Learning Resources | Q&A

Khan Academy Talks Analytics, OER, and iPads

Thanks in part to a recent 60 Minutes segment with founder Sal Khan, education wunderkind Khan Academy has become very popular. The nonprofit's video lessons have racked up more than 130 million views to date from a wide spectrum of learners, opening a dialogue among educators coast to coast on the merits of the flipped classroom and the promise of technology to differentiate instruction. At the same time, the company is still very much a startup--30 employees and growing--that admits there is a lot of work to be done before it achieves the lofty goal of providing a free world-class education to anyone, anywhere.

THE Journal Associate Editor Stephen Noonoo recently spoke with Khan Academy's Matt Wahl, who splits his time between the products and implementation teams, about the newly released iPad app, using data in the classroom, and how the company thinks schools can finally dump the "sage on the stage" model once and for all.

Stephen Noonoo: Where is Khan Academy presently in regard to K-12 education?

Matt Wahl: Right now Khan Academy has an immense amount of content. We have over 3,000 videos in subjects ranging from math to biology, chemistry, even spreading into some economics and finance. Recently, we've added some content in art history with some of our partners. It's really been very humbling to watch and see the impact these videos are having on students.

The other thing we're focused on is the exercise platform. We have a set of self-paced exercises that broadly cover K-12 and today we're focused on fleshing that out. We have a pretty strong gauge looking at grades 3 to 9 and we're really focused on developing our content for 9 to 12. We're excited about the impact on the individual learners outside of the classroom. On our Web site we have, to date, around 2 million-plus problems done every day, and we just recently approached 400 million problems solved.

The third thing we think is exciting is our analytics platform, which lets students and teachers track what's occurring on an individual level to be able to see everything from how a student is performing overall in math, to how they're performing specifically within algebra and within linear equations, to how they're doing on specific problems.

We recently started putting more effort into tools for teachers and we released a comprehensive set of teacher resources. The goal is to provide a platform where we can share some of the learning that we've seen in the classroom with the broader base. We now have over 10,000 schools that are actively using Khan Academy in groups of 10 or more students, so we're really trying to shape the learning that we work with directly, and then scale those out.

Noonoo: Tell us about your new iPad app. What is the potential for engaging students on tablets and how do you see it having an impact on schools?

Wahl: We're really excited about the iPad app because we see it as really a great video-watching experience. It's our first foray into the app world, but it's something that we worked really hard on and we hope folks will enjoy.

First, on the product side, there are a couple of features that we think are pretty exciting. This has our entire video library on it. Right now our video library stands at 3,041 videos, and recently we've revamped our content management system. In addition to Sal making videos, we also have Vi Hart, who is creating really rich math content. We also have SmartHistory who created these awesome art history experiences, and now all their content weaves into the iPad app.

As those new videos are being pushed out, they are all seamlessly updated to the app. Once you have access to that content, one of the main features to the app is that you can download it and take it offline. We've already heard some cool stories of folks using this--because the videos are byte-sized--on their morning commute, or students on a bus in some districts where they have iPad programs, by being able to brush up on things without having to rely on an Internet connection.

Another thing that we think is great about this is the interactive subtitle navigation. We actually have an open source subtitling effort where anyone can contribute subtitles to our videos, and then we have a team that vets those and releases them.

If you played around with the app now, right beneath the video screen, there is a section that has all of these interactive subtitles. You can actually scrub to individual sections there, and we've seen that be a really effective point of navigation for our users.

As part of the iPad app, you can actually log in and save your progress so you can get points and badges in the traditional Khan Academy way. One of my favorite features is that I can be playing a video on the iPad app--and let's say I'm eight minutes through--I can pause the video right as I hop off the train and get into work, then when I go into my browser on my computer, the video will resume at the same spot. I talked earlier about the platform and the analytics we have. We're basically tracking all of this so we can give the users some of those advantages other than just the points and the badges and really start to showcase some of the advantages of the platform.

Noonoo: Does Khan see itself as part of the open educational resource movement, and does the iPad app fit into that at all?

Wahl: I think that from day one, if you look at our mission statement, it has been to provide a free world class education to anyone, anywhere. All of our resources are free, including the iPad app, analytics, and the interactive exercises, and all of our software is open source. We actually have a pretty active development community around exercises. I think roughly 20 percent of our exercises have been contributed by the open source community. And you can literally view the source code for our entire Web site online. We think there is a tremendously exciting future in open education.

Noonoo: Let's talk about the traditional textbook approach to teaching versus the Khan Academy model. Has the traditional approach failed and are educators looking for new models, like yours, to fill the void?

Wahl: I would take a step back from that. What we look at is the textbook approach to teaching, but really looking at what happens in the classroom. I think the traditional model as it stands, where there is a teacher at the front of the classroom lecturing at the blackboard and having students listening obediently, is going to change. Basically, we want to provide tools that enable great teachers to really energize and to move those teachers up the value chain and become a great mentor or a great coach by leveraging the skills that great teachers have and their relationships with students in the classroom.

We really see ourselves as a platform to be able to do that. Today we offer a set of videos and exercises and analytics with a set of proprietary content in-house. Looking forward to the future, we're excited to become a platform that allows other folks to do this as well. Thinking out into the future, by allowing anyone to take these tools that we're developing in-house and scale them for their classroom--or to take the content we have and the other great content we're curating and apply them in their classrooms, we think there's a huge amount of power in that.

As for the ramifications in the classroom, we think they're really fascinating. In the classrooms we work in, we see students moving at their own pace. Instead of everyone following one lecture, the teacher is letting everyone master concepts as they go along, so that they're exposed to the ideal content at the right time.

We think that that also opens up a lot of exciting possibilities, where foundational learning can take a smaller amount of time, which will free up the teacher to do a lot more interactive material in class. We're really at the beginning of what is possible regarding innovative projects and exciting activities in class. It's an area we're excited to work more on with great partners in the future.

Noonoo: Where do you see Khan Academy fitting into the traditional textbook-based education model, especially as textbooks begin to migrate to tablets? Is it a complete alternative?  

Wahl: I think that whether you talk about a textbook or videos or interactive exercises, at the end of the day these are tools that can help learners move on, conquer subjects, and progress on the epic journey of becoming lifelong learners. What we're excited about is this explosion of different tools. Right now there are a lot of exciting things that are happening. We're just excited that folks are finding value in the tools we're providing.

Noonoo: As textbooks on tablets become more popular, OER may get less attention. Is this a challenge for Khan Academy?

Wahl: I don't think it's a challenge. What really counts is what students are finding effective. What are the new mediums that they're experiencing things on--whether through a tablet or as different pieces of content go online? When you talk about a textbook, it's really two fundamental things. One is the instruction of the actual lesson--essentially the information dissemination. The second thing is the interactive problems, and we've kind of taken our own spin on that through videos and exercises. We're experimenting with different formats, and asking: How can we integrate interactive questions into different videos, kind of [contextual] understanding, and are there other options to make even more interactive, immersive experiences on the exercise side? We really gear it as an evolution of tools that can be used by learners and teachers.

Noonoo: We've seen OER gain ground in home study and online learning, but what is its role in the classroom?

Wahl: Really, we've seen a lot of the innovation on how teachers use these tools in the classroom to respond to their needs. Today, we're working with about 10 schools pretty closely in the classroom with two goals in mind. One is looking at the content and integrating with the typical startup approach of wanting to really work on improving our content in the classroom in response to student and teacher feedback. The second thing we're looking at is to understand how the broader platform and the analytics are being used.

What we've heard is that teachers are really using Khan Academy to get a pulse on what's happening in the classroom. We have a set of real-time dashboards that give teachers information from the macro level of "How is my entire class doing on linear equations?" to the micro level of "How is Sam doing on mastering 2-step equations?" So, for teachers, what we've heard is, on one side, they can actually scale their abilities because their point of interaction is that much stronger with students. They know that when they come over to a student they have a hypothesis of what's wrong and can talk about that with the student, as opposed to having relatively little information as in the traditional model.

The second thing is there's actually a class in Los Angeles, the Marlborough School, that's been doing a blended class. They've taken two students in [each of] grades 7 through 12, and they basically have an individual class for those student cohorts. They rely pretty heavily on peer tutoring in the class, so that students who are working on algebra teach students who are learning pre-algebra. What we've heard from the teachers and students there is that it feels almost like there's a second teacher in the classroom.

There are things that the student can go to Khan Academy for, and then there are other things that the teacher wants to go deeper on and really emphasize, and the class is really able to do that.

In the education community we've all talked about differentiated learning as this really exciting place to get to, but the tools haven't been there in the past--it's been very difficult to scale. What we really see--and we generally think we're very early in this game and we have a lot of work to do on our product--is that the potential is there to provide the tools to allow effective differentiation in the classroom, where it's tenable to have a quarter of the class working specifically on algebra--say, linear equations--while another quarter has moved on to linear equality, and half of the class is working on an interactive project measuring how big Washington's nose is on a statue. We think that the ability to have these tools, and enabling teachers to have a pulse on the classroom and embrace the chaos that we've been hearing about in differentiation, can provide for a really exciting structure.

Noonoo: Let's talk about these analytics. What are the data points being collected by Khan Academy?

Wahl: We collect a lot of different data. What we're trying to do is form a cohesive picture, primarily first and foremost for the student: What is the history of the learner? Out of that we're seeing a kind of history being translated for teachers. Some of the specific data points that we collect are: "How long am I watching a video for?" and "Over the past week, what have I spent time watching?" On the exercise side, "What am I spending my time on? How many problems have I done?" and "How many points have I earned on Khan Academy?"

Then we also give you the ability to look at, for example, the specific linear equation exercise that we have. A teacher can see how many students have started it, how many students are proficient on it, meaning they mastered it, and how many students are struggling. Then we're able to guide within that and drill down to see, "okay, Anna is struggling here," and then we're able to look at her problem history over linear equations. Specifically, I can see that Anna has done 22 problems in linear equations, I see that she has gotten the last four problems wrong, and used hints on two of those.

The teacher is able to dive in within the specific problem and see a student's answer history--what answers they're putting in the box and how much time they're spending between each individual answer. We can look at that macro level--what am I spending my time on, if I'm a student, or, if I'm a teacher, what are my students spending time on--down to that micro level: Where are my students spending their time and what are they getting tripped up on?

Noonoo:  Are these things you're specifically noticing when you go into the classroom or are these just overarching data points that are getting reported back to Khan Academy?

Wahl: These are things that are very much in use in the classroom. I think the important thing to note here is our dashboard and all the data that we collect has been developed in very close concert with teachers in the classroom.

We have a new report called the progress summary report, which actually came out of our pilot teachers being frustrated with our overall progress report. They told us they just needed a way to visualize how their class is doing within a specific exercise. Now the progress summary is our most popular report in terms of which reports teachers are spending the most time on and getting the most value out of.

On our end, the metric is how people are using our tools and what value are they getting out of them. Right now, a lot of that development has really been informed by the teachers and their students.

Noonoo: There is a lot of pressure on schools regarding high stakes testing and a standardized curriculum. How do Khan Academy and its videos fit into an education environment where so much attention is paid to testing and scores?

Wahl: First and foremost, we're interested in developing great experiences for students, but we recognize that there are a lot of reference points and common standards. One thing that we've done recently is align most of our video and exercise content to the Common Core State Standards. Basically, we have a map that shows you which videos apply to which standards, and which exercises apply to which standards as well. We're also working on creating community tools for that as well that will allow teachers to give us feedback.

At the end of the day, the math is pretty subjective in terms of structuring of the standards and allowing teachers to give feedback and crowdsource what the community finds useful.

Noonoo: There is discussion on whether YouTube should be blocked in schools, which would naturally be problematic for Khan Academy's use in the classroom. What is your take?

Wahl: There's an exciting initiative called YouTube for Schools. I think the focus of that is to unblock educational content. It's something that they're still iterating on, but we're excited for the potential. What's most important is the norms and the behaviors that are set in the classroom and the culture that's being set around being focused on [students'] work and taking class time seriously. I think YouTube recognizes that, and hopefully the kinks can be worked out and this can be something that everyone can rely on.

If you look at Khan Academy, or at open courseware, there's a lot of great content on YouTube that students will be able to have access to in a classroom setting, without having the rest of the overhead of the YouTube experience.

Noonoo: How do you address the argument that technology like Khan Academy videos could be used to replace teachers?

Wahl: I think it's exactly the opposite. We feel that individualizing the classroom allows teachers to move up the value chain and spend their time on more value-added activities rather than being in the front of the class and being the sage on the stage.

Noonoo: What are some of the conversations you're currently having with schools about using Khan Academy?

Wahl: Just over a year ago, in December of 2010, we started working with the Los Altos School District on a pilot across five classrooms. We've worked with some incredibly innovative teachers and we were excited about how they were using the tools, and they were impressed with the successes they were seeing with their students.

We want to expand from there. Basically, we've seen how Khan Academy works on a small scale in one of the best school districts in California. Now let's see how it works in a variety of other different settings--in low-resource charter schools, independent schools, at run of the mill school districts. We're now working with a variety of different partners, and we've been very excited with some of the early results we've seen and with the reactions and the personal growth of students, both on the remediation side, and on the other side, where students are actually ahead of grade level.

As the students are moving ahead and are able to tackle content at a higher level, you set up a very fundamental question about why all of these students, who are doing content along with students two years older than them, are prohibited from interacting and learning from those students.

We look at the model at Marlborough--the multi-age grouping--and we get really excited about the possibilities around that situation. It's something we're keen to understand and see in action in more places. Looking at that and thinking about math and science, compared with chemistry and biology, and looking at the entry points, can we have something that actually weaves multiple subjects together and really abolishes traditional boundaries? The conversations we're having now are exciting, and for next year we will be working with folks to really push the traditional boundaries of the classroom to see what's really possible when you introduce these new tools.