Khan Academy, Open Ed. Providers Evolve With Common Core

By Benjamin Herold — March 28, 2014 6 min read
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Continuing its evolution from quirky disruptor of traditional classroom learning to mainstream player aligned with the education establishment, the nonprofit Khan Academy recently unveiled new online math resources tied to the Common Core State Standards.

Observers say the materials—which feature interactive high-tech user interfaces and sophisticated back-end software that adapts to individual learners—represent a critical step for the field of free “open education resources,” or OER.

“I think those [features] are going to be the staple for anybody producing instructional materials in the future,” said Barbara Chow, the education program director for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which has donated heavily to support the creation of open education resources. “OER providers are starting to piece that together.”

(The foundation also supports Education Week’s coverage of “deeper learning.”)

The common core is a major catalyst for that evolution, experts say: As all but a handful of states implement the new standards, thousands of educators are searching for relevant instructional resources, spurring competition among traditional educational publishers, other for-profit vendors, and OER providers (typically nonprofits, universities, or government agencies).

Salman Khan, the founder and CEO of Khan Academy, is aggressively expanding the nonprofit’s reach, but said, “I’m always concerned as we grow that we don’t lose our charm.”

While many digital learning proponents are enthusiastic about the new developments, others urge a healthy dose of skepticism about how the new materials will be used in the classroom, whether claims of alignment to the new standards will hold up to independent scrutiny, and whether the massive amounts of student data they generate can be kept secure.

Khan Academy, a 6-year-old nonprofit based in Mountain View, Calif., is hoping to expand its current user base of 10 million people per month.

The organization’s new resources were announced March 22 at the annual conference of Computer Using Educators, or cue, held this year in Palm Springs, Calif. The materials include thousands of free, interactive online math exercises for grades K-12, each of which has been pegged to the new standards and organized into “missions” meant to cover an entire grade level of content.

Technology ‘Ecosystem’

In order to thrive, the nascent fields of blended and personalized learning will require a healthy “ecosystem” of infrastructure, hardware, software, and personnel, said Scott Ellis, the CEO of The Learning Accelerator, a Cupertino, Calif.-based nonprofit that supports the new wave of digital education.

Mr. Ellis predicts that government agencies and the free market will together find ways to make sure every classroom has a high-speed Internet connection and every student has a digital device.

“But it all comes down to the interaction between students, teachers, software, and data,” he said, “and I think the software is not yet where it needs to be to make [the ecosystem] come to life.”

It’s a challenge that both for-profit vendors and OER providers are grappling with.

Publishing giant Pearson and large ed-tech company Amplify, for example, both recently unveiled new digital instructional materials that purport to be aligned with the common core and contain an abundance of multimedia and interactive resources. They are also powered by algorithms that help pinpoint individual students’ skill levels. In addition, the resources offer targeted recommendations and practice problems, and generate reports and data dashboards.

Evolution of a Khan Academy

YOUTUBE VIDEOS: After two years of remotely tutoring family members in math, hedge-fund manager Salman Khan begins recording and posting short math instructional videos on YouTube.

ACADEMY ESTABLISHED: Khan Academy is established as a nonprofit organization based in California’s Silicon Valley.

SALMAN KHAN LEADS: He quits his job to become director of Khan Academy.

GROWTH AND INVESTMENTS: Khan Academy makes “the jump from hot new website to actual classroom tool” and begins building out its data dashboards, according to Wired magazine. The new growth and development is fueled by large philanthropic gifts, including $2 million from Google and $1.5 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

DISTRICT EXPANSION: California’s 4,500-student Los Altos school district expands its use of Khan Academy resources to most of its middle grades’ classrooms.

CONTENT CRITICISM: Khan Academy faces criticism from some educators and researchers who say the organization’s instructional materials over emphasize the procedures for solving math problems, without enough focus on helping students understand the concepts beyond those problems.

IDAHO INITIATIVE: As part of the first statewide effort to integrate Khan Academy materials into school curricula, Idaho initiates a pilot program that includes more than 10,000 students in nearly four-dozen schools. Overall, as of November 2013, the Khan Academy website contains more than 100,000 practice problems and over 5,000 instructional videos and has 10 million unique users per month.

COLLEGE PREP: The College Board enlists Khan Academy to provide free online preparation for the redesigned SAT college-entrance exam. The academy also unveils thousands of new K-12 math exercises, as well as new interactive and adaptive technologies for its website that are intended to support the Common Core State Standards.

SOURCES: Fast Company; Education Week

But those products cost schools money—about $45 per student, per year, in the case of Amplify’s new English/language arts curriculum.

The Khan Academy resources, on the other hand, come at no cost to teachers and students. The organization’s development costs are largely underwritten by philanthropic donations, including a $2.2 million grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust to develop the new common-core materials.

In an interview, Khan Academy officials used a sample 8th grade exercise to demonstrate their new approach.

Unlike most previous state standards, said Elizabeth R. Slavitt, the organization’s “lead of content scaling,” the common core takes a “visual, tactile approach” to geometry. That means students are expected to understand concepts such as congruence and symmetry through hands-on “geometric transformations,” such as rotating or reflecting a given shape.

To adhere to that expectation, Khan Academy 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 that are grouped together in grade-level missions, then targeted to students to help them master the common core skill-by-skill and standard-by-standard.

Most of the exercises offer a series of step-by-step “hints,” as well as the low-budget, conversational instructional videos for which the organization is popularly known.

Growth Concerns

Khan Academy founder and CEO Salman Khan acknowledged initial worries that the common core would be as “reductionist” as its predecessors. But he said he quickly came to appreciate that the new standards are “about trying to make sure students understand things at a more conceptual and deeper level than they have in the past.”

Mr. Khan also acknowledged concerns about possible overreach by his organization. In addition to its new high-tech focus, Khan Academy has in recent months announced new partnerships with the College Board, which administers 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 Mr. Khan, whose folksy, do-it-yourself ethos helped catapult the organization to popularity.

Outside observers say there are also other reasons to be skeptical of Khan Academy’s growing profile and new directions.

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. Some educators and researchers have also criticized the type of teaching embodied by Khan Academy, saying it overemphasizes helping students understand the procedures for solving math problems, without enough focus on helping them understand the concepts beyond those problems.

In addition, Khan Academy is going to face growing competition, including from other OER providers, said Barbara “Bobbi” Kurshan, the executive director of academic innovation and a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

“They’re all moving to make more interactive and adaptive technology,“ she said. “If Khan is out first with it, great, but it’s not going to be the only player.”

Ultimately, experts say, the challenge for OER providers will be to maintain their outsider status and penchant for innovation, even as they attempt to go to scale with tools that are increasingly similar to those offered by for-profit vendors.

In addition to discerning which among the flood of new resources are high quality, supportive of strong classroom pedagogy, and sustainable over the long haul, Ms. Kurshan said schools and districts should also be wary of the hype that has come to surround groups such as Khan Academy.

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

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Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 02, 2014 edition of Education Week as Khan Academy Lessons Linked to Common-Core Standards


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