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MMO Family: How Khan Academy redefines learning

Karen Bryan

In past editions of MMO Family, I've looked how games have attempted to teach and entertain -- and how challenging it is to do both. This week, I'd like to flip things around a bit and look at an educational site that, while not an MMO, does incorporate some gaming characteristics. It's a site called Khan Academy, and it offers free instructional videos on a variety of topics for students of all ages.

This week, we're replacing our virtual swords with keyboards and substituting our colorful avatars for colorfully drawn instructional videos. We're taking a week off from cute pets and monster-slaying to look at how Khan Academy is turning the current system of public education on its head.

Khan Academy was created by Salman Khan six years ago. It started as a series of videos on a digital blackboard aimed at his young cousins. After watching a video about a particular topic, users can practice through a series of quizzes right on the site and track their progress on a skill tree. The tutorials are now available in a variety of languages and include subjects such as math, history, chemistry, and even recently, computer science.

History of public education

Khan explores the roots of the education system in his new book, explaining how the 1800s were a transitional moment for education. It was then that the U.S. and many other countries adopted the Prussian Model of education, which essentially standardizes what's being taught to children each year of their lives. By 1892, the Committee of Ten decided on a 12-year schedule of instruction. Schools were separated into elementary, middle, and high school, and the committee even decided that every student should learn specific subjects in certain years, like physics or chemistry in high school. The upside is that education became something available to all, and more importantly, it was free to everyone. The downside is that this assembly line approach, which fit right in with the Industrial Revolution mindset, doesn't offer opportunities to diversify and fit the pace of each individual student.

Khan argues that the internet has turned that model on its head. One person with one computer can reach millions of people around the world. It also means the cost of education is effectively zero. Everyone can go at his own pace and get feedback at his own pace. Meanwhile, the lecture/information delivery process that normally takes place in the classroom can now take place at home -- or anywhere, for that matter. That frees the class for true interactive education, basically flipping the educational model around.

MMO Family  How Khan Academy redefines learning and gaming!

Khan said that when he began to make his videos public, he expected that they would attract only the highly self-motivated learners. What he found, though, is that it's become popular with a wide variety of students, from high achievers to students who are on the verge of failing their classes. On the surface, the skill trees are a type of extrinsic reward, and there's incentive to keep watching videos and taking assessment tests just to see the next box fill in on your tree. But at the same time, users are intrinsically drawn to the site, and their primary motivation for using Khan Academy is actually the method of instruction itself. Millions of people have viewed the videos, and as the staff continues to translate the tutorials, even more people will be able to access the content on the site.

User-generated content

Of course, it's impossible for one person to make instructional videos, set up practice assessments, and translate everything into dozens of languages. Khan has had help from volunteers, and the site is a nice example of user-generated content being put to good use. Unlike Wikipedia, which sometimes sees editors abuse their privileges and add inaccurate information, Khan Academy keeps tight control over who is allowed to contribute a tutorial video. And even the volunteers who add subtitles and translate videos need to contact the site for approval before they can help out. Still, though, this is an organic group that's based on a shared appreciation of using information technology to establish an improved model of education around the world.


We've seen the rise of free-to-play in our MMOs, and perhaps we're also seeing that philosophy make its way to the education system as well. Khan Academy is a non-profit organization that has covered its costs through funding from donors like Bill and Melinda Gates as well as larger companies like Google. That has enabled Salman Khan to make Khan Academy accessible to everyone around the world for free. Public education has been a noble effort to provide free education to all children, but the price tag has gone up dramatically, and the return on investment has been disappointing. It's no wonder that charter schools, home schooling, and virtual courses are growing in popularity. Khan isn't touting his site as a replacement for public schools, but he does stress that technology now allows the instruction/lecture portion to be done outside the classroom, giving the teacher the ability to work on practicing skills with the class and providing feedback in the process.

The future of education?

Khan Academy is exciting because it takes the traditional educational system and turns it upside down. It uses technology, but I think it also has a sprinkle of gamification that works really well. In addition, it's fun, and as we've heard before, there's a long-standing relationship between fun and learning. Even the way Khan presents his tutorials, with his friendly tone and colorful notes on a black screen, turns even the most daunting subjects into something that's more approachable. Because of the video format, students can go back and review portions that don't initially make sense, or they can review the entire video again if they need a refresher, something that you can't do with a live teacher in the classroom. No, it's not an MMO, but it does draw upon some of the characteristics that we're used to hearing describe an MMO, like user-generated content, free-to-play business model, skill trees, progression, and to some extent, a massively multi-user setting. And Khan's site is so groundbreaking that it's inspired the healthcare industry to begin using a similar approach when it comes to relaying healthcare information to patients. What we're seeing is a blurring of the lines and a meshing of media, technology, and yes, even gaming to some extent.

While the site certainly has caught on, it remains to be seen how it could affect the current system of public education. For some subjects, particularly in the field of math and science, it's easier to produce a tutorial on various skills. That becomes much more complicated with a subject like history, which is often open to interpretation and rarely has a black and white, right or wrong viewpoint. But we're in an age when some of the traditional ways of life are beginning to catch up to the rapid advancements in technology, and it looks as if education is finally beginning to do just that.

The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to

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