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With a little help from Salman Khan


Videos help sixth graders at Karpagavalli Vidyalaya grapple math fundamentals at their own pace;(below) the Khan Academy team in California

What's common between Mountain View California and the tree-lined avenues of Mylapore in South Chennai? Nothing except for one newly formed connection: one of the schools for the underprivileged in this educational and cultural hub is taking the help of one of Mountain View's more famous residents - Salman Khan - to help its students learn maths better. Sri Karpagavalli Vidyalaya, a government-aided middle school, has been using the video tutorials of the Salman Khan Academy - a free online study resource developed by former hedge fund analyst Salman Khan - to teach maths to students of Grades Six and Seven.

Eswaran, 12, a seventh-grader at Karpagavalli, would struggle with algebra, daunted by the pace of the classes that was the same for all students, whether bright or slow. "I need more time to grasp concepts, " he says. "But in our class, whether we understand something or not, we have to go through the lesson together. When we use the computer, on the other hand, we can do things at our own pace - slow, fast, whatever works for each one of us. "

The connection with the Khan Foundation happened last year when the school received help from the Altius Foundation, a social entrepreneurship project started by stockbroker Srikanth Chandrasekharan. Srikanth, well acquainted with the Khan Academy's work, was also inspired by educationist Sugata Mitra's pathbreaking work, Hole In The Wall Project, which established that children from an underprivileged background were just as adept at using technology as children from privileged ones. Putting these two ideas together, Srikanth decided to check how alternative teaching methods could affect learning patterns in schools.

"We found that a majority of the 40 children in grade six in the school lacked a proper understanding of even basics like addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, " says Srikanth. The Foundation first tried teaching three children - a bright student, a mediocre student and a poor student - using Salman Khan's maths videos for a month. "At the end of it we realised that the child who was the brightest was able to learn much more than what was being taught in the class. The mediocre student was able to understand the topics better. And the poor student was making an extraordinary effort to learn. "

Encouraged by the outcome of this little experiment, Altius Foundation gave 20 computers and a broadband connection to Sri Karpagavalli Vidyalaya for its sixth-grade students. At any given time, half the class would work on the computers and the other half on worksheets. Since the videos are in English, the project coordinator with help of volunteers at the Foundation created Tamil subtitles for them.

Slowly, the class completely switched off from blackboard teaching and started learning from videos. This was in September last year. This batch of students performed well in their annual examination. "Around 80 per cent of the children scored above 60 per cent in maths, which is a vast improvement over their previous results, " says Srikanth. Now the new batch of sixth-graders is also being taught with Khan Academy material.

Every child is given a unique login ID and his/her progress is closely monitored by the teachers. "We can see how many hours of video were watched by each child and where a child is struggling. Teachers then help them out in the problem areas, " says Srikanth. Corroborates Vinitha, 12, a seventh-grader, "The computer can catch us when we go wrong and tell us where we slipped. That helps a lot so we learn the correct thing before we move on to new topics. I had a lot of trouble with fractions but I found it easier to understand on the computer. "

But though the children took to computers and the technology very easily, they had to struggle with some cultural problems. Khan uses a lot of unconventional techniques to explain a mathematical topic in his videos - the example of sprinter Usain Bolt, for instance, to explain what differential calculus is or he uses avacados as an example while explaining another concept. "These examples have little cultural bearing for a child from an economically poor background in Chennai - however, these are minor glitches which are overcome by the teachers and with Tamil subtitles, " says Srikanth.

This July, the Khan Academy's school implementation lead Sundar Subbarayan came to hear of the Sri Karpagavalli Vidyalaya project when he was in Chennai. "There are several schools in India which are now using study material by Khan Academy, " he says. "For instance, R N Poddar in Mumbai, Akanksha in Pune and Radhakrishna High School in Bangalore. The Teach A Class initiative is using our material and now many BMC schools are getting the Khan Academy on separate servers. "

During his India visit, Subbarayan also met the head of the CBSE board, and they are now working on a soft partnership to use the Academy's material in CBSE schools. But nothing is on paper yet. "We are working towards mapping the entire Khan Academy material for both CBSE and ICSE syllabi, " says Subbarayan. The Academy is also in talks with the HRD ministry to explore the possibility of a tie-up with teacher training institutes so that teachers, too, can benefit from this unique method of education.

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