Khan Academy: What are the Possibilities?

I just today learned about Khan Academy, the online education institution whose goal is “providing a free world-class education to anyone anywhere.”  In the TED talk above, the academy’s founder, Salman Khan, describes exactly how the project works.

The site is home to more than 2400 educational lecture videos, mostly in the domains of math and science (but there are burgeoning history and finance sections as well.)  All videos are narrated by Khan himself, as we follow his main points on an electronic blackboard.  The videos are entirely free and open to anyone, and the levels range from simple addition to advanced calculus, basic evolutionary biology to “Role of Phagocytes in Innate or Nonspecific Immunity,” and beyond.  There are practice math exercises as well.

Students can watch videos and do exercises.  Teachers can assign videos and exercises as homework or use them in their classrooms.  Teachers and parents can sign on as “coaches” in order to tutor and track their students’ or children’s progress.  Peers can also tutor each other.

Khan says that, ideally, this technology actually “humanizes the classroom.”  If teachers assign the lectures for homework, this frees up classroom time for actual teacher-student interaction – students can do what used to be homework during class time, when the teacher is there to help them and they can discuss the work with their classmates.  The teacher goes from being a lecturer to a coach.  I love this idea.  I’ve never much cared for lecturing, and I feel the best use of classroom time is for discussion, practice and support.

I watched one of the videos on early American history and was immediately excited.  The lecture was lucid and easy to follow, and Khan is an engaging and funny lecturer.  I immediately wished I had nothing else to do today so I could watch more.  For an English teacher (or, to be honest, for any responsible citizen of the world), my knowledge of history is painfully basic and often flawed.  I’ve considered going back to take undergraduate courses in history to fill in the embarrassing gaps.  The Khan archive right now focuses mostly on the history of the United States, with a smattering of French and Haitian history thrown in, but it promises to be “a history of the world (eventually!)”  How cool will it be to bone up on my historical knowledge for free, on my couch, at my own pace, in 20-minute increments whenever I can fit them in?  I will then need to find my own way to apply this knowledge so it will stick, but the foundation will be there.

I’m curious about two things.

  • What are the possibilities for English instruction?  Grammar lectures, for sure.  Lectures on analytical thinking?  On important authors or literary periods?
  • Have any of you explored Khan Academy and made use of any of its materials in your classroom?  If so, I’d love to hear about your experiences.
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6 responses

  1. It will take the sheer power of a teacher’s charisma to inspire the students to do the viewing, which is what it is — homework. Otherwise, to a lazy, corner-cutting student, coming to class without having done assigned readings will be the same as coming to class not having viewed an assign Khan video or two.

    So in theory it sounds nice, but I’d want to see someone else (preferably any colleague I know personally) try it and demonstrate its success.

    • Michael: Fair enough – work is work, and some students will shirk no matter what. However, I like the perspective this gives on the teacher’s role – and I kick students out for not doing the reading, so why not kick them out for not doing the watching?

  2. I am a homeschoooled HS student, and without Khan Academy it would be very hard for me to properly understand algebra. The way he explains it is very comprehendable and helpful. I must state that it should not be used in lieu of worksheets, reading a book, studying, etc. It should be used as a supplement course and to help students understand the concepts and prepare for tests. Now, there are some success stories of autisic or dislexic students grasping the concept after watching the video once, blah blah blah. If that is how the child learns, then that is how he learns. But to me, the student should be able to demonstrate the skills on paper to show understanding of the concepts presented.

    • GSL: I agree that videos like this are only the foundation – and I think the maker of the videos would agree with you too.

  3. I watched Khan Academy’s youtube videos to study for my entire university module on Differential Equations because my lecturer was severely incompetent. The way Salman Khan explained the tricky and difficult concepts helped me to understand the fundamentals well enough to score an A for my module. 🙂

    However, I would have to admit that his videos were just sufficient for me to build a strong foundation in the basics, the rest of the scaffolding has to be done by myself- looking up for more challenging questions to practise etc.

    • Ulricalz: yes, I agree that these videos really just provide a starting point. However, for students who are struggling, that may be exactly what they need, as your experience demonstrates!

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