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.