The path of Khan

Khan Academy founder Sal Khan started by creating online math tutorials for his cousins’ children, he said at the Hoover Institution conference on blended learning. Ten years later, his nonprofit reaches 10 million people a month around the world. Lessons are offered in a multitude of languages, including — with help from a 15-year-old orphan — Mongolian. 

Khan: Tech-powered teachers can do more

Khan Academy videos — and interactive exercises — will empower teachers, not replace them, writes Salman Khan in Education Week.

Khan Academy’s free videos now cover every subject from algebra to art history for grades K-12, he writes. In additions, students can practice math skills, move forward at their own pace and receive feedback while teachers monitor their students’ progress.

Teachers are struggling to meet students’ different “abilities, motivation levels, and incoming knowledge,” Khan writes.

Some are ready for grade-level content, while others have not fully mastered the prerequisites. Still others have already learned the grade-level material and are ready to move on to more advanced concepts. Ideally, teachers would like to meet all those needs simultaneously, but it is only humanly possible for them to teach one lesson at a time.

. . . when used appropriately, technology can enable teachers to lead differentiated and interactive classrooms. When teachers have real-time data and a clear understanding of every child’s needs, they can use their precious classroom time more effectively and flexibly. When students are learning at a pace and level appropriate to their individual needs, they are less likely to disengage or act up.

. . . Technology will give teachers valuable real-time data to diagnose students’ weak points and design appropriate interventions. It will enable teachers to more quickly gauge students’ comprehension of new topics so they can adjust their lesson plans on the spot.

Khan Academy’s latest platform teaches computer science as a “creative art,” he writes. He hopes to use the platform to “create interactive virtual labs with simulations of projectiles, pendulums, and the solar system.” In addition, a new feature lets users ask and answer each other’s questions, increasing the sense of online community.

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.