In My Opinion

Andres Oppenheimer: U.S. school ‘revolution’ spreads to Latin America

An educational revolution that is well underway in the United States may soon start making inroads in Latin America. It’s focused on “flipped classrooms,” in which students learn at home and do their homework in school with the help of their teachers.

The Khan Academy, a non-profit website with free videos and interactive exercises for students that already has about 60 million unique visitors a year — most of them in the United States, has just started its Spanish-language website It offers more than 800 videos in Spanish to help children in math, algebra, and several other subjects for free.

Last week I interviewed Salman Khan, the 37-year-old founder of the Khan Academy. Judging from what he has achieved so far, it’s no wonder that Time magazine has named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

His story is amazing. After graduating with three degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and completing an MBA at Harvard, Khan took a job with a hedge fund in Boston. After work, he used to spend his nights on the phone helping his 11-year-old cousin Nadia, who lived in New Orleans, with her school math homework.

Word got around his family that Khan was offering free tutoring, and he soon found himself helping more than a dozen cousins. A friend suggested that he make videos and post them on YouTube so that all his cousins could see them. Khan did that and started noticing that many more people were watching his videos.

Two years later, in 2009, more than 100,000 people were following Khan’s educational videos. Khan quit his day job and started his non-profit academy. About a year later, the Gates Foundation gave the Khan Academy $1.5 million and Google donated another $2 million.

The Khan Academy’s current $13-million annual budget comes entirely from donations. “It’s in our mission statement to provide a world-class education for anyone, anywhere. So we are not only committed to being free, but also to be non-commercial. You won’t see ads on our site,’’ Khan told me.

Today, the Khan Academy is being used in more than 30,000 U.S. classrooms, Khan said. In addition to thousands of videos, it has developed software for personalized interactive exercises and tools to help teachers measure students’ individual progress.

It is accelerating the trend away from the traditional classroom — the 200-year-old so-called Prussian model where students sit passively in class listening to their teachers’ lectures.

“The idea of a flipped classroom isn’t actually my idea,” Khan told me. He said he first learned about it in 2007 or 2008, when several teachers began sending him e-mails “saying that they were flipping the classroom and using class-time for problem solving.”

He added that the new technology allows for “personalized learning,” in which students can master concepts at their own pace before moving on to the next lesson.

I asked him if technology has been oversold as a learning tool. After all, when radio became popular in the 1920s, people said it would revolutionize education. The same happened with television in the 1950s and with personal computers in the 1980s. Yet classrooms have remained pretty much the same, I added.

That’s true, he responded, but there is a significant difference this time. When it comes to education, radio, television and personal computers were mostly focused on disseminating information — a passive experience. Now, the new technology is focused on interactive learning, which is an active experience, he said.

“It’s not just putting up a video and letting kids watch things,” Khan told me. “What we see as the most important part of this new technology is the ability to track where students are, so that you can give them problems exactly at their level, and give the teachers dashboards so that they can keep track of each student’s progress.”

My opinion: The Khan Academy’s free videos and exercises can become a fantastic tool for teachers throughout Latin America.

True, this technology works best in rich countries, where most children are well-fed and have personal computers at home.

But just as Latin American countries, which are increasingly becoming middle-income nations and in some cases already giving away laptops to their schoolchildren, are changing the educational landscape, so too can the Khan Academy have a big impact. The region’s outdated and poorly-performing schools would greatly benefit from a dose of “flipped classrooms” and personalized learning.

Read more Andres Oppenheimer stories from the Miami Herald

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