For Common Core, Khan Academy Goes High-Tech

By Benjamin Herold — March 22, 2014 7 min read
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Continuing its evolution from quirky disruptor of traditional classroom learning to mainstream player aligned with the education establishment, free website Khan Academy unveiled Saturday new online math resources tied to the contentious Common Core State Standards.

In an interview with Education Week, founder and president Salman Khan touted the comprehensive scope of his organization’s new materials, as well as their sophisticated technological underpinnings, as a “big milestone” for the Mountain View, Calif.-based nonprofit, which is seeking to expand its user base of 10 million people per month.

The Common Core could be just the ticket for that growth: As 45 states and the District of Columbia work to implement the new standards, thousands of educators are searching for relevant instructional resources, spurring a robust competition among traditional educational publishers, other for-profit vendors, and organizations offering free “open education resources,” or OER.

Khan Academy’s fresh entry into that bustling marketplace—announced Saturday at the annual conference of Computer Using Educators, or CUE, held this weekend in Palm Springs, Calif.—includes thousands of newly created, free interactive online math exercises for grades K through 12. Each has been pegged to the new standards and organized into “missions” meant to cover an entire grade-level of content. Many of the exercises employ high-tech user interfaces, and the system is powered on the back end by sophisticated algorithms that help pinpoint individual students’ exact skill levels, offer targeted recommendations and practice problems, and generate reports and data dashboards.

Observers say that high-tech focus reflects a trend among the growing ranks of OER providers striving to keep up with their for-profit competitors.

“They’re all moving to make more interactive and adaptive technology,” said Bobbi Kurshan, the executive director of academic innovation and a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. “If Khan is out first with it, great, but it’s not going to be the only player.”

Potential pitfalls

While Khan Academy clearly hopes to make a splash with its new offering, there is no shortage of potential pitfalls.

Many claims of “common-core alignment,” for example, have come under fire from researchers as bogus. Data-mining techniques and algorithm-based software used to collect information on students and build profiles are becoming targets for parents and advocates concerned about data privacy. And the Common Core itself is less than popular in many quarters.

There’s also the danger of overreach: Saturday’s release comes on the heels of recent partnership announcements between Khan Academy and the College Board, which makes the SAT college entrance exam; corporate titan Comcast; Bank of America; and others.

“I’m always concerned as we grow that we don’t lose our charm,” said Khan, whose folksy, do-it-yourself ethos helped catapult the organization to popularity.

“But the benefit of all these partnerships is they expand our reach and maybe validate us as a more substantive resource than people originally thought when [Khan Academy] was just one guy working on this alone,” he said.

Common Core

For some time, Khan said, his organization hoped to take a less ad-hoc approach to content creation, but worried that many existing state standards were “too reductionist” and thus not worth serving as the basis for new material.

Khan acknowledged initial skepticism that the common core wouldn’t be any different, but said his perspective has evolved significantly.

“At its essence, [the common core] is about trying to make sure students understand things at a more conceptual and deeper level than they have in the past,” he said. “The more we looked, the more we began to think this could be really good for Khan Academy.”

About 18 months ago, the organization set to work, retaining a team of math educators that eventually numbered 40 people, roughly half of whom were working K-12 math teachers, and putting them to work alongside dozens of software engineers.

The organization also consulted with Illustrative Mathematics, a network of math educators focused on developing high-quality math tasks, and Smarter Balanced, one of two major multi-state consortia developing assessments to accompany the new common-core standards.

Khan Academy officials quickly determined that merely adapting their existing content and technology would not suffice.

“We actually did try to create exercises in a quick and dirty way with our existing tools, and it just wasn’t possible, it didn’t feel right,” said Elizabeth Slavitt, whose title at the organization is “lead of content scaling,” in an interview. “We knew it would be much more time-consuming [to start from scratch], but we felt it was the only authentic way to stay true to the intent of the standards.”

Like some traditional publishers, Khan Academy also hired experts involved in the creation of the new standards to train its staff and vet the content they created.

Officials from the organization wouldn’t put a specific price tag on their effort, other than to say it’s been a “significant” undertaking.

Nevertheless, skepticism about any claims that new instructional resources are aligned to the common core continues to run high.

Just last month, for example, researchers from Michigan State University in East Lansing and the University of Southern California shared findings from separate studies that each found that boasts of common-core alignment from traditional textbooks publishers were largely fraudulent.

Similar studies of digital instructional materials are currently in their early stages.

Sample problem

Khan Academy officials used a sample 8th grade exercise to demonstrate their take on the new common-core standards.

Unlike most previous standards, Slavitt said, the common core takes a “visual, tactile approach” to introductory geometry, expecting students to understand concepts such as congruence and symmetry through hands-on “geometric transformations,” such as rotating or reflecting a given shape.

To keep faith with that expectation, the organization built a new software tool that allows students to select, grab, drag, and manipulate polygons that have been plotted on a graph, providing opportunities to see and explore the effects of various “transformation” efforts.

It’s just one among thousands of new math exercises, grouped together in grade-level “missions” and targeted to students in an adaptive manner in order to help them master the common core skill-by-skill and standard-by-standard. Almost all of the exercises offer a series of step-by-step “hints,” as well as the low-budget, conversational instructional videos that have made Khan Academy famous, but officials described those features as supplements.

“We don’t want to lose that special sauce that people like,” Khan said, “but the meat is really the interactive exercises.”

Like many of the digital instructional resources now flooding the market ,Khan Academy’s new materials also offer “data dashboards” and teacher reports that show individual students’ progress.

Competitive landscape

Amplify, Pearson, and other big for-profit players in the ed-tech world have recently rolled out products with similar features.

Khan said he believes his organization has an advantage because unlike most big corporate vendors, it does not rely on a large sales staff to convince administrators to do district-wide adoptions.

“The discipline of being direct to the teachers, the students, the parents has made us a very student- and teacher-focused organization,” he said. “The way that we got on people’s radar is by them directly choosing to use us.”

Kurshan of the University of Pennsylvania said there’s an abundance of good—and bad—content being produced by both for-profit vendors and OER providers.

When considering their options, she said, educators should focus less on whether a resource is free or not, and more on its quality, what type of pedagogy it supports, how much training staff will need to implement it effectively, and whether the material is likely to be around in the future.

While the media has been quick to embrace Khan Academy, she said, those on the ground should be more cautious.

“I like what they do,” Kurshan said, “but I think the education community has to be very careful that they don’t assume it’s a panacea.”

Photo of Sal Khan, creator of the Khan Academy, by Ramin Rahimian for Education Week (File).

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.