Illustration by Josh Cochran

7. Sal Khan

Khan Academy

The kids in Ms. Cadwell's seventh-grade remedial math class at Egan Jr. High in Los Altos, California, are doing things differently this year. They solve problems at their own pace, using a computer program that gives them instant feedback, charts their progress, and rewards them when they get 10 correct answers in a row. Instead of listening to the teacher lecture about dividing fractions, they learn from short videos that they can pause and rewind. They progress very quickly—more than doubling their scores on an exit exam in just the first 12 weeks of this pilot project. Students earn badges for solving problems rapidly and accurately, and for working hard to master a concept. It's "like a game," says John Martinez, 13. "It's kind of an addiction—you want a ton of badges."

The man behind this remarkable venture is an unabashedly geeky former hedge-fund analyst and star high-school mathlete named Sal Khan. The mission of his not-for-profit Khan Academy is "to deliver a world-class education to anyone anywhere." And if you ask supporters like Ann and John Doerr, Bill Gates, and Google.org, he has a good shot.

Khan, who lives in Silicon Valley, used to tutor his younger cousins in New Orleans over the phone. He built the first version of his so-called adaptive-learning system for them in 2005. "I viewed it as something that would generate more exercises and track how they did them and whether they got them right.

Once they got 10 in a row right, they could move on." As he later found out, this is called "mastery-based learning," a technique that's supported by 80 years of research but is unwieldy to implement without special software like Khan Academy's.

Later, Khan replaced the live phone sessions with videos he uploaded to YouTube. "When I started, I really viewed it as 'I'm going to talk to my cousin Nadia about math.' I wasn't paralyzed by a fear of being judged by the world." The 5- to 10-minute videos show colorful equations and doodles on a black background while Khan's friendly voice explains, say, the Doppler effect or organic chemistry. He has made more than 2,000 videos to date, all free on khanacademy.org and YouTube. They attract about 2 million unique visitors a month.

Khan, who now has hired a president and a team of software engineers, makes videos every day. "Five a day if I can. I think Khan Academy will get watered down and lose its focus if I'm not more focused on building content than debating policy."

But with the success of the math pilot at Egan and two other schools in Los Altos, Khan is on a path to become a central figure in national education-policy debates. "I talk a lot about flipping the classroom," he says. "As powerful as we think the software and the videos are, what's really powerful is what it does to the rest of the class time. Teachers are spending more time on investigations and project-based learning," and working with students one-on-one. "They're having their cake and eating it too!"

"I never wanted to lose the conversational feel in the videos. People tell me, 'We can tell you're actually doing the problem instead of reciting lecture notes.'"

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