A peep into an educational development that has the potential to free students from the existing system and change school as we know it

“I think you just got a glimpse of the future of education!” declared Bill Gates, in a 2011 TED talk, a conference dedicated to “ideas worth spreading.”

He was referring to a model developed by Salman ‘Sal’ Khan, and the Khan Academy, an organisation dedicated to providing a “free, world class education for anyone, anywhere”.

With over 4000 videos covering school level Mathematics and Science, and with a fair amount of Economics, Finance, Computer Science and History, the Khan Academy library is a formidable resource on its own. Combine that with the exercises, a customised learning tool, and a system of getting help from fellow users, and you have an environment in which anyone — students, home-schoolers, or adults — can learn effectively.

In a traditional classroom, Khan likes to say, “A teacher has to give a one-size fits all lecture”. He explains that in a classroom a bunch of 30 students, not allowed to interact with each other, have to follow a lecture at the same pace. The system makes no allowances for individual needs and penalises you for experimentation and failure, and we often leave school with enormous gaps in our learning.

Sal stumbled across a solution to this in 2006, while tutoring his cousins online. By teaching through video, his students now had a resource which they could play, pause, and review at their own convenience. Away from the forced atmosphere of a typical school lecture, they could learn at their own pace and interact to fill in each other's gaps. In his own words, “technology is being used to humanise” the learning process.

However, what Sal stresses on the most through his unique brand of teaching is engaging the students’ inherent wonder and curiosity. In his informal and chatty way, he goes about his topics almost as if he is trying to prompt the viewers’ own sense of exploration and inquiry.

Last year, Zaya, a U.S. based organisation that works in India, set up a ‘learning lab’ in Geeta Vikas, a school in the Mumbai slums. Zaya used the school’s 10 existing computers and brought in their own ‘hotspot’ — a portable database and internet hub stocked with videos from the Khan Academy and other material. After school, students would spend a few sessions a week on the computer. A year later the process has evolved; teachers and students learn and review concepts together, after which each student receives individualised content on a computer or tablet. They can then work at their own pace, and with their peers, to “attain mastery”. Students are also split into classes of varying age groups: this way, peers can help each other much more effectively.

For adults out there, self directed learning doesn't stop at school, as the recent development of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC's) indicates. MOOC's are college level courses which huge numbers of students participating. They often have feedback systems and groups where students can connect.

Meet 23-year-old Devavrat Ravetkar, who after three years of an engineering degree left the “memory based, clerical work” that his Pune University programme turned out to be, experimented with smaller private courses for some time, and eventually discovered Computer Science 101, a course by Udacity, one of the major MOOC providers. The course works students through the basics of computer programming while teaching them to build a search engine. “Here I was,” Devavrat says, “discovering a freedom to learn that I never had in school”

While independent learning has huge potential, it is not an end in itself. Ask Aditi Parekh, who left school in Class XI to enroll with the National Institute of Open Schooling, because she believed she could do it herself. “I am studying subjects that I want to learn because I am interested in them,” she says, noting that she now has a number of mentors and a study group to help her. As she explains, “The biggest difference is that I can do much more with my time.” Apart from performing Bharatnatyam, blogging and volunteering with a school, Aditi organised an event on Gandhi Jayanti that had droves of people planting trees, cleaning up streets and attending workshops on poverty. In December, she independently organised—believe it or not—a TED talk with eleven speakers, the TEDx Anaikatti.

And in a way, that is exactly what Sal would like to bring about; by making it easier to learn, he aims to free up more time to be creative, and to work hands on.

Devavrat has his own predictions. “The way I see it, education should become a means to learn what we love. Every time we see a problem, we should be able to fix it. If we want to do something, we should be able to do it”.