By Shanae Davis and Kasia Grobelny
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Khan Academy founder Salman Khan hopes that online technology will play a critical role in closing the education gap in Silicon Valley and beyond.
“Khan Academy is a tool, like any tool it’s there to empower the users of the tool,” Khan said at Friday’s State of the Valley conference, where he received the organization’s David Packard Award for Civic Entrepreneurship.
The educational website Khan Academy is a free online education platform that aims to bridge the learning gap by providing tools for a multitude of users.
The nonprofit’s mission is to provide a free, high-quality education for “anyone, anywhere” and features more than 100,000 practice exercises and 6,000 instructional videos on a variety of topics including math, science and the humanities.
Khan noted that the online learning platform allows students to learn at a pace that is most beneficial for them. As students master basic elements of a given topic, they move on to a more advanced concept. It’s a model that differs greatly from today’s traditional school system.
“We group students together by age and we move them together,” Khan said.
Khan said the real innovation behind his work was tackling the education process. “The real problem was the process, the process was absurd,” he said.
He also noted that the current system forces students who may not have fully absorbed material to move on to the next level, setting up learning gaps that derail their entire academic track.
Another benefit of online learning is eliminating the discomfort that can come from one-on-one tutoring.
“When you’re trying to get your mind around something it’s very stressful when a live human being is like, ‘hey, have you gotten it yet?’” Khan said.
Indeed, some say the rise of online education couldn’t have come at a better time.
“We desperately need to improve educational outcome in Silicon Valley, we are failing our youngest students,” Emmett Carson, CEO & president of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, said at Friday’s conference.
Statistics released this week by Joint Venture Silicon Valley indicate that while economic growth is on the rise in the region, education isn’t faring as well. The Silicon Valley Index shows:
- In Silicon Valley, those with lower than a high school degree saw a nearly 20 percent drop in median income, more than twice the drop of the rest of the U.S.
- While 83 percent of Silicon Valley high school students graduate, only 50 percent meet the UC/CSU requirements.
- Only 31 percent of African-Americans and 14 percent of Hispanics have bachelor’s degrees or higher, compared to 58 percent of Asians and 56 percent of whites.
- 65 percent of Hispanics and 56 percent of African-Americans students score below proficiency on third grade English-Language Arts proficiency tests.
- In 2012, preschool enrollment in private or public school for Silicon Valley’s three- and four-year-olds saw a four percent drop from 2011.
According to the report, there is a growing disparity between students of different races and ethnicities.
Statistics show that only 27 percent of African-Americans and 29 percent of Hispanics graduate high school meeting UC/CSU requirements. This is in stark contrast to the 74 percent of Asians and 58 percent of whites that graduates meeting these same requirements.
This means that the students in the lower groups are less likely to get into colleges, which in turn influences the number of African-American and Hispanic students that obtain bachelor’s degrees and go on to obtain higher-paying jobs.
Moreover, the large income gap between those with graduate degrees and those with less than high school education alludes to the necessity of post-secondary degrees to closing the gap between the high and low income.
The increase of public school enrollment mingled with the below average Language Arts Proficiency scores displays the need for more teacher-student interaction, which is hard to obtain with larger class sizes.
“Economic growth alone won’t fix that problem, we need intentional public policy,” Carson noted.
Dennis Jacobs, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Santa Clara University, said that while he is enthusiastic about the Khan Academy approach, he still thinks there is great value to teaching in a face-to-face context.
“When it comes to writing and reflection and creativity and the arts, we still need to explore other ways to promote those in the mind of the individual,” Jacobs said.
But Jacobs says that the potential of Khan Academy shouldn’t be overlooked.
“The genius of the Khan Academy is that he’s captured the motivation for learning,” Jacobs said. “The need for learning to be personalized, adaptable, customizable to the individual — and at the same time to be able to do that in a scalable fashion that can reach millions — is truly transformative.”
Indeed, Khan hopes to influence the education system not only in Silicon Valley but all over the world.
“This thing called education, it’s always been the determinant between the haves and have-nots,” Khan said. “And we can get closer to it being a fundamental human right.”