Schools tap into online Khan Academy

Mar 9, 2013 by

If she could, geometry teacher Michele Ratcliff would be right there at each student’s side when understanding is just a nudge away from confusion.

“Teaching is so within the moment,” she said.

She is sure, somehow, that a rare partnership involving several area schools and the booming online education website Khan Academy can prevent many of those moments from slipping away.

But just how, exactly?

Maureen Suhendra knows what Ratcliff and her colleagues at Independence’s William Chrisman High School want from education’s exploding digital technology — and how intimidating it is.

Before Suhendra became one of Khan Academy’s specialists in implementing Khan’s emerging classroom programs, she was a teacher.

A teacher standing at the front of a traditional classroom knows there is a range of student experiences going on behind the arrayed desks.

“One is bored because he knows it already,” Suhendra said. “One is terrified because he was sick, absent or had to move.”

Ratcliff and other teachers in the pilot program want a voice in that student’s ear in those unique teaching moments.

It could be the teacher. It could be a peer who has already mastered the skill. It could be the voice of an online tutor.

“You want to engage students where they are,” Ratcliff said.

The wealth of instructional and data resources pouring down from Khan and other educational programs is undeniably daunting.

Khan’s vision keeps deepening, but what even five years ago was just a collection of YouTube tutorial videos now promises an individualized, interactive online instructional network that can instantly unload real-time data on individual student activity and progress.

Don’t try to take it all on at once, Suhendra said, speaking via online streaming to a group of the teachers who are taking part in the pilot program.

“Start simple,” she said. “Just start.”

PREP-KC, a nonprofit education agency supporting several Kansas City area school districts, set up the pilot project with Khan, thinking a communal effort would help more teachers feel comfortable attempting to take on the technology.

Educators from the Independence, Kansas City Public Schools, Kansas City, Kan., and Center school districts have joined the pilot.

“We’re only at the very beginning of what can be available,” said PREP-KC’s Kathleen Boyle Dalen.

Most classrooms are only sipping at digital technology’s river.

Teachers’ use of it “has been incremental,” Boyle Dalen said. “But it has the potential to be transformative.”

Khan Academy has been playing an enormous role in how technology is getting into classrooms — though that was not its original intent.

It started in 2006 from a collection of YouTube videos that former hedge fund analyst Sal Khan created as math tutorials for a cousin.

The videos got around. People liked being able to pause and replay the instruction at will, without any embarrassment or feelings of imposition.

People who shared them wanted more.

In 2009, Khan quit his job and made Khan Academy his life’s work.

While he kept making videos, the academy began adding exercises, particularly in math. Funders began to lend support, allowing it to grow even more.

Technology enabled teams to create exercises that tracked how students were doing, leaping them forward if they were mastering skills, or giving them hints, or even pushing them back if they were struggling.

Soon teachers were contacting Khan, seeking advice and sharing ideas about “flipping” classrooms — that is, having children learn skills by the videos as homework, then using class time to practice and to blend those skills in larger projects.

Since 2011, Khan Academy has been developing data programs where teachers can have access to the performance data of their students.

Teachers can see how much time a student is practicing, which skills they are mastering and which ones are proving difficult.

They can look at how the class is doing overall on specific skills, seeing where they need the most classroom help.

The site now has more than 4,000 videos over a wide range of subjects and some 380 practice exercises, mostly for math.

More than 244 million lessons have been viewed.

All of its resources remain free, with major support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ann and John Doerr, the O’Sullivan Foundation, Reed Hastings, Google and the Windsong Trust.

“It’s not about sitting kids in front of computers,” Suhendra said. “And it’s not about replacing teachers. It’s about meeting the needs of all students.”

William Chrisman High School math teacher Jodi Donald imagines her classrooms as multiple stations of students.

She’ll know which ones she wants to group together because they need help with the same skills. She’ll take students who have mastered certain skills and pair them with students who need extra help.

And they’ll also feel like they can keep trying on their own. They’ll have a place to go.

“It’s a way to keep kids from sitting there waiting, waiting for help,” Donald said.

Schools are still trying to find ways to get more students digitally connected simultaneously in their classrooms. Too many students still do not have Internet access at home.

Khan is working to create better browsers to help students find the right tutorials. It is also working on diagnostic testing so students and their teachers can more easily determine the appropriate starting point based on their skills.

It will still be the teacher’s task to teach students how to apply the myriad math skills to the real world.

Khan is like a basketball team’s dribbling practice, Suhendra said. Layups here. Then jump shots and free throws.

Teachers, she said, are the coach.

“This gives you more time to get them ready for the game.”

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