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27th February 2012

Online academy aims to “make education available to all”

Free online tuition service, the Khan Academy, provides thousands of videos allowing students of any age to develop their knowledge on a range of subjects

Following last week’s report that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is launching a free course, which is studied and assessed completely online, another new online educational development, the Khan Academy, is also rapidly increasing in popularity.

The Khan Academy is a US-based free online tuition service, which allows students of any age to develop their knowledge on a wide range of subjects, test themselves and chart their own progress.

The free-to-use website contains thousands of step-by-step videos which help to explain different topics, from maths and science to the humanities. 85 million videos have been downloaded so far and there are currently 3.5 million people using the website each month.

Shantanu Sinha, Khan Academy president and chief operating officer, says that the project is part of a “major transformation” in education.

He says: “It’s being transformed by accessibility.” An internet connection is now the only thing required for students to study, regardless of where they live.

“Access to information will be like access to clean running water. A great education will be seen as a basic human necessity.”

Sinha sees portable tablets as the key in this new accessibility of education. “The intimacy, the portability, the low cost” make them very student friendly.

The website, which has received financial backing from both Bill Gates and Google, is not aiming to replace schools, universities or teachers, but does raise questions about the future functions of schools or universities, especially with the increasingly higher tuition fees.

While select educational institutions already make lectures available online through iTunes U, the Khan Academy download figures make it seem irrelevant.

Almost a million lectures and sets of course materials are being downloaded everyday from 1,000 universities around the world, including Harvard, Oxford, Stanford, NASA and the Open University.

As Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students wrote in relation to MIT’s new course, Khan Academy “throws open learning on a scale never imagined before.”

While this is a large development in the face of increased university fees, it also reveals the tensions conventional education has with the abundance of online material available.

William Dutton of the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford says that traditional universities have struggled to find a balance between their teaching and the way that young people now gather information.

He says: “Universities have not figured out how to integrate online information into courses.”

Professor Dutton expects the future to hold a shift for all universities towards “blended” learning, using both face-to-face teaching and online learning.

Shantanu Sinha’s central aim with the Khan Academy is ensuring that as many people have the chance to access the core teaching materials that they need, in the most useful form, regardless of income or geography.

“Everyone deserves an education,” says Sinha.




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