobile-phone service, rapidly-falling prices of computers and initiatives like OLPC, it isn't hard to imagine a world ten years from now where 80% of school-age children have access to the internet, even if it is from a shared device. When I first understood what Wikipedia was about, nine years ago, all I could think about was "Wow, this is going to change everything." Mark my words, this will change everything, too.


  1. I can't wait to use this to supplement my classes this fall, as in things that I need to take vs. the things I want to learn to expand my brain. Foucault would be proud at the lack of authorship (as defined by intellectual property types) out there now, I am too.

  2. We have been using the Chemistry videos to supplement our homeschool chemistry class of 5th, 6th and 7th graders. Yep- you read that right- junior high kids learning Quantum Mechanics, Orbital Notation, valence electrons and the works.

  3. thanks for this review! I am a former high-school teacher myself (mathematics, physics and astronomy) and have been amazed of the inspiring perspectives in the Khan Academy project. Just like you. But while Im approaching the concept and wondring wether I should dive in and start producing and contributing, I have many thoughts that tend to hold me back gently:

    Who owns the contents of Khan Academy?
    What are the economic structures of the organization?

    I have wittnessed how Microsoft (and later Apple) hi-jacked once free and open source software for their own needs. How it freely accessible technology was capitalized by business people who did nothing else but change the font of a text and then copyright it (figuratively speaking). Will the same thing happen to the Khan project? There is already signs for such a development for Wikipedia.

    Don't get me wrong. I see the HUGE perspectives (revolutionary even) in the Internet, Wikipedia and Khan project. These potential benefits will never go away. But can we make the danger of hi-jacking, copyrighting and capitalizing go away?

    Waiting in excitement for replies... :-)

  4. Extras
    - Yes. Mac OS is a hi-jacked Linux OS
    - Salman Khan worked for a hedge-fund up until 2009, when he began his Academy project.
    - I am NOT throwing stuff at anybody, but it just makes me think twice about the subject. I would sooo love that the project works against the capitalization of knowledge. If it doesnt, we/I must develop a project that does. All the tools are there !

  5. MacOS is NOT a hi-jacked Linux OS. It is a fork of NEXTSTEP (itself a fork of BSD) and that is a very different thing. In Linux land people may believe that all that is good must be absolutely free and to charge for software is immoral, but BSD-licensed projects are partially created for the purpose of encouraging commercial development. Why?

    Because as we can see with OSX, it is far more stable, mature and feature rich than even the latest, most accessible versions of Linux such as Ubuntu. It's easy to see the "hijacked the free code" and assume the folks at NeXT/Apple simply shipped it down to the marketing department to have it promoted and reskinned, but that is not accurate. When NeXT developed it from BSD UNIX, they had to construct a GUI and all of the accompanying applications and utilities. When Apple developed NEXTSTEP into OSX, the same process had to happen and the result was at least 10 years ahead in feel and function of any Linux OS at the time.

    Sorry for the rant but what is correct to say is that Linux and OSX are related, albeit slightly. Most of what you see in OSX was paid for by either NeXT or Apple (both under the direction of Steve Jobs) and almost none of it was "stolen", certainly not from Linux.

    And the broader point is that commercial development is not harmful to open source software. If it were the more compelling option it would overwhelmingly dominate commercial OSes because of hardware compatibility and $0 cost. But it's not. It's usually way behind the curve on maturity and practical innovation. It's fantastic for enthusiasts, researchers and education, but outside of development investment (e.g. Android) usually fails to meet the needs of the average user.

    As for the reference to Microsoft, I'm hoping you don't mean OS theft because that is also not correct. It's less correct than the Apple reference.

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