A Learning Journey

May 7, 2013, 11:31 AM, Posted by

A teenage boy sits in his room, at a desk, working on a computer.

A sea change is happening in education. Millions are taking free online courses, some offered by elite universities. Lectures in crowded halls have moved online, with teachers and students using class time for discussion and problem-solving.

Unlike online courses and degree programs, the increasingly popular MOOC (massive open online course) is a relative newcomer to online education. The model beefs up regular classes while offering a free taste of college to anyone with a computer and Internet access.

Critics fear MOOCs may replace or cheapen brick-and-mortar education, and point to their high student drop-out rates. But many leading researchers consider MOOCs a worthy experiment.

Online educator Khan Academy is convinced of the value of online content. Like a MOOC, the material it creates is free and available to anyone, anywhere.

But that’s where the similarities end.

Most MOOCs have a defined start and end, and a long, one-way trek through lectures, drills and tests. Each course is on a set schedule, requires a major time commitment, and is taught in isolation from related academic areas. It is left to the student to make broader connections beyond what’s on the screen.

Khan Academy turns lessons in a vast range of subjects from math and science to the humanities into short, high-quality videos. A student tackles one topic at a time at his or her own pace. As a student masters these bite-sized concepts—subtraction, the atom, Andy Warhol’s soup can paintings, or the fiscal cliff—Khan recommends the next logical lesson step, guiding the student through a customized and individual learning journey. The result: the student begins to understand how and why something works.  

Khan Academy also insists on quality of content and delivery. A MOOC can’t guarantee an instructor or lesson with pizzazz.

This pioneering approach to education can have huge implications for how we prepare young people for careers in health. This is why Khan Academy—along with the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—is improving how medical students prepare for the revised Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) that will include new content in 2015.

To transform education for the next generation of physicians, Khan Academy launched a video competition and invited medical students to apply. Winners—those with passion, humor, a knack for simplifying the complex—will attend a Khan-led boot camp to hone and polish their video-making and teaching skills.

What we learn from this MCAT pilot could ultimately pave the way for new kinds of teaching and learning in other areas of health and medicine. And the enhanced learning could have positive ripple effects for U.S. health and health care.

What are the implications of this new approach? Just this: Anyone, anywhere with a curious mind and Internet access can have a health or medical education if he or she desires one. That starts to get pretty interesting. It may also ensure that we have a ready, capable, knowledgeable workforce to help transform health care. That becomes a major breakthrough.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.