The Khan Academy Takeover: Inside the New Classroom Revolution

The innovative teaching tool that’s answering problems for students and teachers.
Students in the documentary ‘TEACH’ use Khan Academy web videos to learn math. (Photo: Don Holtz)
Sep 4, 2013· 3 MIN READ
Vanessa Romo is a journalist and public radio reporter. Her work has aired on 'Morning Edition' and 'Marketplace.'

Salman Khan is an answer man.

If you needed to know why the sky is blue, how to find the distance between two points on an x-y axis, or how specific chemical compounds interact with one another, then Khan and his online academy would be just where you’d want to turn.

The academy, founded in 2009, offers 4,500 online video lessons in math, science, economics, computer programming, and history. And in any given month, six million students, parents, and what Khan calls “curious adults” looking for a little extra help are working through tutorials and solving up to three million problems per day. In a Google Plus Hangout between U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Khan just this past August, Duncan said his own children enjoy participating in the academy.

Beyond providing support for students, the Khan Academy is solving problems for teachers. Over the last three years, more than 30,000 classrooms have begun incorporating the online technology into their curriculum. And it’s changing the way education works.

A former hedge-fund analyst, Khan says the idea was borne from the feedback given to him by a cousin he was tutoring in math. “[He] told me [he] preferred the online version of me because suddenly he could pause and repeat [the lesson].” The cousin could also go back, without any embarrassment, and fill in “Swiss cheese gaps” in concepts he hadn’t fully grasped, and most importantly, he was not tied to a rigid timeline.

Screen shot of a math lesson from Khan Academy.

“In order for people to learn something, they need to be able to go at their own pace,” Khan said in a 2011 Ted Talk. “They need to do a lot of problem sets.” Videos, he said, are nice, but it’s even more important to be able to do as many problems as you can and go through the explanation exercises if you get them wrong, in order to achieve mastery of a concept.

This approach also means that the crucial independent practice students used to get almost exclusively through homework is now happening during classroom time, too.

Kami Thordarson was one of the first teachers in the country to pilot the program with her fifth-grade math class at the Los Altos School District in California.

She would assign a specific module as a starting point for the class, but students were encouraged to move as far as they were capable on their own.

“That’s something that’s really hard to do when you have 30 kids in the classroom who are all expected to progress as a single unit,” Thordarson said. In those cases, “the kids who don’t get it fall behind and the kids who get it right away, get bored.”

But teachers around the globe agree that the most revolutionary aspect of the Khan Academy is the immediate feedback provided by the site’s back-end features.

“It’s all about the the data, the data, the data! That is the power of the Khan Academy,” Thordarson said enthusiastically.

While students are working independently on exercises in class, teachers can monitor student progress in a real-time graph. They can see a summary of class performance or they can dive into a particular student’s profile to figure out exactly how long they are spending on each practice question and which topics are problematic. Without these tools, it’s very hard to know the exact spot of weakness for a student.

“I would glance at the graphs and I knew which students to pull into smaller groups and teach them one-on-one,” she said. “It let me customize and individualize my lesson plans.”

Similarly, developers of the site are constantly responding to teacher feedback, adapting some of the features to better meet their needs and adding new ones.

Maureen Suhrenda, who is the lead on teacher development for the Khan Academy, said the site was revamped in mid-August. Just in time for the new school year.

One of the most important changes, she said, is the addition of an adaptive diagnostic test. “It creates an approximation of what level we think an individual is at, and then recommends content based on that.” So, right off the bat, teachers will have the opportunity to assess a student’s strengths and weaknesses in each of the subject areas. Teachers will also have the freedom to establish their own thresholds for proficiency; previous lessons required students to solve 10 consecutive problems in order to move on to another lesson. Now a teacher can set the bar at five correct answers.

“That will prevent students from feeling discouraged if they can’t get that last question right,” Suhrenda said.

The gaming aspect of the site has also been improved. Users earn points and badges—strategies proven to motivate students—as they demonstrate mastery of concepts. The site is also preparing to help teachers and students meet the Common Core State Standards in mathematics. A new Common Core section on the site contains 2,500 new math practice problems and Khan has recorded 100 new videos that are aligned with the new curriculum. Finally, Spanish and Portuguese versions of the the entire site will launch in the fall.

Give it another five years, Khan told NPR, and we’ll marvel at the way “classrooms tended to be dominated by lectures and all moved at the same pace.”

In fact, “[we will] envy the kids today because they don’t have to sit and sit passively and kind of stare at a clock.”

Watch the TEACH trailer and interviews with the teachers:

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.