School of the Present?: A Teacher’s Review of Khan Academy

August 18th, 2011

Category: News

One of the hottest topics in education today is the digital learning movement – the hastening convergence of classrooms and technology.  Perhaps no digital learning organization has received more attention of late than Kahn Academy (KA).

What is Khan Academy?  The short answer is this: Khan Academy is an impressive array of over 2,400 video lessons and assessments on topics ranging from order of operations to vector calculus to GMAT prep to a cost-benefit analysis of the stimulus program.  Students work at their own pace on assignments that match their skill level, and teachers provide one-on-one support as needed.  (If you want the longer answer, watch this Ted Talk KA founder Sal Kahn recently delivered.)

I haven’t used Khan Academy in my class yet, but here are a few of the reasons I’m excited to incorporate it into my lesson plans when the school year begins later this month:

  • In today’s diverse classrooms, it is too easy to lose the kids who are below grade level, bore the kids who are above grade level, or forget about the kids in the middle.  This is a challenge that transcends grade level, subject, and teacher experience.  KA allows teachers to provide rigorous, differentiated content for all skill levels and frees the teacher up for one-on-one instruction. 
  • The KA data dashboard is without peer.  Sal Khan was an investment banker before launching KA, and his goal was to create the type of data management system one would expect in finance or marketing.  The result is a performance tracker that is user friendly yet exhaustive at both the macro and micro level.
  • KA will allow for teachers to make more intelligent intervention choices.  Using KA’s real-time data, I can see which students need guidance and which can work through a problem on their own with time.  By minimizing “broadcast lecture” – direct instruction that goes out to all students regardless of skill level or need – KA has the potential to create more meaningful teacher-student interactions while devolving learning responsibility to students. 

There are, of course, some limitations to the Khan method.  In its current iteration, for example, Khan Academy can only teach subjects with objectively right answers like math and science.  More importantly, Khan Academy is only as effective as the teaching using it; like all curricula, KA is a tool, and its efficacy largely depends on the skill of the user.  Specifically, KA requires talented educators who can facilitate independent learning and work with students one-on-one, all the while being able to adeptly switch from multiplying fractions to multiplying matrices at a moment’s notice. 

It is clear that the nascent digital learning movement will have a profound impact on education policy in the near future.  Already, states are considering ways to model high-performing charter schools like Rocketship or School of One.  On the policy front, Education Next recently devoted its cover story to these new school models, and Rick Hess at the Fordham Institute recently commenced a six-part series of working papers on digital learning policy.

Here in Delaware, legislation will need to change before a hybrid school could be started in or attracted to the state.  Questions also remain as to how policy makes can differentiate between the innovative and the flashy.  Once those issues are settled, digital learning will no doubt drive a conversation about the way we train, certify, and distribute teachers, as well as force us to reconsider the way we sequence curriculum, prioritize standards, and set seat time requirements.

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Dan Hay



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