Can Anyone Catch Khan Academy? The Fate of the U in the YouTube Era

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the history of all art. A typical episode consists of a video screencast focused on a single painting or sculpture—say, Cézanne’s Still Life with Apples. On the audio track, Harris and Zucker discuss the artist, the work, and its place in the canon. The audio is always recorded live as they’re standing in front of the actual work, and they often disagree or talk over one another, which is part of the fun.

Smarthistory won a Webby Award for best education site in 2009, but it was always a low-budget operation, scraping together funds from places like the Kress Foundation, the Portland Art Museum, and even a Kickstarter campaign. Last October, to my astonishment, Smarthistory merged with Khan Academy, where Harris and Zucker now share the title Dean of Art and History. Their 300 videos have become part of the Khan course lineup—in fact, they’re the first Khan-branded videos that aren’t narrated by Sal Khan himself. In a blog post about the merger, Khan said the move represented just a beginning of a push into arts and the humanities. That’s a key addition to a curriculum that’s otherwise extremely heavy on math, science, economics, and test preparation.

It was less surprising to find out that Victoria “Vi” Hart, the creator of the Doodling in Math Class series and many other fun videos, has also joined forces with Khan Academy. The holder of a music degree from Stony Brook University, Hart calls herself a “recreational mathemusician.” She became famous (in geek circles, anyway) back in 2010 when she started publishing frantically sped-up math videos on YouTube, usually using fanciful characters like slugcats (felines with long slug tails) to illustrate obscure-but-fascinating aspects of geometry. Topics like fractals and infinite series came alive through Hart’s anthropomorphic drawings, but that was only part of what made the videos enchanting. Throughout, she also sprinkled fairly barbed criticisms of how deadening traditional math education can be. (Why doodle in math class, she asks in one video? “Maybe you have an incompetent teacher and it’s too heartbreaking to watch her butcher what could have been such a fun subject full of snakes and balloons.”) My favorite Doodling videos are the ones on Fibonacci numbers, which turn up with amazing frequency in the spiraling patterns of leaves and seeds in many plants.

But as awesome and popular as these videos were—Hart’s riff on Infinity Elephants has been viewed more than 1.5 million times—they weren’t exactly earning her a living; she says in one video that she got by for a long time on speaking fees. That’s why it was such a perfect match when Khan Academy hired her and assigned her to keep going. Now “I show up at an office and do whatever I want and get paid for it,” Hart says. She adds that while her own videos make nice teasers for cool corners of mathematics, the Khan curriculum is a gateway to the deeper technical details. “I want to share cool stuff you can do [with math], and it is very important to be able to amuse yourself in class,” she jokes. “But when people ask me how do I go farther than that, how do I get down some basics, Khan Academy is such a perfect way to do this.”

There are plenty of other people making great, free educational videos on YouTube. One source that came in extremely handy a couple of weeks ago, during the hoopla over the Higgs boson, was Minute Physics, the creation of animator Henry Reich. His explanation of how the Higgs field imparts mass was the best I’ve seen, hands down. As far as I know, Reich hasn’t taken a job at Khan Academy yet, but he has fans who think he should.

My overall point is this: it’s always been the job of universities to inspire students to undertake careers in intellectually challenging fields like math, chemistry, linguistics, physics, and art history. But today they’re in danger of ceding that role to the new YouTube celebrities. At any real college, professors like Harris, Zucker, Hart, Reich, and Khan would be … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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