I just finished listening to Episode 2 of Unconfuse Me with Bill Gates, featuring Sal Khan, the founder and CEO of Khan Academy. Sal Khan is someone I admire deeply for what he has done in the field of education. As a side note, I highly recommend you listen to the podcast. Bill and Sal talk about education, AI, and many other things. I found the episode insightful, but this essay is not about the podcast or this particular episode. In this essay, I will tell you about my experience tutoring my sister using Khan Academy and a few more stories from life.

I did not hear about Sal or Khan Academy growing up. I did not hear about most things before I set foot on IIT Kanpur campus – the rest, as they say, is history. My interest in education, especially in high-quality, affordable, meant that once I learned about Khan Academy, I read and watched everything I could find online. So, when Sal tells Bill about meeting Salman Khan, the Indian actor, and their interview on national television, I could picture this video in my mind.

Anyway, with that brief background out of the way, let us talk about my tutoring experience.

Table of contents

1. It takes patience. First, I tried to familiarize my sister with the overall platform and how things show up when I assign lessons or exercises. Second, I let her do a few classes at her own pace and complete the corresponding exercises to see if she had any issues with the accent, writing, explanations, etc. Surprisingly, she had no problem understanding the accent and did super well, especially in Mathematics.

Sometime when she was in Class 8, I challenged her to get a 100% mastery in Mathematics from Classes 1-7, just for fun, and she completed everything in a few months. Understandably, she would make many mistakes, especially in concepts she had skipped in school because it was “out of syllabus” or “not important for exams.” I would sometimes get annoyed that she could not understand even after repetition. But I’ve since realized that was a mistake on my part. I was trying to repeat the same mistakes my teachers passed on to me – give up hope and not explain things because students could not understand “simple concepts.”

I have a bachelor’s degree from a great college and will soon (officially) get two master’s degrees from world-renowned institutes. Still, I have no shame in admitting that my sister can explain certain concepts better and use fewer words than me. How do I know that? Sometimes I just pretend I don’t know something and ask her to explain them to me. So, yes, it works both ways – things that might be simple for me might not be simple to understand for others, and vice-versa. I was taught a certain way and would continue explaining to her, only for her to shake her head and say she did not understand.

2. Free, world-class education? Their stated mission is “To bring a free world-class education to anyone, anywhere.”1 There are still significant barriers for most people. My sister and I are not the worst off regarding access to resources, with my sister doing much better just because of how the world is progressing. As I said earlier, I did not have access to the internet growing up, so resources such as Khan Academy were out of consideration. But my sister does. And she’s among the fortunate few. Most children worldwide, and in my locality, do not have the resources needed to learn at Khan Academy – a decent internet connection and a device (such as a phone, tablet, or a laptop) where you can access the website or the app.

Even when you have access to a device, the internet is unreliable or non-existent (during the rainy season, power cuts are frequent, rendering broadband internet useless). I went to great lengths to get a broadband connection for my sister. The elite IIT Kanpur education sort of inculcated some values in me, most of them idealistic. Subsequently, I discovered that the world does not quite function like that. But I was not going down without a fight. So, when the local BSNL office and the contractor refused an internet connection to our place because I did not agree to pay them the extra subscription fees, I wrote to the regional General Manager (the PDF of the complaint letter) about the whole ordeal only to get a gibberish reply. Look at the idealism of that boy! I had no use for the reply letter, perhaps until now. I have attached it here (PDF) for your reference. I’m still quite idealistic, but life experiences in the country sometimes make me feel like, “What’s all this for?”

Their whole premise was that the internet connection to my place was infeasible because it was too far from the splitter point. I’d have accepted their argument had it not been for my friend (and neighbor). Their house had a broadband connection, so you can understand how hilarious it sounded to me when they essentially said, “The wires are not long enough.” If you can provide a connection to a house that is farther, providing a connection to a place that is closer should be easier, right? Well, not according to them. Anyway, I just paid for the higher subscription plan, and the wires magically reached the house. To this day, I pay for 1000 GB of internet for about 300 GB of use per month. I can’t change the plan, obviously. If you wish to use the leftover internet, let me know, and I’ll happily ask Mom to let you be our neighbor.

What I mean to say through this longish rant is that, if you have the means and can access Khan Academy, I really think it is world-class. But it makes me sad that millions of children worldwide do not have that opportunity. They could amend their mission statement and say, “To bring a free world-class education to anyone, anywhere, with an internet connection and a mobile device.”

3. The math is mathing. My sister’s school (and my former school 2) follow the NCERT textbooks (they did not during my time, but whatever). That means Math content on Khan Academy is sufficient (and in some cases way more) for learning what’s on the syllabus. That is not the case with other subjects, however. I wish they had lessons in history, geography, economics, etc., that follow the NCERT curriculum. That does not mean that all is lost. They recently released Physics, Chemistry, and Biology content for Class 10 in addition to the existing Math content. The biggest advantage of having all content on one platform is that my sister can focus on learning the material and not on finding suitable video lessons.

Consequently, I can also focus on her doubts and explain things to her instead of trying to find videos for each topic. With ed-tech companies coming up and declining left, right, and center, I think Khan Academy has a massive opportunity on this front – developing a comprehensive NCERT curriculum, for all subjects, at all levels, not just Math. It feels a little selfish in some sense that I’m asking for this because it directly has a bearing on my sister, but I hardly think we’re the only family under similar circumstances. In this land of 1.4B people, I’m pretty sure they can sign up and, more importantly, retain millions of new learners if they cover more of the curriculum.

From experience, Indians are not shy about spending on children’s education. Many companies also know this and charge exorbitant amounts for subpar content. The result is disastrous for so many families. Private tuition in my town costs about ₹1000 per month per subject. The instruction usually happens about three days a week, each lasting 1-2 hours. Assuming five subjects, that’s ₹5000 per month for subpar learning 3 in addition to the school fees. That is just unaffordable for almost all but a few families. I’m not going to go into much detail about things wrong with school education, but you can read this to know how I feel about a few aspects.

4. Teacher dashboard. At least in theory, my sister does not face the issue – having to wait for others or not understand something and yet move on. She can go through the material (if it exists!) at her own pace and try to solve things. I think she likes studying Biology because she has completed the entire Class 10 syllabus already! (She started about three months ago). Of course, not everything is a piece of cake for a first-time learner. But that’s where the Teacher dashboard comes in handy. It is game-changing!

Every once in a while, I check the dashboard to see if she’s completing her lessons. When I notice that she had attempted an exercise 31 times (this actually happened; Poor child.) or that she watched a video several times, I know things did not go well. In that case, I try to go through the material myself and explain it to her, and she usually gets them afterward. When I ask her why she did not ask me after a few attempts, she usually has no answer. If I did not have access to the dashboard, she would probably say she understood them without having a clue.

Things are getting better, though. I think she trusts that I know stuff, and these days she asks questions on chat if she cannot understand something. We recently solved questions on Monohybrid cross together – I had a great time telling her about alleles, recessive traits, etc. We even made Punnett squares. 🥹 Sometimes, I wonder whether I should have gone to AIIMS to study. It seems like a nice place.

5. The School. From what I said, it might seem like I’m advocating for getting rid of schools and doing everything on Khan Academy. Well, let me clarify. I think Khan Academy is great, but there are shortcomings. I already mentioned that it has no content for most parts of the Indian curriculum. If you add to that the regional variations arising from different education boards around the country, the content that does not exist quickly starts to add up. In addition, my sister is fortunate that I understand these technologies and know about platforms such as Khan Academy. Most children in her class and her age cohort nationwide do not have that privilege.

Hence, schools are important. In addition to that, I cannot just let my sister stay at home and learn all day. She has friends at school, and I cannot invite them all to play with her. Though, on some days, I wish that she did not have to go to school because all they give are homework – to write down questions and answers in neat cursive and then get a red tick mark in that copy, perhaps to refer to it only before exam week. All that copying questions and writing neat answers leaves less time for her to log in to Khan Academy and learn something. And I cannot ask anything of her because she needs to complete writing cursive answers to 20 questions for three subjects, however impractical that is. If you expect the student to write and do everything independently, she might just stay home. Copying answers neatly in a notebook and getting a red checkmark is perhaps a fair price to pay for the games period you get once a week.

I think it might be pretty useful if schools around the country adopted the Khan Academy Math content, for example, to supplement their teaching. It need not replace anyone, but students can use the platform to learn at their own pace. I was wondering about someday donating personal computers to the school so that they can let students take turns accessing Khan Academy every day and learn for an hour or two, with the teacher spending more time with the students at the bottom. Then again, that is a financial undertaking I simply cannot afford at this point. Add to that convincing the teachers and the school administration to teach computer literacy to the students and then asking them to spend less time lecturing and instead have their students watch some stranger’s videos. All of that for some expected good result. It seems impossible.

Clearly, one should not write essays such as these at 4 in the morning. It makes me sad that so many children worldwide do not have access to world-class resources like Khan Academy, and many who do, do not bother to learn from it. What a sad state of affairs!

Please leave a comment if you also tutor your dear ones. Feel free to share the resources you use, best practices, etc.

You can also buy me a coffee. Thank you!

Notes

  1. Sourced from https://brand.khanacademy.org/ 

  2. I owe a great deal to this school. It was the first English-medium school that I attended. It taught me enough – for me to go from not knowing what “homework” meant to graduating as one of the toppers in English in the school (and perhaps the district, idk). 

  3. The instruction happens in a group setting, so you do not get the tutor’s attention most of the time, and if you are a fast learner, you need to wait for your peers. Similarly, you would have difficulty catching up if you cannot understand something. After a point, you shy away from asking doubts and nod when asked if you understood something, even if you did not. 


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