Education & COVID-19

Khan on Where School is Headed in the Fall

Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, comments on digital equity; why the internet has just become a major need, not just a want; and how school could change for the better next fall.

While nobody can predict the future in a time of COVID-19, there's a big possibility that schools will have to continue delivering education remotely for two big reasons: either because shelter-in-place orders will still be in effect or will be re-activated by states in the fall; or because children from some families with vulnerable members won't be able to head off to the physical campus each day only to return home carrying whatever new germs they've picked up along the way.

This reliance on distance education should be a moment made for Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy and author of The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined. After all, he and his organization have been providing free access to learning videos in math and a whole bunch of other topics for more than a decade. The Academy, whose tagline is, "Anybody can learn anything. For free," has spawned a school (Khan Lab School); an educator and kids' version of the full site; practice programs to help students prepare for the SAT college entry test; and other initiatives to help people use technology to personalize education and inspire students to do autonomous learning.

"Don't Let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good"

But now that most people are forced to use technology in pursuit of education, questions of digital equity come to the forefront. Should teachers hold off on delivering daily lessons to their students through web conferencing programs, for example, because not all of their students can participate?

That would be the wrong approach, according to Khan. "The digital divide is real," he acknowledged during a recent media briefing. "In a lot of places, 20, 30, 40 percent of kids won't have access. My general sense though is not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

His belief is that by not doing anything online because not everybody can join in won't "level the playing field." Those families with financial resources to buy computers, pay for internet access, take advantage of online educational opportunities and even hire online tutors "will continue to move forward, no matter what."

Also, Khan suggested, low-income families often do have "some form of internet access," even if it's via a smartphone. As he pointed out, "Things like Khan Academy can be used on a smart phone; Zoom can be used on a smartphone."

The model he would propose at this time is to "try to do as much as possible with the tools available and put the practices in place for the kids who do have access, which is still, hopefully, 60 to 70 percent of the district."

A large share of those "will be kids who do need supports, whose families can't afford tutors, [so they need] to have that contact with their teachers, which they can get on Zoom and Google [Meet] and Skype and things like that."

From there, the district's job is to figure out how to reach the remaining students and fill the digital gap, Khan added. He pointed to examples such as Clark County School District, the fifth largest in the country, serving some 69 percent of students in the state, including those in the Las Vegas metropolitan area. "We've seen [Superintendent] Dr. Jesus Jara do amazing things there, partnering with the local telecom carrier, getting local corporations to get 40,000 laptops to the kids who need them, getting training for parents," all while continuing to provide breakfast and lunch for students through a network of food distribution sites.

"No Longer a Nice-to-Have"

When Khan Academy began working directly with school districts on learning initiatives around 2009 and 2010, Khan recalled, he would have conversations with educators and discover that the school might have "a single laptop cart and broadband that wasn't really broadband."

Over the last 10 years, however, Khan noted, the United States has done a good job in supplying schools with internet connectivity and computers. "It's still not perfect," he said. "We're seeing most places at least in semi-urban or urban areas have that solved. Rural areas still have some issues." Now the real conversation is getting internet into the homes that don't have it.

As Khan pointed out, high-speed internet access isn't simply about education equity anymore, but also about economic equity -- especially now that 30 million people are unexpectedly unemployed. "It's no longer a nice-to-have; it's a must-have," he said. "If you're looking for a job, if you want to know what the weather is, if you want to know what's open or closed right now, you need some form of internet access. When we're talking about...ways to stimulate the economy, we should just make it so that every person in the country has good access to the internet. I don’t think anyone will see that as coddling people. That should be a human right. It'll drive economic growth, especially in a time when people might have to do social distancing to do remote work."

Planning for the Fall

In 2019, Khan Academy teamed up with NWEA, the education nonprofit that produces classroom assessment platform MAP Growth, to launch MAP Accelerator, a tool for helping teachers integrate personalized learning and assessment specifically for math in grades 3-8. That program was piloted among five districts, including Clark County, and then made broadly available at year's end. The promise is this: With 30 minutes of use a week, students can accelerate their learning in math through differentiated instruction, while teachers monitor their progress through analytics and make adjustments as needed.

The timing was fortunate. As Khan Academy plans for the return of students in the fall, the organization has realized that "kids are going to show up with a huge variance in their preparedness," Khan said. Taking what it's learned in the development of MAP Accelerator, the Academy is ramping up its work on the diagnostic side to provide teachers with ways to identify where students' learning gaps are.

That could turn out to be a questionnaire, Khan said, with some kind of "personalized remediation packs, so kids could quickly work on those swiss-cheese gaps that really matter and get to grade level or beyond as quickly as possible."

He's also hoping to see creation of a playbook to help districts and government switch to remote learning in a more coherent way when or if the need arises again.

Even if that day never comes again, Khan said he thinks we'll see "more of a blend of online and physical as teachers realize that some kids are going to have to stay long as the vaccine is not out yet."

What would that look like? He envisions a normal classroom outfitted with a camera that's "Zoom-accessible," allowing students at home to access it when they need to, as well as personalized learning plans and the setting of more asynchronous goals. "Then, if schools have to close, you can lean much heavier on those things without going through all the trouble that's happening right now," he said.

Referring to an afternoon board meeting he'd be attending later in the day online for his own kids' school, the Khan Lab School, Khan observed that learning no longer has to be bound by time or space.

"It's obviously great if we can be in a room together, if f we can give each other hugs and all that," he said. But the changes in education introduced by coronavirus "is leading to really powerful pedagogical conversations, where it is about putting more agency on students, more independence on students, but also giving them the supports they truly need in order to develop that agency. This fluidity is pushing the school in the right way. And I think it's going to have the same effect broadly."