From Phonics to Physics Get School Help Online

by Ellen Lee

Several years ago, Salman Khan was tutoring his cousins in New Orleans remotely from his home in Boston. Because scheduling time on the phone was tough and a little repetitive. Khan, then a hedge fund manager with degrees from Harvard and MIT, put together some basic video clips and shared them on YouTube.

Something interesting happened, Khan said during a talk he gave last year at a conference. “They told me they preferred me on YouTube than in person.”

So did many students, it turns out. Khan’s YouTube clips soon drew attention from more than just his cousins. In 2009, he quit his hedge fund job to start the Khan Academy, a nonprofit educational organization (

Today, the Khan Academy offers more than 2,600 videos, from a tutorial on basic multiplication for elementary school students to advanced calculus for high school and college students. It focuses largely on math and science, teaching concepts found in kindergarten through high school curricula.

Khan Academy has become a poster child for the work that’s being done in Silicon Valley to help the nation’s schools and education woes. Microsoft’s Bill Gates called it one of his favorite educational websites, and it also won a $2 million prize from Google two years ago, among other accolades.

Technology Tutoring

Khan Academy is not the only online learning tool, of course. There has been a push in the general technology community to take its energy, money and technical expertise and apply it to building tools to help students learn, particularly in the math and science fields.

Last year, for example, a team of Silicon Valley veterans started Imagine K12, dedicated to funding and developing educational startups. Its inaugural class included BrainNook, an online game to teach math and English skills; Remind101, which helps teachers text message and email students and parents, and TutorCloud, a marketplace for college students offering online tutoring services.

Online learning through video tutorials has especially taken off recently, made possible by increased Internet speeds, new and easy video editing and sharing tools, and cheap video recording equipment.

Best of all, most of the time, the clips are free.

On YouTube Edu ( and Apple’s iTunes U (, students can browse, download and watch educational videos. Offerings range from the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ famous Stanford commencement speech to simple songs that can help children learn about phonics and spelling.
More than 500,000 videos and 600 channels, from preschool through college, are available through YouTube Edu. On a related site, YouTube Teachers (, the clips are curated and organized by grade level and subject.

For older students, Academic Earth ( offers videos of lectures from the nation’s top universities and professors. Brightstorm ( uses online video to coach high school students with their homework and prepare for standardized tests.
The videos allow students to learn at their own pace, Khan said. They can pause and rewind a video if they don’t catch on right away. They can re-watch it to review a particular lesson.
The Khan Academy clips, most of them produced by Khan, are fairly simple. Each one is dedicated to a specific lesson and lasts about 15 minutes or less. Khan never appears in the clip, but narrates as he draws and writes on a blackboard or a piece of paper. He sounds encouraging, conversational and sometimes irreverent.

In addition to math and science videos, Khan Academy has expanded its repertoire to other subjects. There’s an explanation of the mortgage and housing crisis. Through partnerships and interviews with renowned experts, the site has added clips about art history and health care, such as one with a Stanford pediatrician about childhood growth. It has a small but growing collection of videos on history, such as an overview of the Korean War.

To help students process and master the lessons, it also offers practice exercises. Teachers, parents and students can track their progress and see their trouble spots.

How much it will help change the nation’s education woes remain to be seen. The Khan Academy has its share of critics. Some complain it’s just another exercise in rote learning and that it doesn’t do enough to change and revolutionize how we teach our children. Still, its following – and that of other online learning tools – continues to grow.

Ellen Lee is a freelance writer specializing in technology.