Khan Academy Has Inspired Imitations Across Disciplines. MEDSKL is the Latest.

Khan Academy Has Inspired Imitations Across Disciplines. MEDSKL is the Latest.

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, Salman Khan should feel honored. Since he introduced Khan Academy in 2006, the free, open-access education platform has inspired several knock-offs focused on specific disciplines. The latest, MEDSKL, aims to provide comprehensive medical content for use inside and outside the classroom.

MEDSKL founder, Dr. Sanjay Sharma, a clinical epidemiologist, professor and research director at Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario, had an “aha” moment while teaching a class three or four years ago. “I could see that my students were distracted by social media during the lecture. At the time, I’d been hearing about what Khan was doing and suddenly I realized there’s a fundamental divide between how we’ve traditionally taught medical school and how the next generation is wired to learn.”

Sharma has a background in technology and video production (he actively researches and writes about educational technology and knowledge translation) led him to consider how to bridge that divide. He saw young learners acquiring knowledge and skills through watching YouTube videos and thought, why not apply that idea to medicine?

As he started to design MEDSKL in 2015, Sharma realized he didn’t feel comfortable lecturing on topics outside his focus area—so he asked colleagues for help. Starting with professional connections at universities throughout Canada and the United States, Sharma contacted hundreds of medical schools to seek expert lecturers in a host of medical specialty areas. “Our goal was to assemble the best instruction in each area,” says Sharma. “I’d contact a school and ask, ‘Do you have a lecturer who’s passionate about a certain topic?’”

Since then, nearly 200 medical faculty members at more than 70 universities worldwide have contributed to MEDSKL. “Our goal was to create digital content that appeals to various learning styles—text-based, auditory, and visual,” Sharma explains. Each topical module consists of a short lecture (about 15 to 18 minutes), a short animated video covering the main points, and in-depth notes. Sharma says the brevity of their lectures are intentional. “The TED Talk folks got it right,” he says. “That length is a sweet spot—you communicate what your audience needs to know without losing their attention.” MEDSKL also includes discussion forums for students and practitioners.

MEDSKL is designed primarily to supplement the medical school curricula for current students, rather than to replace brick-and-mortar institutions. More than 60 universities around the world currently assign the site’s resources. “In a lot of classrooms, our modules are becoming required learning,” Sharma says. “As a result, classes are becoming much more interactive, with small group sessions rather than one-hour lectures.” With a flipped-classroom model, as it is called, Sharma has noticed an increase in student participation and engagement—and he’s getting lots of positive feedback. “I heard from some Canadian medical students just recently who said this is a spectacular way to review the entire curriculum very quickly before their exams,” he says. “We’re also hearing from professors who see MEDSKL as an outstanding toolkit for flipping their classrooms.”

Unlike Khan Academy, MEDSKL is a for-profit venture, though students and institutions can use its materials free of charge. In the future, Sharma plans to offer a premium model that will allow users to pay for additional content and certification opportunities.

Growing Trend

It’s not exactly a movement yet, but MEDSKL is part of a small trend of discipline-focused video libraries.

For instance, Marginal Revolution University, created by two economics professors at George Mason University, offers a growing catalogue of free video-based economics courses via its website. “Our founders were very inspired by Khan Academy,” says MRU general manager and chief of product Roman Hardgrave. “We focus on how we can incorporate the best visuals, music and sound effects in our videos to enhance learning, rather than just present a lecture.” MRU courses also include discussion forums and practice assessments. While students can’t earn credit, they can receive a certificate of completion—and in the future, Hardgrave says, the platform hopes to offer transferable college credit.

For now, MRU’s primary audience is university-age students. “Students find us when they’re studying for their economics courses,” says Hardgrave. “There are a growing number of students who use Google and YouTube to study instead of buying textbooks. We get some traffic from high school students as well, since a lot of our material can be used at AP level.”

Like MEDSKL, MRU’s material has also become required homework in many economics courses at traditional institutions. MRU’s other users include individuals who aren’t attached to a college but are curious about applied economics.

For independent learners, platforms like MEDSKL and MRU present free course opportunities similar to those of MOOCs, but with a few distinctions. “MOOCs have a very specific window when the course is open, so you have a cohort who’s synched through it,” says Hardgrave, “but ours are on demand, so people can start and stop whenever they want.” That makes it more difficult to coordinate the discussion side of the courses, since groups of students aren’t progressing through the modules at the same rate. “There’s an interesting untapped social opportunity there that we hope to explore,” Hardgrave adds. “It would be cool if you could meet people from all over the world, follow or be friends with them in some way, and continue to help each other. You have something in common because you want to learn about the same topics.”

Other discipline-focused services include Open Source Physics, hosted by Davidson College, and Open Chemistry, created by the University of California, Irvine.

As more of these Spawns of Khan emerge, Hardgrave is interested in what they’ll teach college professors. “Nobody really knows yet what works for online learning,” he says. “A lot of the initial tries are taking the way it had to be taught in class and putting it online, so I think the interesting thing for us is looking at all these tools at our disposal—games, interactive exercises, videos, and social aspects—and asking the question, ‘How do we combine these tools to help people learn and retain information?’”

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