Sunday, September 2, 2012

Los Altos School District & Khan Academy

Duck and Cover!
It is no secret that Khan Academy videos have come under fire in recent weeks.  As educators in the Los Altos School District where Salman Khan’s free product was initially piloted and implemented, we would like to share our experiences utilizing Khan Academy as an instructional tool in a blended learning environment.  By sharing our experiences, we hope to provide accurate information on how Khan Academy can be effectively used, clear up a few misconceptions, and share some of the lessons we have learned on our journey thus far.

Post Nadia
The Los Altos School District entered into a relationship with Sal Khan and his, at that time, one employee in the fall of 2010 to test the effectiveness of the Khan Academy, as an instructional tool, in a classroom setting.  This relationship began at a time when our district was beginning to explore how to individualize the learning experience to better meet students’ needs. A few teachers in grades 5 and 7 endeavored to pilot the product with their math students.  These teachers met regularly to discuss emerging practices and worked closely with Khan Academy developers to design data views that would empower teachers to make valuable instructional decisions. Many of the features on the data dashboard were created in response to direct requests from our pilot teachers.  In our experience, Khan Academy strives to participate in an iterative process that embraces feedback from users to improve their tool.  We know that Khan Academy has a number of exciting developments in the works; the recently launched Computer Science tutorials and programming capabilities are great examples.

Setting the Record Straight
After Sal’s 2011 TED Talk, our district was bombarded with requests from members of the media as well as the educational community who wanted to observe the Khan Academy’s use in the classroom.  As a small district, we were unprepared for this onslaught and did our utmost to share our learning with interested members of the educational community.  These encounters were and continue to be enlightening for us as we make international connections and learn from the experiences of other professional educators.  Unfortunately, the idea of flipping the classroom that Sal mentioned in his TED Talk resonated with many members of the media, and we were unsuccessful in helping some of them divorce this idea from what they saw in Los Altos.  As a result, our educational philosophy, teaching practices, and Khan Academy implementation have been misrepresented, in varying degrees, by a few major media outlets.

Beyond the Videos
Teachers in our district have determined that the greatest value of the Khan Academy lies, not in the videos, but in the exercise modules and data generated as students work practice problems.  After students set up free accounts and add their teacher as “COACH,” teachers are able to view student data associated with the exercise modules in real time.  These data sets help track progress by differentiating between students who are struggling with a particular concept versus those who are proficient.  Los Altos teachers use this data to inform instructional decisions.  Students are encouraged to take an active role in their learning by accessing their own data during various metacognitive endeavors thereby increasing student ownership of and engagement in their math education.

    Here are a few things to note about the Khan Academy’s practice modules:

  • To access the practice modules, simply click on “PRACTICE” while at the Khan Academy’s site to view the Knowledge Map of math skills.
  • While on the Knowledge map, zoom out to operate in Power Mode.  Power Mode provides you with a variety of problems on a particular topic (adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing decimals).  Power Mode is a great way to prove proficiency on a broader topic, but it can be frustrating for a student who is just learning a concept.
  • For more specific practice, zoom in to see the discrete modules (adding decimals).  This is a more appropriate mode for students needing practice on a particular skill.
  • The software requires students to review if a concept has not been practiced after a certain period of time.
  • Practice modules are similar to textbook problems.  The advantages include the teacher’s access to data in real time and the student’s ability to receive immediate feedback and ask for “hints” when stuck.
  • Students earn energy points, badges, and leaves when correctly working problems.  This is highly motivating for upper elementary students and some middle and high school students.
  • You will notice cognitive leaps between different modules.  We strongly advise that you check out a module to assess its appropriateness before using it with your class.
  • There are gaps in the Knowledge Map, so don’t throw out your textbooks and other practice resources.
  • Students tend to burn out if Khan Academy practice modules are used daily or for longer than 15-20 minutes at a time.
  • It is important to differentiate between proficiency and mastery with regard to Khan Academy’s practice modules.  Proficiency on a particular module is a good first step, but the student and teacher have a lot more work to do before a concept is truly mastered.

Blending Learning
While we have experienced success using Khan Academy as an instructional tool, it is important to note that Khan Academy is not the curriculum, nor is Sal Khan the teacher. Teachers in Los Altos may choose to “flip the classroom” when appropriate, but this is not our daily implementation model.  While Khan Academy has attracted the most attention, it is not the major component of math classrooms in our schools.

Los Altos teachers are utilizing a blended learning model incorporating various technological tools, such as Khan Academy’s exercise modules, in addition to textbooks, manipulatives, projects, problem solving activities, collaborative endeavors, and other best practices.  Teachers capitalize on their knowledge of grade level standards and math content by selecting the most appropriate tools and methods of instruction based on the needs of their students, curricular objectives, and value of the tool.  For Los Altos teachers, no blended learning formula exists.  Each lesson is structured differently to incorporate a variety of engaging learning experiences that serve to enhance each student’s math education.  The beauty of a blended learning approach to instruction is the relative ease with which teachers are able to incorporate valuable new teaching tools and to eliminate ineffective ones without revamping the entire curriculum.  This approach keeps math instruction fresh and the teachers actively involved in the curriculum development and lesson planning processes.

Video 4-1-1
Having shared how Los Altos teachers are using the Khan Academy, we should take a few moments to discuss the videos as well.  Since our district piloted the Khan Academy in order to determine its effectiveness in schools, pilot teachers explored the use of videos with students to some degree and made several observations:
  • Sal’s videos seem more effective when used as a review of previously learned concepts and less impactful, even considered boring or confusing, when the math concept is new to the student.
  • Some videos tend to start at an elementary level and quickly move to middle or high school material, which can be frustrating for upper elementary and middle school students.
  • Many of the worked examples shown in the videos lack the variety of sample problems a classroom teacher would typically explore with his/her students.
  • Students quickly tune out during a video if they have not been taught active listening skills.
  • High school-aged students seem to be better able to follow the 10 minute videos than elementary and middle school students.
  • Students tend to prefer to interact with a live teacher than to listen to a prerecorded video.
  • The videos are a good resource for students who need extra support in language acquisition, students with visual or auditory processing problems, and students struggling with a concept outside of class time.

Once upon a time, Sal Khan began creating videos to help his cousin, Nadia, and has continued making videos in that same vein.  Some of his videos serve as good supplemental resources, others, less so, and none are capable of replacing a classroom teacher.  The videos should be viewed for what they are and not as what the media often tries to sell.

Benefits of Using Khan Academy
Based on a successful pilot during the 2010-2011 school year, the Los Altos School District implemented the use of Khan Academy in all Grade 5-6 classes and some Grade 7-8 classes during the 2011-2012 school year.  During this full implementation year, we participated in a study through SRI International, an independent non-profit research institute, to help determine the effectiveness of our implementation model with Khan Academy.  While we don’t have official study results yet, great things are happening in our district for students and some of them are directly related to our use of Khan Academy.  Teachers who have used Khan Academy as an instructional tool, have rethought their use of instructional time and are spending more time in math class on less traditional teaching methods effectively changing the student experience.  Students are excited about the use of Khan Academy for several reasons:  They get direct feedback when they are working a set of problems, they are able to visually see areas where they have excelled in math, and they are able to take some ownership of their own learning.  Students are motivated in math and are excited to take on new challenges.  While difficult to measure, increased motivation and student ownership are vital to the process of developing lifelong learners -- part of the mission of our district.

Revolutionizing Learning
The Los Altos School District began piloting the Khan Academy because we see the value in exploring new tools and strategies related to teaching and learning. Our district is on a mission to revolutionize student learning. This revolution represents a process of reevaluating the old while vetting the new, and has taken many forms encompassing ideas such as design thinking, visual learning, and garden-based education in addition to technology integration.  Teachers are given permission to be risk-takers with regard to their educational practice and are supported with appropriate equipment, training, and instructional coaching.  District leaders are finding creative ways to help facilitate collaborative efforts amongst teachers and actively encourage the sharing of best practices.

Key to this revolution are the Los Altos teachers.  Teachers in our district are highly valued for their pedagogical perspective, content knowledge, experience, and creative abilities.  When district administrators put tools in the hands of teachers and give them room to work, amazing things happen for students. Tools will come and go, but it’s the teachers who create meaningful learning experiences that challenge students to grow.   

by:  Alyssa Gallagher, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction, @am_gallagher & Courtney Cadwell, STEM Instructional Coach, @CourtneyCadwell


  1. I just wanted to say, thank you very much for this enlightening post. It's not too surprising to me that students find the gamified activity tree more compelling than the videos, but it is very interesting to hear the same thoughts coming the schools testing out the Khan Academy on the ground.

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