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.
- By Dian Schaffhauser
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
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.
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 home...as 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.
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."