“If you believe in trying to make the best of the finite number of years we have on this planet (while not making it any worse for anyone else), think that pride and self-righteousness are the cause of most conflict and negativity, and are humbled by the vastness and mystery of the Universe, then I’m the same religion as you.” — Salman Khan of Khan Academy

Like any media outlet, YouTube is a double-edged sword. The content to be found there ranges from the tom-foolery of clownish faux pas and bloopers that make their way to Comedy Central’s Tosh.0, all the way to to the inspiring lessons of human potential demonstrated by TED conference speakers and Kutiman’s incredible ThruYou YouTube mixes (#5 is my favorite).

New Orleans native Salman Khan envisioned using the online video service to provide free, online education for all, and he left his job as a hedge fund analyst in 2009 to focus on realizing this dream fully to create Khan Academy.

Free Online Education For All: Khan Academy
Nope. Not this guy. (Image from Dimitris Kalogeropoylos)

With a little bit of financial help from various donors (including Google and the Gates Foundation), Khan has been able to expand Khan Academy’s initial backbone of math tutorials into a curriculum of over 2,000 videos that now includes algebra, venture capital, trigonometry, history, investing, statistics, physics, organic chemistry, geometry, finance, economics, astronomy, calculus, biology, probability, and more.

As Khan says, “there are about 200,000 students using the site per month; no reason why it shouldn’t be 20 million!”

Khan Academy exists as a non-profit organization that follows the tenets of global, open source cooperation, but its beginning was quite humble. In 2004, when Khan’s 6th grade cousin Nadia was having trouble with math, he tutored her remotely through a combination of telephone and Yahoo! Doodle.

As this proved successful and Nadia began to surpass her classmates in math, Nadia’s brothers were encouraged to take part in the sessions for their progress. As Khan’s pool of students grew, it became more practical for him to create and post YouTube videos, which were noticed by even more people — even adult learners long suffering from aversion to numbers due to faulty teaching — who found the tutorials useful to their understanding of math.

It didn’t take long for big, influential eyeballs to stumble upon Khan’s efforts. Bill Gates, a huge proponent of online education, has been more than happy to publicize Khan Academy to anyone who will listen. He and his 11-year-old son instantly made use of the available YouTube tutorials when they were brought to his attention by a colleague; soon after, Gates was praising Salman Khan and Khan Academy at conferences attended by thousands of people. It was only a matter of time before the Gates Foundation helped further Khan Academy’s success with a generous grant.

BitTorrent recently included a Khan Academy app in its newly released App Studio, which allows users to freely download and share the entire Khan Academy library of over 2,000 videos. No matter how you feel about the well-reported abuses of peer-to-peer “torrenting” technology for software and media piracy, here’s one clear example of how its application can be beneficial.

Follow Khan Academy on Twitter to keep track of its progress, and if you can translate tutorials into other languages from English, the folks there would love to hear from you.

Even if you don’t know any children who could benefit from this online educational resource, I highly encourage you to take a peek at Khan Academy for yourself. No matter your age, you may even be inspired to pick up a subject you once found daunting and give it another (not-so-college) try on your own terms. I never really got a kick out of math in school — and, as a result, have always lacked a real comprehension of anything beyond basic arithmetic — so I plan on taking advantage of Khan Academy to see if maybe I can learn a thing or two that I missed the first time around. Wish me luck!