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Spencer Rendahl: The Global Classroom

12/10/12 5:55PM By Suzanne Spencer Rendahl
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(Host) India and northern New England sit on opposite ends of the globe. But former journalist and commentator Suzanne Spencer Rendahl has discovered that students in both regions share a common classroom via the internet, thanks to Silicon Valley-based Khan Academy.

(Spencer Rendahl) When I first saw the nonprofit Khan Academy founder, Salman Khan, interviewed a couple years ago, I was intrigued. Khan, an MIT and Harvard graduate, had wanted to tutor his younger cousins long-distance. They liked the tutorials Khan recorded and put up on YouTube, because they could go back and review them whenever they needed. Lots of other people apparently agreed, because his bite-sized lectures - usually no longer than 15 minutes - went viral.

In 2008, Khan quit his day job and made it his mission to provide "a free world-class education for anyone anywhere," with tutorials covering everything from chemistry to art history. You can even watch a lecture by basketball star LeBron James, with the title "If Earth's history were a basketball game, when did humans appear?"

But the biggest focus is on math. The Khan Academy philosophy is simple: master one concept and then move onto the next. Learn from your teacher, but use the video tutorials and equation hints if you need them. You can follow a constellation of exercises that start at basic addition and go through calculus.

Early one morning last year, my daughter and I - still in our pajamas - sat down at our laptop. We created an account, hit play, and listened to Khan's reassuring voice as he drew multi-colored circles and number lines on a digital blackboard to demonstrate basic addition. My daughter already knew how to add single-digit numbers, but it was the different routes to the correct answer he presented that opened doors for her. She went on to do a bunch of problems, and then we watched the next video.

It became a mixed experiment. She progressed over time, learning how to locate negative numbers and decimals on a number line and starting long addition. But then she grew tired of the videos, didn't want to hear my explanations and pounded the desk in frustration if she made a mistake.

This was a powerful reminder that nothing can replace a good teacher. Now when she comes home from school excited about something she's learned, we log in and solve a few related problems. After she gets a bunch right, she ventures into newer territory. This isn't part of her school curriculum - yet - but more and more public and private schools in the region are using Khan Academy.

And so are schools in places like India that face teacher and textbook shortages. The New York Times recently reported that several such schools using Khan Academy have decreased absenteeism and improved test scores.

Now six million students worldwide log into Khan Academy each month to solve problems and watch tutorials translated into at least 24 different languages, including Hindi, Tamil, Urdu, Swahili, and Chinese.

So although my second-grader spends most of her day in a class of 16 - which is her entire grade - in a K through 8 school of 231 students, she's also a member of a truly global classroom.

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