Learning from the Khan Academy

At first glance Salman Khan appears a most unlikely revolutionary. Although well educated (note: he is neither an educator nor a psychologist) he has nonetheless, and from most accounts, single-handedly ignited a revolution in teaching that any “real” educator, government administrator or instructional designer would be proud to lay claim to.

What started as simple private tutorials in math for his cousins – utilizing what he describes as about $200.00 in computer accessories and shareware – Khan drew upon his innate interest in education (along with perhaps his own personal frustrations as a student) to craft a series of screen capture how-to guides for solving high school math problems. As word spread among friends and family members, viral interest forced Khan to move his homespun videos to YouTube to service his burgeoning audience, completely for free. The rest, as they say, is history.

At present the Khan Academy (a not-for-profit educational organization founded in 2006) has served over 51 million views from a library of over 2200 videos. In addition to math and physics, topics now embrace history and biology. School districts and major corporations are attempting to use and develop his methods for their own internal applications. Donations from private sources and the likes of Google and the Gates Foundation have subsequently allowed Salman Khan to quit his day job and devote his energies full-time to the development of his Academy and the distribution of educational programs worldwide (“providing a high quality education to anyone, anywhere”).

Looking over Khan’s presentations on his methods you begin to wonder what makes the Khan Academy so successful. After all, this isn’t the result of a major educational research program, a sweeping government initiative, or a mass popular movement in educational reform. Further, what makes the Khan Academy even more interesting is that Khan’s tutorial method is not so much ingenious as it is ingenuous.

In several of his talks Khan is fairly straightforward in his assessment of what makes his method work. First and foremost, as Khan attests, each of the videos offers a lesson on a single concise topic (a “concept”) for no more than about 10 minutes. One key idea, cut in a bite-sized chunk, for a period not to exceed the boredom threshold of the average viewer. Given that the videos are recorded and stored online, the presentations can be played any time and repeated as needed by the student until he or she feels comfortable to move forward.

Another feature of the tutorials is the general tone they are given in. As Khan describes it, they feel like they are coming more from a friend than a teacher. You have a sense that Khan is there with you, sitting by your side, leading you through the problems with a pencil and paper. They are down-to-earth, enthusiastic and rigorous without a trace of giddiness, pomposity or pedantry. The student feels like “…there is an individual who cares about you,” Khan says. The student comes away with a sense that the instructor wants to help him or her over the obstacles in the landscape because he has been in the student’s place himself and sympathizes with the struggles that lay ahead.

Drilling down a layer into the Khan Academy’s unique style reveals even more about what makes the “secret sauce” special. Each of the bite-sized topics that are referred to previously are in fact carefully culled and curated learning objects. The trick, of course, is to first know the subject well enough to select which topics to present and in what order. Following that, the teacher must distill the concepts to their absolute essence.

This distillation process is, to all who have tried it, much harder than it looks. In fact, the ability to select and summarize complex material and ideas, rather than resorting to the indiscriminate slathering of a PowerPoint slide with bullets, might be one of the hallmarks of an educated mind. Clearly, Khan groks it.

Despite the thought and planning that goes into Khan’s presentations they can hardly be accused of being over produced. This is not Pixar doing technical training. If anything, the digital blackboard and colored chalk renderings show the human side of learning and mastery. The notes and diagrams often appear rough and awkward, but they are at the same time quite genuine, funny and sometimes – to the advantage of the learner – mistaken. As Khan explains it, he is often in the place of the learner and, in contrast to many schools and universities, has not rehearsed the solution beforehand, offering the student the patented procedure. Instead he lets the students witness his own thought processes as he wrestles with the problems and sometimes wanders down the wrong path from which he has to back out and start again – just like a real student.

Nowhere in Khan’s methods can be found any of the bells or whistles of modern post-industrial pedagogy. No Flash animation, interactivity, games, social networking tools, 3D graphics or monolithic learning management systems are to be found. In fact there is little beyond a virtual blackboard and some equally virtual colored chalk. You don’t even see Khan’s face.

The faceless almost tactile sketches and equations provide little distraction and promote focus on the material. This decidedly low-tech solution to training might harken back to ancient watch-me-do-it tribal methods but its effectiveness is not lost on Khan’s students, many of whom write to express thanks that they are not only mastering their classes for the first time but excited about the subjects as well.

Khan’s approach is to teach for academic competency. That is, he instructs in the methods and procedures that assist the student in passing standardized tests and formal exams. After the student completes a module, test problems are offered through a program that Khan designed himself that acts to monitor student progress and flag trouble areas for the teacher. The student is asked to correctly answer 10 problems in a row before moving to the next module. This final process closes the instruction, feedback and assessment loop in Khan’s method and further acts to eliminate the small voids in understanding that can multiply as the student moves forward. Interestingly YouTube assists in the process as well, offering statistics on usage and attention.

One of Khan’s own revelations about his method is telling: it’s so simple and effective that he does not see why anyone needs to give live lectures anymore.

Although he does not refer to it by name, Khan points to (and his method directly parallels) the use of what is commonly called the Inverted Classroom. In an inverted classroom recorded presentations impart new information prior to class while class time is taken up with teachers and peers solving problems (or “doing homework”) quite in reverse to what is traditionally done in schools and training centers.

The results of this method have so far been compelling. Both teachers and students benefit. Teachers benefit because more of their time is spent in directed remediation (particularly if they use Khan’s monitoring software), problem solving and exploration of the material. Students like the inverted classroom because it potentially transforms class time into something useful and interesting. In Khan’s case the testimonials from parents, teachers and students are hard to ignore. His academy and tutorials do work.

More needs to be seen to ascertain whether the Khan Academy represents the future of education as some claim. But what is clear is that it stands as a forceful reminder of what can be done to improve the instruction of certain skills and particular subjects while simultaneously improving the classroom experience for everyone.


Bill Gates’ Favorite Teacher

Salman Khan on Future Talk

YouTube Teaching as Guerrilla Public Service

Yes, the Khan Academy IS the Future of Education (video; singularityhub.com)

Yes, the Khan Academy is the Future of Education

Khan Academy Exercise Software

Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos

The Khan academy is Not that Good

We are Khan Academy, You Will Be Assimilated!

Can the Khan Academy flip a classroom?

12 Responses

  1. In a recent development, jQuery creator John Resig, formerly of Mozilla, has decided to move to the Kahn Academy:

    “John Resig, creator of the web’s most popular javascript library, jQuery, just announced that he’s leaving the Mozilla Foundation and joining online education powerhouse Khan Academy. Resig worked at Mozilla for more than 4 years, joining in January 2007 as a Javascript Evangelist after leaving a position as a developer on the One Laptop Per Child Project.

    He’ll continue working on jQuery at Khan, as well as the organization’s other Open Source efforts and its forthcoming iPad app. JQuery Mobile was released this Fall; ReadWriteWeb’s Sarah Perez said it ‘may have a major impact on mobile Web development.'” — readwriteweb.com

    This certainly portends big changes at Khan Academy.

    See full story here.

  2. Is the Khan Academy an Indictment of American Education?

    “The fact that TED, Bill Gates, and the media love Khan Academy shows the failure of education. Khan Academy looks great because our country has reduced teaching and learning to preparing students to bubble in answer sheets for multiple choice tests. But if we shift the purpose of education from consuming knowledge and stating answers to creating knowledge and exploring solutions, the fallacy of Khan Academy ‘reinventing education’ is blatently apparent.” – Frank Noschese, Action-Reaction

    Check out some illustrative examples in the critique here.

  3. Sal Khan and the Metaphors of Math Salvation

    Audrey Watters at Hack Education offers a few insights on the Khan Academy “phenomenon.” One in particular that caught me off guard is interesting because it apparently illustrates how people in educational programming might view Sal Khan and the Academy:

    “My colleague Tina Barseghian at KQED’s MindShift recently described Sal Khan as ‘the Seinfeld of education.’ The metaphor works in part because Sal is definitely replete with wry and witty observations. He’s self-effacing at times; he’s goofy.

    It also works, perhaps, because Seinfeld (the television show) became a behemoth thanks to its syndication. When the rest of what’s on TV is crap, at least you know that Seinfeld will provide you with 30 minutes of entertainment, whether you’ve seen the episode and know the jokes already or not. And it’s the easy syndication and distribution of Sal Khan’s YouTube videos — not really his one-liners, I should clarify — that some people find so appealing about the Khan Academy model.”
    – Audrey Watters, Hack Education

    Further down in her post Watters returns to the question of what makes Khan Academy successful from the point of view of an educator and concludes:

    “You see, despite my liking Sal Khan, I’m just not sure that what he’s doing in his videos really is that different. I commend the thousands of lectures on YouTube, I do, and I understand the great power of distributing this content for free online. But honestly, his videos look a lot like the math lectures I received in junior high and high school, where the teacher stood at the board, solved an equation, and turned around with a proud ‘Ta da. That’s how you solve a quadratic equation.’ “

    Critics and reviewers of the Khan Academy seem confused by its success largely because they miss two things: 1) Khan does not act as a teacher, he acts as a tutor; and 2) the medium is (still) the message.

    The full article Sal Khan and the Metaphors of Math Salvation can be found here.

  4. Khan Academy iPad app screenshots show progress

    It looks like the Khan Academy is on the brink of its own iPad app to help distribute tutorial materials via its web repository:

    “Initially the 1.0 version of the iPad app will allow video navigation and viewing, interactive transcripts, and offline support. However, future versions of the iPad app will allow for in-app exercises. No word yet on a release date for the app, but combining the Khan Academy with the iPad could prove to be a truly disruptive combination of technologies for traditional education. And especially with kids coming out of US colleges with upwards of $150,000 in student debt, perhaps our more traditional education models need to be disrupted.” – by Michael Grothaus

    See full article here.


  5. As reported on ReadWrite Enterprise:

    Khan Academy iPad App Open-Sourced

    “Though it’s not really a business app, I thought this was worth noting here: the Khan Academy has open-sourced its iPad app. The app isn’t available from the iTunes store yet, but the organization has made its jQuery-based source code available on GitHub. The Khan Academy offers free video lectures on a variety of academic topics.” – Klint Finley


  6. From Github:

    “Khan Academy has created a generic framework for building exercises. This framework, together with the exercises themselves, can be used completely independently of the Khan Academy application.

    The framework exists in two components:

    An HTML markup for specifying exercises.
    A jQuery plugin for generating a usable, interactive, exercise from the HTML markup.”

    See: https://github.com/khan/khan-exercises#readme

  7. Khan Academy Gets $5M Grant. Plans to Expand Faculty and Build School:

    “Khan Academy announced this morning that it has raised $5 million from the O’Sullivan Foundation (a foundation created by Irish engineer and investor Sean O’Sullivan). The money is earmarked for several initiatives: expanding the Khan Academy faculty, creating a content management system so that others can use the program’s learning analytics system, and building an actual brick-and-mortar school, beginning with a summer camp program.” – Audrey Waters, Hack Education

    See: http://www.hackeducation.com/2011/11/04/khan-academy-gets-5-million-to-expand-faculty-platform-to-build-a-physical-school

  8. Khan Academy to go bricks and mortar – well, kind of…

    According to Liz Dwyer at GOOD/Education:

    “According to KQED/Mindshift, the camp will be modeled after the We Teach Science camp Khan co-organized two years ago in Silicon Valley. Far from the ‘flipped classroom‘ model Khan’s popularized, that camp took a hands-on, project-based learning approach to learning science, technology, engineering, and math, and Khan wants his upcoming camp to do the same. ‘The videos are great for learning things at an academic level,’ says Khan. ‘You can learn intuition for what a derivative is and about Newtonian mechanics through the online exercises, but this is another level of learning.’

    Indeed, Khan says the kind of learning he wants to see at the camp ‘lets you rethink what the physical experience should be like, what I’d call deeper, higher order type of stuff that most schools don’t touch on right now.’ He hopes that the camp will give students a ‘more visceral, ingrained, intuitive sense of science and analytical thinking about the world around them than even most adults do.’ ” — Liz Dwyer, GOOD/Eduction

    Interesting comments on the role of the inverted, or flipped, classroom and the value of project-based learning.

    Please see the full post here.

  9. Don’t Use Khan Academy without Watching this First

    The Khan Academy continues to attract attention. This time it is getting a satirical poke from a couple educators who deconstruct a mathematics lesson in the style of a Mystery Science Theater performance. Very amusing and points well made. Edweek.org cautions:

    “No teacher or department head or district administrator should put Khan Academy into action without watching this satirical critique first. There are so many media sources putting Khan on a pedestal, and there are many educators steeped in mathematical teaching who have serious concerns about his approach. Anyone assigning Khan videos to students should know about these critiques of the limitations of Khan’s approach. All too often, discussions of Khan Academy deal with levels of abstraction beyond the actual videos, and Coffey and Golden bring the conversation down to individual pedagogical moves that Khan makes.”

    First and foremost, the Khan Academy is a tool, not an end in itself. Tools have limits and it is the job of the person wielding the tool to know the boundaries in order to apply the tool effectively and appropriately, avoiding ill effects. Second, all tools are imperfect (e.g., schools, classrooms, courses, textbooks, lectures, training programs) and it is incumbent on the teacher (and perhaps the learners) to use the imperfections as a source of discussion and investigation. After all, isn’t “learning to think critically” part of every educational venture? Lastly, one has to hope in fairness that the authors of the video turn their critical eyes toward other teaching tools and methods as well so we can see how more “traditional” approaches stack up against the approaches used by the Khan Academy.


  10. It might have holes in it, but Sal Khan’s brief history of education in America is still useful if you are looking for a view from 32,000 feet of the whys and wherefores behind the ways we (still) do things in schools and classrooms.


    Some comments on where it falls short are here:

  11. Increasing numbers of middle schools, high schools and colleges are flipping or inverting their courses. Flipping is catching on with impressive results, catching praise from both students and teachers. Apparently even parents are pleased.

    “Flipping yielded dramatic results after just a year, including a 33 percent drop in the freshman failure rate and a 66 percent drop in the number of disciplinary incidents from the year before, Green said. Graduation, attendance and test scores all went up. Parent complaints dropped from 200 to seven.

    Green attributed the improvements to an approach that engages students more in their classes. ‘Kids want to take an active part in the learning process,’ he said. ‘Now teachers are actually working with kids.’ “

    A few careful watchers are calling for research into the method, questioning its effectiveness and long-term value. Others already note that it does come at a cost: It is more work for the teacher. Production of background audio and video presentations aside, it is dangerous to fill the class time with material that is not engaging. No old-wine-in-new-bottle here. This is going to be the major obstacle to the widespread success (not adoption) of the Inverted Classroom.

    “The concept has its downside. Teachers note that making the videos and coming up with project activities to fill class time is a lot of extra work up front, while some detractors believe it smacks of teachers abandoning their primary responsibility of instructing.”

    ‘Flipped Learning’ Classroom Model Embraced By Teachers In Schools Nationwide

    Teachers Flip for ‘Flipped Learning’ Class Model

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