Anthony Sanfilippo

In 2004, a young securities advisor named Salman Khan began tutoring his 10 year old cousin in basic math.  Despite her obvious intelligence, Nadia was having difficulty academically, was falling behind her classmates, and beginning to believe “I can’t do math”.  He began by talking to her by phone every evening for about an hour.  Between talks, he would send her emails with lessons or exercises to complete.  Before long, Nadia was doing much better in school and, in fact, surpassing her classmates and getting eager to learn more.  In addition, a number of other cousins began to join in on the lessons.  When the number reached about 15, Salman realized he needed a better method to post the lessons.  A friend suggested You Tube.  Although he admitted to a sense at the time that You Tube was “just for videos of cats playing the piano”, he began to use it.  In addition to reaching more of his cousins, this allowed him to develop lessons in other areas of need, such as history, English and general science.  In addition, the lessons started getting picked up by other people worldwide.  He began to develop a somewhat ambitious vision of providing “free education to anyone, anywhere”.  He quit his job to devote himself full time to his rather lofty goal.  The initiative began to grow and catch the attention of some prominent benefactors, notably Bill Gates.

The result of all this is the Khan Academy, a not-for-profit organization with no headquarters but about 40 employees who have developed and posted thousands of video lessons in a variety of subjects that reach about 43 million users world wide and now provide their on-line educational material at no charge in 16 languages.   The lessons are interconnected so that they build incrementally and allow learners to work at their own pace and develop expertise analogous to school courses.  The material has gone beyond individual usage and is now being picked up by school boards to supplement their curriculum.  In most cases, this is leading to a change in the teaching philosophy, since teachers can devote class time to group activities, consolidating experiences, or individual instruction.  Teachers have been particularly impressed with the ability to track individual student progress, and identify various patterns of learning and needs.  There are numerous personal testimonies from adults who had returned to learning after having given up themselves as a result of failure in the traditional school system.

Are there lessons here for medical schools?  I think a few:

  1. We now have technology that allows us to do things in drastically different ways.  Although we don’t have to change because of the technology, we no longer need to feel constrained by traditional models.
  2. The world belongs to those who are willing to set a goal and to engage solutions with an open mind, imagination, and a sense that anything is possible.  Steve Jobs changed the world with the philosophy that we need to  “Think Different”.
  3. We all learn differently, as children, as university students, as adults.  Our methods should identify and encourage those differences rather than limiting learning to those who happen to fit the traditional model.
  4. Learners need to consolidate the basics before moving on to advanced learning.  Khan identified early on that his students were having difficulty in traditional schools systems because the class had to move on to new topics before the basics were completely mastered by all students.
  5. The learning method Khan has developed is not only more effective, but, amazingly, requires less resources and expense to support than the traditional model.

The world is providing opportunities to do things better, and not necessarily by consuming more resources.  We need to Think Different.