The Way of the Future: Next Steps at Khan Academy

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Khan Academy has announced next evolutionary steps: 5 new faculty members to extend into the arts and humanities, a crowdsourcing project for videos and blended learning experiments, starting with summer camps in the Summer of 2012.  The O’Sullivan Foundation provided a $5m grant to get these projects underway.

I have wondered for some time whether Khan would choose to add new faculty. Despite the fact that Sal Khan is bright, talented and works diligently to research his topics for videos, there are limits to what a single person can do. I’ve noticed for instance that over the last few years I have gravitated towards reading multi-author blogs more than single-author blogs. The reason why is pretty simple: they tend to have more content and differences in perspective. The first two of the five new faculty are already at it: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris have begun to produce content on art, history, and the humanities. Dr. Zucker was formerly Chair of Art and Design History at Pratt Institute while Dr. Harris was Director of Digital Learning at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. You can watch their early videos here.

The crowd sourcing project is obviously very interesting, if a little baffling to me. If you can start a global encyclopedia through crowd sourcing, I guess there will be a way to sort high quality videos from drek.

Although Khan Academy makes for one of the most potentially powerful remedial and supplemental tools that one can hope to access for free, I find myself most interested in the progress of blended learning models. If you haven’t read the Wired Magazine article on Khan Academy, shame on you. Go read it now!  There you will read about a 10-year-old who has mastered Trig. Or was well on his way to mastering Trig when the article was written. He might be into calculus these days. Those trig equations are giving me a bad flashback to 1985, but Matthew Carpenter is having fun with them.

After reading the Wired article, ask yourself if there is any reason why Matthew Carpenter ought not to be able to take a trigonometry end of course exam. If he passes, it seems rather self-evident to me that he ought to be given credit for content mastery, and allowed to plow ahead. A future in which content mastery determines course credits and education funding, rather than mere seat-time, makes so much sense that it will surely be fiercely resisted. Unsuccessfully.

Keep up the good work Sal. How long can it be until we see some similar platforms built for more specific niche purposes? Stay tuned…

10 Responses to The Way of the Future: Next Steps at Khan Academy

  1. Erik Syring says:

    No, the 10 year old had completed 642 trigonometry _exercises_. The Khan Academy format is not suitable for building a capacity to solve mathematics _problems_.

  2. Matthew Ladner says:

    And what makes you think that Erik? Matthew Carpenter can solve 642 trig problems while Matthew Ladner can solve none. One of the Matthews spent time watching Khan videos, working problems and doing other activities (blended learning) and the other has been doing education policy nerd stuff.

    I don’t know for certain whether Matthew Carpenter would pass an end of course exam for Trig, but he would have a much, much, much better chance than Matthew Ladner.

    • Erik Syring says:

      The key distinction here is between problems and exercises. Problems are essentially absent from the Western math curricula – this absence and the absence of proofs are the most important deficiencies of math ed in the West. Learning to solve mathematics problems requires live guidance by a master teacher (master math teachers are rare in the West). The intellectual development of Matthew Carpenter & co would be better furthered by work on Eastern European problems for Grades 7-8 than on cookie-cutter high school exercises (chimpanzees do quite well on AP Calculus, provided you give them enough time).

      • Matthew Ladner says:

        Hmmm. Perhaps after Carpenter finishes Advanced Calculus in the 6th grade he can seek out such instruction.

  3. allen says:

    I just wonder how long it’ll be before schools that have to consider costs – private, religious and charters – will start using Khan Academy to hold the line on costs? It’s not just that Khan Academy holds out the hope of reducing teacher head count but also of administrative head count.

    Part of the chore of administration, at least non-district administration, is communicating with parents and all that entails. The collation of test data isn’t all that big a deal now but as parental choice becomes more important the demonstrable quality of the school will become important and that, ultimately, is an administrative task.

    Khan Academy, by collecting data at the point of use via the tests that are tightly coupled to the lessons, provides a wealth of data that’s useful for determining pretty much everything of value. The progress of an individual child is potentially measurable against a variety of backdrops – age or income cohort, within a geographical area. But also measurable are teaching and administrative skill. Data could be aggregated at very little cost to provide some worthwhile data about teaching skill and about the school’s standing among school comparable along whatever axis is important.

    Parents, for instance, would be very interested in the standing of the child’s school in comparison to other schools within a convenient range. Schools, obviously, would similarly interested but that’s not the only axis of comparison.

    Schools with similar demographics would be especially interested in stand-out schools operating within their demographic. But identifying the “best” school would be of interest to every school operator since parents will inevitably want to know what their school is doing wrong that the best schools are doing right.

  4. Bob Griffin says:

    No doubt that blended learning is the future of education. Leveraging technology in this way is the long awaited productivity increase that will make the teaching profession more rewarding and more “human”, to quote Sal Khan.

    Mastery is the constant and seat-time is the variable. Brilliant.

    Educators will be able to let the machines do the mundane lectures and drills and collect measurements by the minute. Armed with data, teachers will be able to conduct surgical interventions with individual students and small groups. They will be able to spend much more of their time on the fun part of teaching; providing context and application. I think Carpe Diem and Rocketship type charter schools will spread like wildfire.

    Labor bosses won’t have the power to slow down this wave. Their irrational fear of the “P word” (productivity) is probably sparking conversations similar to what took place in the Elevator Operators Union.

  5. Bob Griffin says:


    We like to get you to a Florida vs Alaska paper for our legislative session in January, if you’re interested.
    It should be fun. We’re 51st in NAEP 4th grade reading for upper and middle income kids (223), despite being 3rd in per student spending.

  6. This is very encouraging, and Sal Khan is to be commended, but no one knows how far this will run. What is rapidly being established here is that pupils in the middle years (late primary and early secondary) can learn mathematics much more rapidly than heretofore with such methods, and it will likely apply well to related subjects like science. But both Mr. Khan and his constructionist critics suffer from overgeneralized theories of learning: he makes them look ridiculous on a daily basis as his pupils fly forward, but ignores important social considerations in his visions for his private school.

    • Daniel Earley says:

      Perhaps so, Bruce. But rest assured that, precisely like you just did, other educational innovators will always notice similar (even many more) “gaps” in any program, and will naturally generate their own creative improvements–especially when speaking of blended models. Hence the rapid evolution that emerges organically once any system is set free of its government cage.

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