Best known for our collection of education videos, Khan Academy covers every subject from algebra to art history for grades K-12. A significant piece of Khan Academy, however, is the interactive exercises that allow students to practice math and get feedback at their own pace, while giving teachers data on student progress. Over the past few years, our team has had the privilege of working directly with some of the teachers who use Khan Academy with their students. As we talk with teachers and observe them in their classrooms, one theme becomes absolutely clear: More than anything, teachers want all of their students to reach their potential. Teachers have high expectations for their students, and they work hard to help them succeed. But teachers are in a tough position.
Each fall, students enter their classrooms with a range of abilities, motivation levels, and incoming knowledge. Each student has different needs. Some are ready for grade-level content, while others have not fully mastered the prerequisites. Still others have already learned the grade-level material and are ready to move on to more advanced concepts. Ideally, teachers would like to meet all those needs simultaneously, but it is only humanly possible for them to teach one lesson at a time. We’ve met teachers who have undertaken heroic efforts to meet each student’s needs, including one teacher who creates five different homework assignments each night so students can work at their own levels. This is impressive but, without question, taxing.
There is no silver bullet, but we consistently find that when used appropriately, technology can enable teachers to lead differentiated and interactive classrooms. When teachers have real-time data and a clear understanding of every child’s needs, they can use their precious classroom time more effectively and flexibly. When students are learning at a pace and level appropriate to their individual needs, they are less likely to disengage or act up.
Since tools like Khan Academy generate unlimited challenges on any topic (with academic hints and relevant and related videos for students to continue pursuing an issue), teachers do not need to create and grade several different worksheets for their students. Instead, they can use that time to do more meaningful work, like dispelling struggling students’ misconceptions or designing engaging explorations for their students. This approach can also serve as a helpful classroom-management tool, providing all students with useful practice while their teacher works closely with selected students. In this way, technology can actually increase the amount of quality teacher-student interaction.
The team here at Khan Academy has been actively working with incredible researchers and teachers—several of whom are staff members—to explore how we can leverage technology to create deeper classroom experiences. The initial results have been promising, but there is still a long way to go. There is no one solution that would be appropriate for all contexts.
Early on, I heard from some teachers who were using Khan Academy videos to reframe their classrooms: Students would learn the content at night and practice it the next day during class. Since then, we have often been associated with the idea of the “flipped classroom,” even though the concept was actually conceived by others before Khan Academy existed. Since those early days, we have seen the tools of Khan Academy used in many different ways that, we believe, go beyond this model.
Technology can actually increase the amount of quality teacher-student interaction in a classroom."
To us, where or when students use the resources is not the most important part of any model. Instead, we want to build tools that enable students to master topics at their own pace and increase interactivity and creativity in physical environments. Of course, we know that reaching that goal will not happen overnight. Teachers looking to push the envelope are constrained by state mandates and tests that don’t give much weight to student or teacher creativity. In addition, many schools and students still have limited access to technology. But the big picture reveals that the ball is moving forward. And based on the incredible educators we have had the privilege to work with while piloting and designing our tools for their classrooms, I am optimistic that it is moving in the right direction.
In discussions about bringing technology into the classroom, I sometimes hear people say that virtual resources will replace physical instruction. I think this idea is absolutely wrong. Technology will never replace teachers; in fact, it will make teachers even more important. Technology will give teachers valuable real-time data to diagnose students’ weak points and design appropriate interventions. It will enable teachers to more quickly gauge students’ comprehension of new topics so they can adjust their lesson plans on the spot. Virtual tools may have the potential to provide educational materials to children who have access to nothing else—say, in a remote village in India—but they will never be a substitute for rich experiences with fellow students and amazing teachers.
I set up Khan Academy as a nonprofit so that it could be free to act as an institution that puts learners and teachers first, rather than a business that has a fiduciary responsibility to maximize shareholder value. Like most schools, Khan Academy has no owners. I hope that it develops as an institution that leverages its reach with students, parents, and teachers to move the education conversation forward constructively. We do not just want to talk about possibilities, but also to take an active role in the building and testing of ideas alongside educators. Of course, Khan Academy remains a work in progress. We are proud of what we have accomplished, but we think we have just begun to scratch the surface of what we want to be.
As I write, we are working with researchers and educators to become more interactive, community-driven, international, and exploration-based. We recently launched our computer science platform, which emphasizes programming as a creative art. We are also leveraging this platform to create interactive virtual labs with simulations of projectiles, pendulums, and the solar system. New interactive features that allow users to ask and answer each other’s questions have also recently increased the sense of online community. We know that providing a way for users to teach one another helps them learn more deeply; after all, the best way to learn something well is to explain it to others.
We are in the midst of a major restructuring of the site’s architecture to better integrate the video and interactive experience. This will include exercises and tools for teachers and students to program interactive simulations. Our goal over the next year is to create a platform on which any educator can create his or her own “academy.”
You will also start to see thousands of pieces of content redone in the world’s major languages so that we can begin to reach those most in need. And all of this is being designed with the intent of supercharging the possibilities in the classroom and empowering teachers to push differentiation and exploration with students to an all-time high.
Because of this social mission and the millions of students and thousands of teachers using the site, we have been blessed with an incredible amount of goodwill from learners and educators alike. That said, we are a very small organization at a very early stage of development. Our mission statement—"a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere"—is an aspiration that we will continue to strive for in the decades to come.
Khan Academy is not a silver bullet; no one solution can tackle a very complex and nuanced problem. But we are optimistic that we can continue to work with amazing educators to help test the boundaries of what is possible.
A version of this article appeared in the October 03, 2012 edition of Education Week as The Rise of the Tech-Powered Teacher