Can Pedagogy Be Patented?

What are the limits of what Khan Academy is trying to do?

A recent patent application by Khan Academy is raising questions about whether teaching methods can be patented, but patent law experts see the move as an influential player fortifying its position in the market. Ultimately, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will have the last say.

The online education platform, which primarily focuses on K-12 education and test preparation, in March applied for a patent for “systems and methods for split testing educational videos” — in other words, the method of showing students two different clips and determining which one is more effective at teaching a certain topic.

News of the patent application, first reported by Slashdot, was met with confusion from ed-tech analysts over the holidays. Why, they asked, would Khan Academy, a nonprofit whose mission is to “provide a free, world?class education for anyone, anywhere” patent what effectively amounts to A/B testing in education? How would it affect other online education providers? Most importantly, could it even be patented?

Intellectual property and patent law experts, pointing to supporting documents filed with the patent application, said the patent suggests Khan Academy is aware of the growing interest in online and adaptive education. Applying for a patent now, the experts said, could prevent legal issues in the future.

Young inventors

Inspired by the FIRST robotics contest, teens — and pre-teens — are patenting their inventions, reports Popular Mechanics.

The Londonderry, N.H., Inventioneers had already filed three provisional patent applications by the time they created the SMARTwheel in response to a FIRST Lego League Challenge. “We found out car crashes were the No. 1 cause of death for teens, and texting was the main distraction,” says 11-year-old Bryeton Evarts. “We wanted to do something to stop that.” Their solution is a steering wheel cover that detects when a driver removes a hand for more than 3 seconds and emits visual and audio alerts. A data logger communicates unsafe driving behavior in real time. Writing the utility patent application was 16-year-old Tristan Evarts’s favorite part: “You can conceptualize your idea, but until you have to list all its features on paper, you don’t fully understand what it is.”

A team in Rockledge, Florida built a custom robot for the local police department.

 It can climb rugged terrain, deliver a negotiation phone, launch smoke grenades, and conduct surveillance. “We were searching other police robots and were shocked by how much they cost for what they could do,” says Jason Schuler, a contract engineer for NASA, a team mentor, and a FIRST alum. So the team filed a provisional patent for its PDBot and optimized the design for a kit that other teams can use to fundraise. “Instead of washing cars to raise money, they’ll be building robots,” Schuler says.

Very cool.

Nearly 300,000 students participate in FIRST programs, which start with Junior Lego for grades K-3.