Khan Academy

Is there anyone who doesn’t know about Khan Academy, the free online school? A favorite of the digiterati, this website was founded by Sal Khan who started out by making video tutorials on how to learn algebra. He captured his instructional doodles on a black screen (rather than focus on his talking face) and these short intense classes were amazingly effective. Our son used them for high-school math summer school. Students love them because they can go their own pace, and back up when needed. Sal Khan branched out to cover almost every other school topic, from history to economics, in over 4,000 videos. I’ve searched for, and attended, specific lessons in his Chemistry set in order to brush up on a forgotten point. While his math and SAT prep ones are still the best, all his courses are free, and he still teaches better than the average teacher.

Overview of An overview of the different ways to use Khan Academy

-- KK  

SuperMemo + Anki

In high school, I tried to learn Spanish, and failed. In college, I tried again, and failed again. Then, in my thirties, I discovered SuperMemo, and within a year I had memorized thousands of Spanish words and phrases and was finally on my way to speaking Spanish.

SuperMemo is software premised on the idea that there is an ideal time to practice any item you are trying to remember. You want to practice when you have almost forgotten it. Too soon, and you waste your time, and even interfere with long term memory formation. Too late, and you’ve lost the trace, and have struggle to learn it again. There is a simple equation that describes the shape of the forgetting curve, but the exact curve is different for every item and for every person. There is no single “best pace” for memorizing all things.

However, your ideal time to practice can be predicted from your history of attempted recall. The inventor and memory expert Piotr Wozniak reduced this practice to software many years ago, and his technique, called “spaced repetition,” is now available in quite a few learning products, including Wozniak’s own SuperMemo, and an open source version called Anki. None of them are perfect from a usability point of view. But any of them will work far, far better than random study of flashcards. These tools will not give you all the pieces of the learning puzzle, obviously. Memorization is only one step. But it is a crucial, difficult, first step, and it is wonderful to get a boost.

I recommend SuperMemo or Anki to every student who needs to memorize: vocabulary, science and medical terms, names and faces, musical chords, technical specs — anything that can be reduced to a flash card.

SuperMemo for Windows (its main version) has a famously slow-to-evolve interface that will irritate anybody used to the convenience of modern UX, but it contains many wonderful features, including “incremental reading,” which is a way to save and remember passages from books and articles. Anki is quite primitive in terms of features, but has an up-to-date interface and is available on most platforms, including an iOS and free Android app.


-- Gary Wolf  

SuperMemo (Windows)

Free, donations welcome

SuperMemo iPhone app
Free, with in-app purchases for language courses

Science Fair Handbook

Science fairs are the hidden secret sauce for America’s innovation. They instill the joys of the scientific method early in impressionable minds. Sadly, science fairs are in decline in the US (and on the rise in China, which has a million kids do them each year.) Get your school to run one, or do your own.

My kids’ school promoted science fair participation, and one of our daughter’s projects made it to the California state level one year. In assisting my kids (yes it is okay) I’ve accumulated a entire bookshelf of science fair guides and idea books. The best of all these is the second edition of a 120-page book co-authored by the great science and science-fiction author Isaac Asimov. Aimed at parents wanting to help, and teachers hoping to set one up, it emphasizes the process of science fairing at the elementary school level. Basically, how to do a small experiment and report on it. Then how to judge it.

Unlike most science fair books at this level it is not packed with experiments recycled from others; the ideal experiment is one you don’t know the answer to. That makes your experiment more valuable and more fun for everyone. This handbook does list a few suggested topics by age to spur an idea. For inspiration of possibilities, we haven’t found anything better than old episodes of Mythbusters. As Adam Savage said in one, “Remember kids, the only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down.”

-- KK  

Science Fair Handbook
Anthony Fredericks, Isaac Asimov
2001, 128 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:



Developing a Hypothesis

After students have designed an appropriate question, they must turn that question into a hypothesis. A hypothesis is an educated guess, a statement of how the scientist thinks the experiment will turn out. It is a prediction, based on the best available information, of what the scientist believes will happen at the conclusion of the experiment. Although the hypothesis is founded on factual data the student has collected during the research stage, it is the student’s opinion deduced from those facts. A well-constructed hypothesis identifies the subjects of the experiment (plants, mice) and states what is being measured (rate of growth, weight), the conditions of the experiment (different-colored light sources, junk food versus regular food), and the results expected (light colors produce faster growth rates than dark colors; a nutritious diet produces higher weights than a junk food diet). Thus a student’s question about a specific area of interest can be developed into a hypothesis that forms the foundation of the student’s investigation.


Avoid clutter

It is important to include enough items to illustrate important concepts of the project, but it is equally important to avoid crowding the display table. Too many items detract from the display just as much as too few.


Scientific Thought

Is the experiment designed to answer a question?
Are the procedures appropriate to the area of investigation?
Is the topic or problem stated clearly and completely?
Has scientific literature been cited?
Have scientists or other experts been consulted?
Has a systematic plan of action been stated?
Is there a need for further research or investigation?
Is there an adequate conclusion?
Is a project notebook provided with the display?
Is the project notebook sufficiently detailed in relation to the scope of the project?
Have any problems or limitations that occurred been noted?
Is the amount of data commensurate with the scope of the project?
Does the student understand all the facts and/or theories?

Alphablocks videos

Up until about a week ago my 3 year-old had learned to recognize the 4-5 letters that are the initials for our families names (d for daddy, m for mummy) and was looking like he was ready to branch out beyond that.

Somewhere I heard about a BBC CBeebies show call Alphablocks, and got hold of the first series for him to watch. He loved it, especially the music of it, and the characters (his favorite is X, the superhero.) He’d ask for it a couple of times a day, and would happily sit through all 26 3-min episodes in one go.

Now, a week or so later, he knows almost all the letters of the alphabet, with their basic sounds.

It’s not a substitute for one-on-one time with a parent, but I can already see he enjoys books more now that he gets the meaning of the symbols.

With his older brother we used a book Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons by Siegfried Engelman, which I also recommend. But it was hard work for him, whereas Alphablocks has just been a fun tv show that he enjoys watching.

All the alphablocks episodes are on youtube (and BBC website – not sure about outside the UK), and dvd, and they look to be branching out to books, web games, and tablet apps.

If your kids have already made the connection of what letters mean, I’d recommend watching a couple of episodes yourself, and then watching them with your child.

-- Fraser Redmond  

Free on YouTube

HP 35s Scientific Calculator

The HP 35s is one of the greatest calculators of all time. Ok, I’ll revise that statement slightly: it’s the best calculator I’ve ever used. The RPN system is incredibly intuitive and useful, besides being much more effective and efficient than the traditional algebraic system. The buttons feel great under your fingers, both texture and response. It has basically every function I’ve ever needed (in engineering undergrad), and despite having a two-line display, its far preferable to my TI 83, because it’s much smaller than the TI, and of sturdier build. I went to the 35s, never looking back.

-- Leandro Rodriguez  

[I wouldn't say Reverse Polish notation (RPN) is intuitive, but its easy to get the hang of. -- Mark]

HP 35s Scientific Calculator

Available from Amazon


Quizlet is used almost daily by 12 million people but you’ve never heard of it unless you have a high school student. It’s a cloud-based flash card app. Here’s how my highschool son explains it.

Quizlet is what I and all my friends use to study vocabulary or anything else we have to memorize for class. It is super easy and super fast to add a card. No paper, auto-define buttons, lots of keyboard shortcuts make the process of creating a Quizlet quick and painless. Because Quizlets are all stored in the cloud, I can access them from anywhere and not worry about losing track of it. I usually type the cards on my laptop and then review/test on my phone. I can easily share my Quizlets with friends. There’s built in gamification for testing myself which makes memorizing a million words less of a daunting task. Quizlet also has a lot of other features which I haven’t yet tried; to me it is mostly a practical memorization aid. The best feature of all though is that it’s completely free!


-- Tywen Kelly  


Long term success does not depend on which college you go to, or even if you do. (I speak as a college dropout.) However, for many people a college degree is highly desired. One way to get a degree is online. It can be cheaper (sometimes), and can be done remotely (sometimes), and can credit previous work and experience (sometimes). It can also be none of those. An online degree lies in the territory of scams and unscrupulous operators (as do some campus colleges) so you need some serious street-smarts to guide you. Of all the books, websites, and too-good-to-be-true tutorials I’ve seen, GetEducated is the only reliable source of information for online degrees today I’ve seen. Most online degree information printed in books is ancient and out of date, or tainted with profit by selling something, or frustratingly vague and unspecific.

GetEducated is constantly updated with the latest research, comparing actual costs, examining real credentials, and reading the fine print of what is offered for degrees online. And their advice and research is free on their website.

The one downside to the GetEducated is that the information is not well organized, scattered across the site in many webby articles with titles like “7 Ways You Can Save Thousands by Getting an Online College Degree.” The information is solid, but hard to locate and step through.

The editors of GetEducated run a forum and they promise to answer any legitimate question about online degrees brought up. It would be great it they’d assemble their knowledge into a cheap e-book.

In the meantime I’ve collected some of the more useful links below.

Cheapest Online Bachelor Degrees

Cheapest Online MBA

Myth of the Cheap Online College

Earn College Credit for Career and Life Experience

How to tell the difference between Online Degree and a Diploma Mill

Affordable Online Degree Rankings

Distance Degree Genie

Online Degree Advice Forum

-- KK  

Sample Excerpts:


Surprise, surprise, the majority of the cheapest online colleges are non-profit, public institutions. The University of Wyoming, Colorado State University, Macon State College – these guys have been helping traditional residential students get educated since the 1870s.

These colleges offer online degrees on the cheap to all residents of the USA. You do NOT have to be a state “resident” to enjoy the low tuition and fees charged by online learning bachelor degree programs offered by state colleges in places like Wyoming, Georgia, Colorado, and Nebraska. In these states, where the cost of living remains low, the cost of a college degree likewise rings in well below the national average.


Two regionally accredited distance-learning colleges in the United States—Thomas Edison State College of New Jersey and Excelsior College of New York—operate primarily as assessment colleges. These two special colleges allow students to earn entire undergraduate degrees through credit for life and work experience options.

However, most learners who attend these two colleges also complete some formal college courses to earn their degrees.


Instead, surveys show just the opposite – online college costs might actually be higher than residential college costs. The cost of masters degrees, online MBAs especially, are often higher than the equivalent on-campus versions.

While consumers often consider the University of Phoenix to be the standard for delivering a low-cost, mass market, campus-free college experience —in short, the flagship example of a cheap online college — the exact opposite is factually true.

The University of Phoenix’s Online College of Business and Management offers one of the most expensive online bachelor degrees. Their $66,000 degree, well above the $44,000 average degree cost, actually puts them in the bottom 15% affordability-wise of all 150 regionally accredited online bachelors in business surveyed. As of 2011, consumers could get the same degree from the University of Wyoming Online for only $16,000.


If you have to have the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business’ (AACSB) stamp of approval on your MBA, The University of Louisiana Monroe offers the cheapest such MBA at a price tag of $8,990 for online students nationwide.

(More college accreditation trivia: the AACSB is considered the gold standard for business school accreditation. Academics equate this type of accreditation with a rigorous, traditional business school education. I won’t tell you that your MBA must have AACSB accreditation; I will tell you that many recruiters and Wall Street wing-tip types see AACSB accreditation as a platinum stamp of old school approval.)

Home Learning Year by Year

When we homeschooled we were more into unschooling — ditching a formal curriculum — rather than replicating a school at home. Still, much learning benefits from structure, progression, and well, a curriculum. You’d like to have a good text book for geometry, or grammar. Or some order to present science concepts. There’s a huge industry selling extensive and expensive curricula to anxious new homeschooling parents. My advice is to get this book and assemble your own.

For each grade from pre-school to high school, the author and novelist Rebecca Rupp outlines reasonable skills and knowledge a pupil could master at that stage for different subjects. Rupp then recommends a refreshingly diverse set of resources for that subject and level, including the best textbooks that work at home, expansive readings around the subject, and even video series when available. You select from her highly curated selections and find the ones suited to your child(ren). In our experience her recommendations and options are excellent. They will likely be on the challenging side, rather than dumbed-down. And unlike many (if not most) homeschooling guides this one is not hampered by a dogmatic religious perspective.

Even if you are not homeschooling, kids learn at home, and this book would serve well to enlarge your child’s formal schooling.

This guide supersedes the author’s previously recommended Complete Home Learning Source Book, which is a bit outdated and not as well organized.

-- KK  

Home Learning Year By Year
Rebecca Rupp
2000, 432 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Grade Six: Language Arts

Read a wide range of age-appropriate fiction and nonfiction materials. Kids should read a mix of classic and contemporary literature, novels and short stories, myths and legends, fables and folktales, poems, plays, essays, magazine articles, and newspapers. Literary experience should be enhanced with a range of supplementary resources, including biographies of writers, audio and video performances, and hands-on and cross-curricular activities.


At this grade level, kids should learn the techniques of writing an effective multiparagraph essay: defining a main purpose or thesis, supporting the thesis with evidence and examples, distinguishing unsubstantiated opinion from proven fact, using relevant quotes from attributed sources, and providing a bibliography.

They should be able to tailor their writings to a chosen audience or purpose: personal, academic, or business, for example.

David Macaulay’s Visualizations

Few have mastered the big picture better than artist David Macaulay. When a kid wants to know about pyramids or castles introduce him/her to Macaulay’s books. Macaulay dissects the parts in kid-obsessive detail while keeping his eye on the whole. And he shows how it all grows in time. His uncanny ability to x-ray complex places makes him the master guide to the built world. Of all his books, Underground is his most revelatory. Even adults will find themselves studying each page of “the city underneath the city” in aha enlightenment. Oh, so THAT’S how it works! Macaulay revisited three of his early books — Castle, Cathedral, and Mosque– creating new even more amazing visualizations, and combined the books into one new book called Built to Last. It’s a short course on civilization for kids.

-- KK  

David Macaulay
1982, 80 pages
Available from Amazon

David Macaulay
1983, 112 pages
Available from Amazon

Built to Last
David Macaulay
2010, 272 pages
Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

From Underground







From Built to Last







The object of Cargo-bot is to write programs that control a robotic arm to move, sort, and stack colored crates. The computer language is a simple instruction set consisting of of squares that tell the arm which direction to move, and whether or not to perform an action based on the color of the crate. You write the programs by dragging and dropping the instruction squares into a sequence that causes the arm to perform the assigned task. You can also write programs that execute other programs you’ve written. (This is important because each program has space for just 8 squares, so you need to be able to write efficient code to complete the challenges). The challenges start out easy but become maddeningly difficult as you progress. With subroutines, if-then statements, and plenty of opportunities to practice debugging, it’s a good way to get kids to think like a programmer. You can also record a video of your program in action and share it to YouTube.

-- Mark Frauenfelder