Ask SCORE: How the Khan Academy can help your business

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 20, 2012 

Question: In a previous column you mentioned an online learning site called the Khan Academy. I looked into it, and I'm totally blown away by its potential for educating myself and my employees. Why don't more people know about it? And, what's the latest scoop?

Answer: Yes, you got it right. I'm a huge proponent of the Khan Academy - it's an astounding learning and employee-development resource. Every business owner and manager should become familiar with it, and then think of ways to use it to best advantage in their own business. Let's talk about this.

First, let's be clear about what we're discussing. The Khan Academy is a nonprofit educational organization. Their free website has, at this count, 3,300 brief instructional videos on a variety of subjects. Note: in this case, "free" actually means... free. No registration; no login; no account setup (unless you want to track your progress). Their mission statement: "Providing a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere." This could be a real game-changer for the American education system.

All you need to do is go to the website, khanacademy.org, and look over the class offerings. You will be surprised by the variety. Maybe you want to learn more about some aspect of algebra, or biology, or art history, or business and economics topics. They're all there. A typical video runs about ten minutes. They range in level from fairly basic (in beginning math) to quite complex (in the sciences).

Here's the back-story. Salman Khan is an amazing guy. He started out in 2006 with an idea about helping people learn. It's a great illustration of how entrepreneurship works. Now he's a 36-year-old American who is being called "the most watched teacher in the world." From his small-scale beginnings - he recorded the first videos in a closet - Khan attracted the attention, and then money, of some heavyweights. Bill Gates was so impressed he offered $1.5 million. Google came in with $2 million. Realize that these are outright donations, not equity investments.

Khan has three degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard Business School. His very first videos were actually developed and posted on YouTube to help his cousin (1,200 miles away) with her homework.

As you'll see, Khan himself doesn't appear on camera in the videos. Instead, the viewer watches and listens as Khan draws diagrams, solves equations, sketches out ideas ("Khan-cepts"?) and roughs out key principles directly on the screen. Khan's narration is very informal, as if he is making it up on the fly, which is what he often does. He doesn't edit his recordings; if he doesn't like the result, he does it over.

There's been some push-back from the established educational community. Recently this seems to be subsiding. One reason is KA's development of a "dashboard" display which allows a classroom teacher to monitor, in real time, each student's progress at a glance. This includes not just their advancement through lessons and applying the knowledge while at school, but also each student's progress while online at home. To see how this works, watch the March 2012 segment of "60 Minutes" (Google "youtube khan 60 minutes").

Three groups are eagerly becoming major users of KA: charter schools; home-schooling parents; and summer enrichment camps.

The KA may bring about an advancement in traditional learning. It's a new idea called the "flipped classroom." For decades the classroom has used the lecture-format style of instruction, and then the students do homework for the next day, on their own. The KA model flips this over. Students learn at their own pace at home, then come in to the classroom for individualized help. Many teachers are delighted at the prospect of not having to teach to the middle. If a student has trouble absorbing the material, he or she can review it online as needed. This avoids holding up the rest of the class for additional explanation, or just as bad, passing over a student's needs so others can move along.

Here's a way you might try this out in your business. Look through the KA offerings and note some which might help your staff. Tell those who qualify that you'll pay them $1 a minute for one class a week. So for a typical 10-minute class, you'll add $10 to their weekly gross pay. Another thought: have each staffer write up a twenty-word summary of the video, and present it at your staff meeting.

So Salman Khan has given us two things: a terrific learning device, and a great example of turning an idea into a successful business.


ABOUT SCORE

To learn more about managing cash flow, and other small business matters, contact SCORE, "Counselors to America's Small Business." SCORE is a nonprofit nationwide organization with more than 13,000 volunteer business counselors who provide free, confidential business counseling and low-cost training workshops to small business owners. Call the local SCORE chapter at 360-685-4259 to schedule an appointment. For details about the organization,visit SCORE.org.

Ask SCORE is prepared for The Bellingham Herald by Bob Dahms, a business counselor with the Bellingham chapter of SCORE. Submit questions for this column to newsroom@bellinghamherald.com.

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