Why Khan Academy is so popular—and why teachers shouldn’t feel threatened


When he first posted his video tutorials on YouTube in 2006, his relatives said they liked the YouTube versions better than Khan’s live tutoring, because they were more comfortable watching the videos privately on their own time. No one was looking over their shoulder, or waiting for them to indicate they understood the material before moving on.

In fact, this ability to engage with the content in private—over and over again, if necessary—was cited as a key advantage in a video testimonial that Khan showed of a man who was able to earn a degree in electrical engineering with help from Khan Academy.

After admitting that he’d had to watch some of the website’s videos 20 or 30 times before understanding their high-level math concepts, the man noted: “There’s no [human] tutor who could sit with me and go over the same material 20 or 30 times.”

In 2009, encouraged by the reaction his video tutorials were getting on YouTube, Khan took a leap of faith, quit his day job as a hedge fund analyst, and established Khan Academy as a nonprofit organization. The site eventually caught the attention of Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, whose Gates Foundation supported it with a $2 million grant. Google also has contributed $2 million, allowing Khan to hire staff and pursue his dream of “providing a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere.”

Now, the site’s video tutorials are sequenced, so students can move through increasing levels of competency on the path to mastery. This is how video games work, Khan said—but until now, it’s not how schools traditionally have operated.

Schools, he explained, are based on a fixed academic calendar, with student mastery as the variable. This should be the other way around, he said, with mastery as the constant and time as the variable … and with help from Khan Academy, it can be.

Many teachers are using the Khan Academy tutorials as part of a “flipped learning” method of instruction, in which they have students watch the lesson content as homework and then ask students to apply what they’ve learned through classroom-based projects or activities. That way, teachers can spend their time walking around the room and making sure every child understands the lesson, providing individual help to students who might need it.

In addition to video tutorials, there are also exercises that let students apply the concepts they’re learning on the computer. As with other instructional courseware systems—most of which would cost schools a hefty licensing fee—the software that underlies the free Khan Academy system lets teachers see which problems their students got wrong, as well as how much time their students spent on each problem.

Armed with this information, teachers can come to class knowing exactly what their students know, he said—and what concepts their students are still struggling with.

In a pilot project with schools in Mountain View, Calif., seventh-grade students made significant progress on their end-of-year state exams after using Khan Academy for a full school year, Khan said. From 2010 to 2011, the percentage of seventh graders who scored in the “advanced” or “proficient” groups jumped from 23 percent to 41 percent, he said.

The national media has picked up on the story as well. One of the major TV news networks recently broadcast a story about Khan Academy, reporting from a school using the free online service. The reporter found one fifth-grade student who was working on trigonometry after watching the Khan Academy videos.

The reporter asked her if she thought that was fifth-grade math she was working on, and Khan said she answered with a sly smile, as if she were getting away with something: “No, I think it’s actually sixth-grade math.”

eSchool News Staff

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