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School & District Management Opinion

Sal Khan on Coronavirus: Teaching 40 Million Kids at Home

By Rick Hess — March 26, 2020 8 min read
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As families, educators, and community leaders wrestle with COVID-19, we’ll be trying to bring conversations to readers that will be helpful in confronting the challenge.

Sal Khan is the founder of Khan Academy, a nonprofit that provides free, online-learning tools that are used by more than 30 million kids, educators, and parents. Andrew Plepler is global head of environment, social, and governance at Bank of America—longtime partner of Khan Academy. Last week, as schools closed, Bank of America bankrolled Khan Academy’s push to create daily learning schedules for students age 4-18 and expand access to their online resources for millions of students. I talked with Sal and Andrew about the tools that Khan Academy is providing for those dealing with the challenges of remote learning and COVID-19. Here’s what they had to say.

Rick: So, first off, what exactly is it that you’re doing?

Sal Khan: For more than 10 years, Khan Academy has been working to create a platform where anyone on the planet, starting as early as pre-K and all the way through elementary, middle, high school, and the core of college, can learn all the subjects they need; do it on their own time, unrestricted by place; and one day, be able to take that learning and connect it to some form of an opportunity.

Thursday and Friday of last week, when it was clear that a majority of America was going to close schools, we had over 30 million kids using our platform. There are now more than 40 million students in America and almost a billion students around the world whose school years were abruptly interrupted. Khan Academy needed to step up—we’re there to be accessible, we’re there to be free, and we’re the only platform that is this comprehensive across subjects and grade levels.

Everyone has a general idea that there are resources on the internet, but they don’t know how to structure them together into a full school day. This past weekend, we released schedules for different age groups that can help structure the day. They include breaks, time with family, and physical activity. We’re continuing to run webinars for teachers and parents and we also started doing daily live streams to help parents, teachers, and students connect every morning. Our goal is to motivate them to engage in this time of social distancing and reinforce that they’re not going through this alone.

Rick: OK, and how does this actually work? If I’m a user, what does this look like?

Sal Khan: Last week when schools began to close, most school districts did not have the time to plan a virtualization strategy. Parents, teachers, and students are scrambling for a solution that can, at minimum, hold them over and make sure learning doesn’t atrophy—and, at best, can actually accelerate learning.

The experience we’ve designed outlines what resources students can use based on subject and grade level. A student can take what’s called a “course challenge"—or a summary of the whole year. Then, based on how they do, they can see where their gaps are and focus on the units they need most help with. Then, they can take unit tests to accelerate their understanding of what they know and don’t know in that unit. We also have experiences called “mastery challenges” where students can get as much practice on certain subjects as they need. We have literally tens of thousands of items so that kids won’t run out of practice. Our curriculum also helps teachers and parents keep track of what students are working on, where they’re progressing, and what they’re having difficulty with.

For younger students ages 3 to 6, we have an app called Khan Academy Kids, which holistically covers reading, writing, social-emotional learning, and math. It adapts to the needs of the student. Once again, all standards are aligned. Ideally, students conduct these exercises next to a parent, sibling, or grandparent, but it’s also OK if a student is doing it for 20 or 30 minutes on their own.

Rick: How did you come up with these age-based schedules? Were they based on some set of standards?

Sal Khan: We put these schedules together based on what we have seen out in the field, working with parents, students, and teachers. We have a good number of former teachers, education researchers, and various specialists on our team, and it’s been a full-court effort. For younger students, for instance, our courses are broken out into shorter durations and include more breaks. We’ve also made sure that any screen time students have is balanced with outdoor time, socialization, and play time.

We’ve also been incorporating feedback we’ve been hearing from parents and teachers, and we’re constantly tweaking our curriculum to improve the experience. It’s been a multi-stakeholder effort to make these schedules as helpful as possible.

Rick: How did all this come about anyway?

Sal Khan: We realized we have a social duty to step up in this emergency that nobody could have predicted. Over the last 10 years, we’ve been building a resource that is about as well-suited to this circumstance as anything out there. Bank of America has been a close partner since the early days of Khan Academy, and we’ve together focused on financial literacy. They really stepped up over the weekend when they found out about this effort and said they were committed to supporting us. Over the last few days, we’ve seen parent and teacher registrations have gone up 10- or 20-fold. We’ve seen 50,000 teacher registrations in just the last day. Before the crisis, we were seeing 18 million students come every month—doing about 800 million minutes of engagement. It looks like those numbers could now double. Our server costs alone are likely to double now. We need help from others. We have a team of 200 folks here at Khan Academy, and we’re trying to support hundreds of millions of folks over the coming months.

Andrew Plepler: Bank of America is supporting Khan Academy in their effort to keep students learning over the weeks and months ahead as we face widespread school closures across the country. We’ve been a longtime supporter of Sal Khan’s work and couldn’t think of a better partner to help lead us forward in this time of crisis. Among the many unprecedented challenges we’re all facing due to the spread of the coronavirus, one of the most pressing is to help the millions of students, teachers, and families struggling to advance learning in a period of disruption. We’re using our extensive presence in markets across the country to help Khan Academy drive awareness and scale the new initiative.

Another reality we need to address is that not all students have access to the same level of technology. This remains another critical challenge. We hope that other partners in the private sector will also step up to help meet this need, so that continued learning is fully accessible for as many students as possible.

Rick: OK, for folks who have never used Khan Academy services before, how complicated is it to access on a tablet or an old computer?

Sal Khan: Khan Academy is quite accessible. Everything is free and noncommercial. There’s a mobile app on Android , iOS, and tablet apps, and it’s accessible from even a fairly low-cost computer. As long as the technology can operate a decent web browser, Khan Academy should work on it. The platform’s roots were tools that I had made for my family 15 years ago. We’ve always had a direct- to-consumer lens, and our hope is that it’s pretty self-service.

Rick: Will you be providing any assistance for people who need help using this?

Sal Khan: We do have a team where people can issue support requests and we try to answer them in as scalable a way as possible, including through email and text. We’ve also partnered with schoolclosures.org—a free hotline and information hub for families impacted by school closures covering online learning, food, child care, remote work, and financial security—to try to address students and families’ requests quickly and efficiently. Schoolclosures.org is helping a lot of people get started on Khan Academy as well. We’re looking at anything and everything that can help people use and adapt to the experience as quickly as possible.

Rick: OK, last question. What advice would you offer parents and teachers who are trying to help their students and children continue to learn away from the classroom?

Sal Khan: My first piece of advice is: Don’t beat up on yourself, whether you’re a parent, teacher, or student. It’s OK to give yourself time. If you’re not up and running, or if it looks like other people have their act together today and you don’t, don’t feel bad about it. Take care of yourself and take care of your family.

As you slowly feel more comfort in the days and weeks ahead, take a look at Khan Academy. Here are some tips as you get started:

  • Consider starting with one subject, such as math or reading. It could be as simple as finding some good books and enjoying reading time with the family.

  • Let kids learn at their own pace. Having parents sit down next to them and learn beside them is a good model.

  • Modify our schedules as you see fit so they work for your family, in your time zone, and with the resources that you have.

  • Find a place in the house that can operate as your workplace. If you can find that part of the house that you associate with work, this will be valuable for your children.

  • Develop a consistent routine: Pretend as if you’re going to school or to work so that you form a recurring pattern each day. This won’t only help you bridge the gap until school is open, but these positive habits that you, your students, or your children form can be continued into summer.

Andrew Plepler: Talk to fellow parents, teachers, and educational experts. Seek out people in and outside your network for ideas, resources, and best practices around advancing learning, keeping students engaged outside the classroom, and translating the energy of a school environment into living rooms across the nation. Now more than ever is a time for information sharing, advice, and collective support.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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