What’s really cool about Khan

Video lessons are the public face of Khan Academy, but the brains of the enterprise is the software that analyzes students’ learning, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Khan Academy’s explicit goal is to teach people fundamental concepts. But in the process, it hopes to break new ground by changing how educators think about teaching, how psychologists think about learning, how employers think about credentialing, and how everybody thinks about the price of a good education.

Registered users watch the videos, which provide short lessons, and solve problems. The exercise platform tracks their efforts.

 “If [a user is] logged in, then we have the entire history of every problem they’ve done, and how long it took them, and how they did,” says Ben Kamens, the lead developer at Khan Academy. “So whenever anybody does a problem, we see whether they got it right or wrong, how many tries it took them, what their guess was, what the problem was, how many hints they used, and how long they took between each hint.”

The Khan engineers are also working to tweak the exercise platform so it does not confuse genuine mastery with “pattern matching” — a method of problem-solving wherein a student mechanically rehashes the steps necessary to solve that type of problem without necessarily grasping, conceptually, what those steps represent.

The goal is to get students to remember how to solve the problem days, weeks and years later. Khan’s team is working on a plan to question students on old problems to analyze how well they “retain their command of different concepts, which in turn would enable them to look back at their original interactions with the concepts and try to spot variables that correlate with long-term retention.”

Sal Khan, who left finance to start his nonprofit, is a critic of buffet-style higher education. A college degree doesn’t guarantee the graduate has mastered his field, Khan said at the Future of State Universities conference in October.

College degrees are “issued by the same institution that is in charge of setting, and enforcing, the standards of that credential,” Khan later complained to Inside Higher Ed, comparing it to investment banks rating their own securities. Credential-granting institutions should be decoupled from teaching institutions, he argued.

In Khan’s ideal world, this would mean an independent third party that tests specific competencies and awards credentials corresponding to knowledge areas in which a student can demonstrate mastery — like the MCAT or standardized tests like a bar exam for calculus, physics, or computer science. “It would be much more useful, speaking as employer, if they show they’re just at the top of the charts on a certain skill set that we really want,” he said.

Reliable, respected certification would be great for independent learners, who may take a few classes on campus, take more classes online, read up on a subject and add on-the-job learning. If they’ve mastered the knowledge and skills, it doesn’t matter how they did it or how long it took.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. Sounds like the exams taken in England when they get their degrees. They spend most of their last quarter in school studying for a set of exams that covers their entire undergraduate classwork and basically gives them a grade with their degree.

  2. “College degrees are “issued by the same institution that is in charge of setting, and enforcing, the standards of that credential,” Khan later complained to Inside Higher Ed, comparing it to investment banks rating their own securities.”

    I’m not sure whether that analogy is appropriate. Essentially, Khan is calling all college degrees invalid because the college that conferred them chose the standards (e.g. the required courses) to receive the degree. When a college offers a degree program, it needs tell its students the required courses to take and offer those courses, otherwise a student simply cannot enroll in the program. I don’t really know much about investment banking, but I’m not yet convinced that Khan’s analogy parallels colleges and their formulating of degree standards.

  3. But the investmentt banks didn’t rate their own securities. They had ratings agencies do that for them, and they were so in the tank that their ratings were trash.

    3rd party credentialing only works when the brand has not undergone capture by the organizations that feed it its clients, when the institutions involved have mechanisms to stop the corruption from rotting the credential.

    The ABA, the AMA have decent 3rd party credentialing, but does College Board? To what extent does College Board have any interest in detecting fraudulent test takers who score high on their exams through cheating? Similarly, what would stop a 3rd party system from falling prey to the same issues?

    How well does 3rd party credentialing work in other nations, like China and India?

  4. It’s a great idea, but since it will show the same “racist” results as other tests, it will never happen.

  5. Exactly, Joanne.
    I just wrote a riff and realized you wrote the same message better, so just deleted it. Anyway, I may post this sometime soon on The Riff:

    Reliable, respected certification would be great for independent learners, who may take a few classes on campus, take more classes online, read up on a subject and add on-the-job learning. If they’ve mastered the knowledge and skills, it doesn’t matter how they did it or how long it took.

  6. It occurs to me that the sort of certification that depends on something like Khan Academy has one advantage over all other certification programs – verifiability.

    Someone claiming certain skills, by virtue of having acquired a certification, can be made to demonstrate their skill at the prospective employers demand by taking a sprinkling of tests that are representative of the claimed skills/knowledge. All it takes is a computer and an internet connection. Not exactly a high threshold.

    If the job applicant muffs the test then both the applicant and Khan Academy lose credibility. Similarly, if the applicant breezes through the test then both enjoy enhanced credibility.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      In the United States, if those tests had a “disparate impact” racially, and if the company had not proved that they were very good predictors of job performance (almost impossible in practice), they would be considered a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

      That’s a major reason companies don’t test prospective employees. They sort of subcontract the job to colleges. Employers are allowed to consider degrees even though minorities are considerably less likely to have them.

  7. It’s also interesting that Khan is interested in “mastery” of a subject rather than a grade. To move on, you have to get 10 questions in a row right, however long that takes. Rather than saying, “you have a week to learn to add negative numbers,” it’s “you have to learn to add negative numbers.”

    In one of his videos, he documents a girl in one class that was well behind the pack in the first half of the class. The metrics the system supported showed that she was stuck on a particular module. After some time she “got” it (perhaps with the help of her teacher) and moved on. She wound up finishing at the top of her class. In a traditional setting she would never have had a chance to spend the extra time to “get” the part that she didn’t understand, leaving a hole in her skills that would be sure to trip her up later.

    This is, of course, more important in math than most other subjects, but it still seems like an important point.

  8. In our school district, the 8th grade kids who are in the lower track Algebra 1 class use the same text book as the kids in the higher track Algebra 1 class. The finish most of the book but skip some of the harder stuff in each chapter knowing they will be doing the same thing over again in 9th grade. In my mind, they move too fast before these kids really get it. In my niece’s school district, they use the same Algebra i text book, but do the first half in 8th grade and the second half in 9th grade. I think my son would do much better slowing down.