Saturday, February 22, 2014

My Thoughts on Khan Academy

Khan Academy

Khan Academy

I have been charged with exploring Khan Academy, perusing opinions about the academy (there are many, and some are extreme), and using my own teacher brain to form my own opinion about KA. So, here we go.

The first thing that I did when researching was go to Khan Academy to explore. I felt it most impartial and fair to form an opinion of my own before reading others. So, I visited Khan Academy and went through the website. There is a lot to explore so this took some time. One thing that I really liked was the visual network of math skills webbed together in a liner way, showing which skills are introduced first and followed by what, etc. As an educator, this is helpful to see where my students are at, and where they are going, etc. If a student is lacking or having trouble performing a math skill, I could use this resource to see what what skills precede it in order to back track and re-instruct.

I will say that I in no way explored Khan Academy completely. It has over 2,400 free educational videos, so it isn't possible that I could watch them all and create this post on time! I did watch several though. My son is in 4th grade right now, so I spent time in the Math for 4th graders section and watched a few videos there. Also, under science, I explored the 'discoveries and projects' link and spent some time watching students who had created Lego robots discuss how they were working with the same tools as the other groups, but were challenged with creating a unique robot that could out last the other creations, gladiator style, in an arena. My son is also big into Legos and battles, so I was curious to see if these videos would be beneficial for him.

I continued down the list under the "Learn" tab, and perused at least one video under each of these subjects: economics and finance, humanities (including history, art history, and civics), and "partner content" which has videos in conjunction with such organizations as The Museum of Modern Art, Stanford School of Medicine, and even questions posed by a famous athlete - LeBron James, and answered by Khan Academy. I imagine there are lots of middle school students and high school students whose interests are piqued with that section.

The videos are not merely designed for middle school or high school students though. Rather, one of the missions of Khan Academy is to provide resources that meet you where your need is, whether you are a homeschooler, an adult, or "a friendly alien just trying to get a leg up in earthly biology." The founders of this not-for-profit organization are continuously trying to add to and improve their Academy so that people everywhere can have access to a world-class education. Khan Academy has at the bottom of the web page, under the bold title: a global classroom, these words, "You're joining millions of Khan Academy students from all over the world who learn at their own pace every single day."

Another interesting video that I watched was an introductory video on how to use Khan Academy's "learning flow." This is where you learn how to take a math assessment to see where you are at in your math learning journey. Using colored blue squares, differing in darkness (dark blue = mastery, light blue = practicing, gray = haven't seen/learned this yet, etc.) you see how many math skills you have mastered. Your goal is to fill up the squares. This takes time and practice, and proving that you have mastered the skills by taking and passing the tests to move up skill levels, etc. It would be interesting to take the test myself, see my scores, and then do some self directed learning. As a teacher, I get excited at the thought of having such clear data on my students, having this resource available for them to progress along at their own rate, and the data being available for my use in the classroom. (The lessons begin at a third grade level though, so my first grade students wouldn't be ready for this yet.)

I was intrigued with the idea of students pursuing and self directing their math growth at their own pace and interest levels. This seems to be the best way to go, and one that in a traditional classroom is a bit compromised because the group must learn what is being taught that day, etc. Whereas, on KA, the high-flyer students who could benefit from enrichment could press on at their own desired rate, while the students who struggle could revisit lessons that were previously taught but not mastered. When practicing, there are 'help' videos that match up with the problems, which would allow for good learning at home and a more 'flipped classroom' approach. It is interesting to think about and I would appreciate seeing this in action in schools. Again, with my classroom being a 1st grade classroom, it would perhaps only apply to the really gifted students who are ready for 3rd grade math (maybe 3-4 of my 21 students). Still, I might try it out with them and see how they do.

It's also interesting to see that the creators of this Academy recognize that students like to compete and "game" and "score", etc. So, there are badges and points for learning that you can earn. Some are easy to earn, giving success early and motivating for further practice, whereas some badges can take years to earn.

The fact that all you need is internet access and the desire to learn in order to access and benefit from KA is really exciting to me. I see this as being a good indicator of the future of learning. The Port England school post and video (available for viewing on this homepage) I watched recently mentions the same thing. Technology allows learning to extend beyond the physical walls of the school and physical presence of the teacher. It puts the learning in the hands of the student, no matter the age, and is rather limitless. Khan Academy offers teachers great data and supplementary tools to use to help meet the students needs. I can foresee this as a great tool for parents as well, so that they are better in the know of what is being taught and expected of their children.

Not all opinions go along with this line of thinking though. Apparently Khan Academy has received a lot of hype and buzz, and with all of that perhaps some expectations have gotten unrealistic. Many have expressed disdain for KA, and have been quite vocal about their displeasure with the highlighting of this Academy as a positive addition to learning in school. In one such article from the Washington Post (Khan Academy: The Hype and the Reality; an article written by Karim Kai Anai, a former math coach and founder of wrote) I saw an opinion that was less than favorable for Khan Academy.

While the author professed to have no ill will toward the founder of Khan Academy, Sal Khan, Anai stated that Khan wasn't the great teacher that the world was painting him to be. Anai noted that Mr. Khan began posting youtube videos showing math problems being solved in explicit steps with audio explanations in an effort to help some younger relatives comprehend some math concepts that they were struggling with in school. It blossomed from there. So, Karin Kai Anai isn't knocking Mr. Khan as an individual, or his great electronic teaching library that he has composed to help others who struggle; but Anai pointed out that Khan Academy has it's limitations and isn't all that it is cracked up to be.

For one, Anai stated that the videos were poor quality. (In my opinion, I find that it is better to have the quality provided (poor or not) rather than nothing at all. Also, I liked that they color coordinated the different place values consistently when adding and regrouping, etc. That little detail matters. Still, they could be a better quality, I'm sure.) Also, Anai states that Mr. Khan gets it wrong sometimes, teaching incorrect information. Furthermore, (and this is the point that I feel really boiled Anai's blood) Mr. Khan has been touted as an exceptional educator and a leader in education, yet has stated in interviews that he doesn't really plan ahead or prepare before teaching. He shoots from the hip a lot, and does just a 2 minute google search to prepare for his lessons before recording and posting. Anai kept quoting Mr. Khan from a Time Magazine article where he said, "I don't know what I'm going to say half the time."

Anai, a former educator who now owns and operates and works with teachers still, notes that a teacher would be fired for saying as much. Teachers are expected to plan and prepare. Thus, relying on someone who teaches without preparing can be dangerous; thus, it's foolish to present him as the premiere educator whose example other educators should follow. The better the preparation, the greater success with lessons. So, touting Khan as the 'savior of education' is insulting to Anai, I gather.

I do agree that planning and preparation as well as knowledge/understanding of subject matter is important for being a strong teacher. I also agree that Khan Academy should be viewed as a resource or a tool to enhance the learning that is going on in the classroom, not replace it because it is superior. In fact, many of the lessons are very step by step, do this and then that, etc. Where as in a classroom led by a strong teacher, the students are discovering on their own how to solve problems, discussing it, and figuring out why such steps or formulas work, being guided by the teacher along the way.

So, in my opinion, the 'hype' that has presented Khan Academy as the future of education in such a way that it replaces an inferior classroom learning isn't quite right; yet, dismissing Khan Academy (even if Mr. Khan shoots from the hip when recording/teaching) is foolish to me as well. We should be trying always to improve as educators, and attempting to meet our students needs and further their growth. Khan Academy is a tool that I can introduce to my students which can help do that very thing. It is not a replacement for the creation and learning that I will be facilitating in the classroom, rather it is great tool that parents and students can use in addition to that learning.

Khan Academy image

Works Cited:

Strauss, V. (2012). Khan Academy: The Hype and the Reality. The Washington Post: The Answer Sheet. Retrieved from: Washington Post Article Link.

Strauss, V. (2012). Sal Khan Responds to a Critic. The Washington Post: The Answer Sheet. Retrieved from: Article Response.

Khan, Sam, "Khan Academy,", Accessed February 22, 2014, URL:

Webley, K. (2012). Reboot the School. Time Magazine: Reboot the School. Retrieved from: Time Magazine Article Link.


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  2. Mary Alice,
    Great post! I agree that Khan Academy is great tool for the classroom but it should not replace the classroom. We still need teachers to lead the class. I like the part about building Lego robots on KA. I didn't see that part but that sounds like a good application of engineering skills. When you said your first graders might not be ready for KA, you might be surprised. Here is a video I found of a four year-old using KA to learn addition.

  3. "...this is helpful to see where my students are at…" Omit the at.

    Did your son use any of the materials and give you a first hand review?

    "...thought of having such clear data on my students…" Murky may be better. Think about why I say this.

    "The Port England…" Point, not Port.

    "...notes that a teacher would be fired for saying as much." There are a lot of principals and superintendents that sometimes wish it was that easy to fire a bad teacher!

    Thoughtful. Interesting. Well done!