The Khan Classroom

In the spring of 2011, Salman Khan's TED talk helped spark a national conversation about an idea called the "flipped classroom" and how internet technology can be used to transform learning and teaching (see this Wired article for a great summary of Khan, its impact, and criticisms as well as the 60 Minutes story in my "great videos" section).

If you were to visit Khan Academy today you will find video tutorials for a wide variety of topics- and it isn't limited to just math.   You want to learn more about the debt ceiling, Raphael's School of Athens, Newton's Laws of Motion?  Then Khan has a video for you.  Of course, you can learn about those topics, and 3,897 other topics that are featured on the site by simply doing a google search or reading about them on Wikipedia.

So why all of the publicity?  Why is Khan what everyone, including deep-pocketed investors like Bill Gates, is talking about in educational circles?  For me, a visit to Sparta Middle School's 8th grade math teacher, Mr. Kopp, provided all of the answers.

During the Thanksgiving break, Mr. Kopp created accounts for all of his students within the Khan website and provided students and their parents with primers on how to use Khan to enhance the student learning experience and to supplement what was taking place in the classroom.  What many students and parents soon discovered was that Khan is not just a series of youtube videos, arranged by topic.  It is a virtual classroom, where students can learn at their own pace, increase their proficiency of standards-aligned skills, and provide valuable data to their teacher who in response provides targeted intervention and remediation.

Last Friday, I visited a few of Mr. Kopp's classes to see how his experiment was working out for his students and how Khan has influenced the student-teacher experience.  The first main difference was the setting.  These classes weren't meeting in the classroom but rather in the Media Center's Mac Lab. Typically, Khan is used at home to supplement, reinforce or preview what students are learning in the classroom.   However, two or three times per marking period, Mr. Kopp brings his class to the media center for a Khan review.  Each student was working on their own computer, all signed in to their Khan student accounts.  The students knew they had a unit test next week and they were practicing problems based on the skills that they were to be assessed on.

However, practicing problems really doesn't accurately explain what I was witnessing.  For each topic that the students were going to be tested on (the upcoming unit test), the Khan site has corresponding sets (stacks) of questions.  For each question, the student is timed for how long it takes to get the answer.  This tells the site how confident the student is with this concept.  If the student answers multiple questions in a row on the same topic quickly, then the program knows that the student is proficient and will increase the challenge of the questions asked.  At the end of the stack, if the student got all eight questions correct, they can be confident that they are proficient in that skill and move on to the next topic.  What if they are stumped by a specific question?  Khan provides hints and then links to the original video tutorial to re-teach the topic.  The more time, hints and videos that a student requires to get through a particular stack of questions, the less likely they will be identified as having achieved proficiency.  Khan keeps track of all this and is able to provide to Mr. Kopp a report of how students fared and where he needs to provide additional assistance or re-teaching (see screenshots below).  The immediate feedback that Khan provides gives students the affirmation of their particular strengths and weaknesses and where they need to focus their energy in preparation for the assessment.

The students appreciate the ability to move at their own pace, whether that means focusing on a skill that they are having difficulty with, or exploring advanced math topics that they are curious about.   Khan also provides students with charts, graphs and other progress indicators that allow students to chart their own progress and set their own learning goals.  Throughout the class period, not one student was doing the same thing as another student- a truly differentiated learning experience.  Said one student of working with Khan Academy, "it is helpful because you can't always have a teacher holding your hand, and the videos and hints help me understand." This student logs in to Khan two or three nights per week to practice concepts learned in class.  As a result, she is proud to report that her grade went from a "75% to a 92%!"

Parents can sign up to be "coaches" and access the same individual performance data that Mr. Kopp is given.  For many parents, middle school mathematics can be frustrating because they are less and less able to assist their children at home.  The Khan Academy can bridge this gap.  To foster this partnership between home and school, Mr. Kopp provided parents with Khan primers through e-mail and offered daytime and evening workshops to learn about the program.

For Mr. Kopp, the experience has been transformative.  The hours and hours of preparation that was required to set this up for all of his classes has paid dividends in terms of student motivation and engagement as well as the added stream of individual student data that he is provided and uses to plan his lessons, activities, and assignments.  Kudos to him for taking this technological and pedagogical leap of faith.  We are excited to see where it takes him and his students.