The 'Messiah of Math' and Khan Academy come to India

Popular Youtube phenomenon Salman Khan has inked several deals in India to proliferate his platform amongst low-income students, but detractors still think that the model needs to go beyond worksheet drills.
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer

Donald Trump may not want him in his country but US citizen Salman Khan whose parents immigrated decades ago from Bangladesh and India to the US, is perhaps the most sought after celebrity in the global online educational landscape.

Khan has been a boon for students looking for answers to thorny math or science questions over the last decade or so. His thousands of free Youtube videos has since also branched out into subjects like economics, humanities, and music, and has attracted a mind-boggling 30 million registered students and 700 million page views.

Around 350,000 registered teachers also use the videos as classroom aids.

This Khan may not be remotely as famous as his roguish namesake who has been the number one Bollywood box office sensation in India for over a decade and whose movies generate monster hits with monotonous regularity, but, Khan the educationist just last week announced that his 'Academy' is entering India to try and effect a cataclysm that is infinitely more impacting than his silver screen counterpart.

Khan Academy has announced that it has embarked on a journey of localisation via partnerships that it is hoped will turn around a dire educational landscape in India that has not improved much in the last fifty years for the bulk of the country's population.

One part of that plan involves a partnership with the famous Tata empire where the focus will be on creating educational resources and content targeting children from middle and low-income families in urban India.

A subsequent phase of this project will branch out into several regional languages as India has at least 17 distinct languages and thousands of dialects making education a complex asset to deliver.

Khan has also partnered with Central Square Foundation to launch a Hindi platform. Again the vision is to generate localised, but also personalised content for low-income students at the notoriously ill-equipped and underfunded government schools where students can grapple with, digest, and master content at their own pace.

The Hindi platform will contain all the bells and whistles of a regular Khan Academy tutorial and some new ones as well where technology is leveraged for content delivery and tutorials, practice exercises, instructional videos, dashboard analytics, and teacher tools.

Students can also track their own progress and goals and will benefit from recommendations on what to target next in order to master the skills that they have earmarked for themselves.

The need for change in India is desperately urgent. Shockingly, only 48.1 percent of children in Class 5 could read a class 2 text in 2014. When it came to math, only 44.1 percent of Class 8 students in rural India managed to do a simple division problem in the same year. With a population of 1.3 billion people India faces both a huge opportunity in being able to leverage an educated and skilled work force or an epic social crisis with disgruntled and unemployable youth running rampant, hurtling the country into social chaos.

Constructing Youtube videos would have been a preposterous idea if broached to Salman Khan when he was studying electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, when he was at Harvard Business School, or still later when he was crunching numbers at a hedge fund as an analyst.

The fact is necessity is the mother of invention, and a persistent and anxious cousin who needed help in math inspired Khan to draw up a few simple tutorials on Youtube. A deluge of requests from other cousins followed, and then a tsunami of pleas from the general population of students in exam crisis. Khan Academy was born, and the rest is history

However, despite all of Khan's success, he has some vociferous critics who contend that there's no real difference between traditional teaching and what Khan does on Youtube, and that the 'pause, rewind, listen' mode that students employ is essentially nothing more than 'digital worksheet drilling' rather than conceptual learning or hands-on experimentation which is far more important.

Here, say critics, students are actually learning very little versus a scenario where they are taught to 'model' the physical world.

Indian students in the hinterland who have to deal with incompetent, indifferent, or absentee teachers, combined with pathetic governmental resources and family pressure to get a job and bring in quick cash will no doubt view Khan's Academy as a godsend.

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