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Of free classrooms and ubiquitous laptops

Mamata Pokharel's picture

How many of you have used Youtube to learn new things? I know I have. It was on Youtube that I discovered two young instructors from Iowa, who I have to thank for my basic salsa moves. When I bought a new camera, I turned to Youtube to give me some tips and send me on my way. And of course, if I ever need to learn how to survive a zombie attack, or how to become a ninja, I know I can depend on Youtube to impart those very important skills.

But I was surprised to find out that I could also learn serious subjects—like maths and science—all on Youtube.

A young man named Salman Khan runs the online Khan academy; a collection of videos that will take you from basic addition, all the way to college level calculus and linear algebra.

“I see a world where, literally everyone with a computer and internet access can go to the Khan Academy and get a world class education,” says Salman Khan. And from the comments he has generated on Youtube, people seem to learn better through his videos than in their classrooms. Watch a short introduction to the program.

I think our generation is used to being self-taught, and I can see enormous implications for a project like this. Especially when contemplated in the context of other huge endeavors to increase access and reach of communications technologies through mobile and broadband infrastructure; or the now-famous 100 dollar laptop, known as the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project.

Earlier this week, I went to an event talking about on-the-ground experiences with OLPC in South America, where the project has been rolled out in a large enough scale to draw some lessons. The speaker, Christoph Derndorfer had just returned from visiting these projects. He found some problems in infrastructure: lack of power, connectivity, or inaccessibility of repair facilities. However, a huge hindrance to using the laptops in class as an educational tool was a lack of content and teacher training. You can access his full presentation (pdf) here.

Which, of course, got me thinking about Khan’s videos, and the potential they represent. Of course nobody wants to—or can—displace teachers, but what if content like this could fill the gap in schools that have high rates of teacher absenteeism? What if such content could be adapted to local languages, contexts and curricula?

Christoph highlighted an initiative underway in Nepal, as part of OLPC, to fill the content gap.  But if someone like Khan Academy is already doing the content work, partnership with them would really speed up the whole process. 

Apart from the sense of possibilities, what I took away from the discussion is this: No initiative is going to solve everything, no matter how innovative. In fact many of them have to work together to achieve real progress.

At the same time, the fact that a single initiative will not turn out to be the magic solution is no reason to write it off.

Photo: © Charlotte Kesl / World Bank