From recession’s wake, education innovation blooms

When non-profit edX offered its first MOOC in “Circuits and Electronics” last spring, 154,000 students signed up – more than have graduated from MIT in its 150-year history (though only 7,000 lasted and passed the final). Now edX has 900,000 students and more than 30 courses. For-profit rival Coursera has ramped up to 3.5 million students, 370 courses and 69 partner institutions.

The MOOCs, though, are just one part of this new landscape.

Sal Khan, a charismatic former hedge-fund adviser, discovered his knack for explaining things while tutoring his young cousins in algebra in 2004. In 2006, he uploaded his first YouTube video and, two years later, founded Khan Academy.

Today, Khan, who is based in Mountain View, Calif., has more students than all the MOOCs combined: Six million unique users a month from 216 countries watch one or more of the 4,000-plus videos available on Khan Academy’s website. These are not full courses, but connected series of free, bite-sized lessons – about 10 minutes each – taught by Khan and others in everything from math to art history.

You can watch in 28 languages, from Spanish to Farsi, Bengali and Portuguese.

The appeal of such technologies is obvious: getting great teachers in front of more – millions more – students. But Khan also talks extensively about shaking up education across a different dimension – not just geography, but time. Khan students can learn what they need, when they need it, without having to take and pay for an entire course.

“Whether we’re talking basic literacy or quantum physics,” Khan said, “it’s the ability to cater to one person’s needs.”

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