Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Khan Academy, Philanthropy and The Big Society

It gets 2 million hits a month but I've only just heard of Salman Khan's Online Academy, and it's very impressive.

The free resource, provided through the effort and commitment of Khan himself with philanthropic backing from the likes of Bill Gates, has gone from strength to strength since he started tutoring his niece in maths (or math as our American friends insist on calling it). The 2 million visits a month are to over 2,300 separate tutorials covering subjects not just limited to mathematics (which includes everything from simple arithmetic to calculus) but also several science subjects (biology, physics etc), history and finance.

For all those who snort in derision at the concept of the Big Society and the idea that people may give up their time to pursue worthwhile projects (albeit voluntary work is only an element of the rather nebulous concept), this is an excellent example of how it can work (at least in the US). Salman Khan was a hedge fund analyst before developing this idea. He now commits all his time to it relying on donations to continue development, and to live.

Admittedly, philanthropy is much more common and engrained in US society. But it would be nice to think that we too could develop a similar culture of giving amongst the better off in this country to support the bright ideas and efforts of others. But before that happens we have to remove the attitude and, in many cases legal and commercial obstacles, that discourage or stop private individuals or organisations from contributing in health, education and other public services.

Recent events point to a lack of political will to drive the agenda forward. I hope this has been just pragmatic, tactical manoeuvring and that the strategy remains alive and well. Because I'm sure there are just as many great ideas and people in this country that could complement public services and improve our quality of life without having to rely on the approval, control and largesse of the state.

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