What To Do When Your 76-Year Old Mom is Pushing Khan Academy

When your mother, who doesn’t know how to use e-mail and still uses fax machines, calls you and tells you to get the kids on Khan Academy, you know this educational website has reached a whole new level. This happened to me last week as I lamented the math program at my children’s school and she made a not-so-gentle suggestion that I use Khan Academy.

Ironically, in the same week that my mother berated me for not giving my children a good education, I went to visit Khan Academy with a handful of global leaders. In full disclosure, the Next Generation Learning Team at the Gates Foundation has had a grant with Khan Academy since 2011. At the same time, we funded an evaluation of Khan Academy, which showed that schools with more resources—such as one-to-one laptop programs—had more freedom to blend the use of the videos into their instructional model. Teachers used Khan to assign extra practice or give quizzes, but in general the videos didn’t drastically change their teaching style.

I had always been skeptical of the platform and how deeply students would learn, but never doubted it would mix things up and really revolutionize the way we think about where and how students learn. I was both impressed by Sal Khan’s genuine nature and his team’s vision for the work. He was up front about how the platform was not meant to replace teachers but to enhance teaching, how he thinks about testing and how he believes his platform personalizes learning for students.

While Khan Academy might not work for my children (yes, I tried), the functionality on the platform has come a long way from the days Khan was filming videos in his closet. I liked the e-mail I got back, after my kids had been on the site for 45 minutes, telling me what they had been doing and giving me some suggestions. I loved the grid to the right that helped the kids see what holes they were plugging and my kids definitely liked the energy points. There were some glitches in the telling-time modules, but it was certainly easy for a 7- and a 9-year-old to just get into it with out much adult supervision.

I did wonder, however, how we might help students ask better questions about what they are learning and why and how we might get away from just answer-getting strategies and move towards more strategic thinking. We made some math investments in a set of Classroom Challenges and I wondered how they might be used with Khan Academy as part of a challenge problem set or even a different way of moving a student through learning specific concepts. There is a question that gets asked in many the Classroom Challenges when students are presented with a solution: Is this always, never or sometimes true?  It leads students down a path of proof rather than answer getting.  How might Khan Academy build these types of questions into their problems sets and use the answers as evidence of mastery?

I never did feel as if we got a good answer to the business-model questions, but Sal assured the global leaders that Khan Academy is going to be around for a while.  And I don’t doubt that. With the flood of new math apps, games and online platforms coming into the market, it will be interesting to see how the platform fares and if it can keep innovating.  I’m rooting for his world-class team and just hoping my kids might make another go at it!

– C.