Khan Academy: A Math Teacher’s Best Friend?

Teacher Blogger  |  By Brad Skeet

Math imageIn late 2013, the Canadian Press communicated that a report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development was published.  Findings of the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, suggested that Canadian students’ mathematics scores were decreasing (Canadian Press, 2013).  The Canadian Press went on to interview Anna Stokke, an associate professor of mathematics at the University of Manitoba who summarized the issue by stating that “what’s required is a return to ‘pencil and paper math,’ which really requires practice.  What happens is that children aren’t getting the skills to do more difficult math, so they’re struggling when they get to later concepts because math is very cumulative” (Canadian Press, 2013).  For teachers in both Canada and the United States, the question arises as to how we can ensure that students have a basic foundation of mathematics while learning conceptual skills.

In 2012, I was a junior high mathematics teacher.  At the time I was in my eighteenth year of teaching mathematics from grades four through seven.  Having taught well over five hundred students to that point in my career allowed me to see longer term trends in student mathematical understanding. My colleagues and I had noticed a decline in basic mathematical skills.  Our issue was that many of our students had different understandings about these concepts and it became impossible to cover this range of understanding as a whole class.  We were unable to tutor the number of students who required basic mathematical skills and understandings.  We were desperate for a tool that would help.

Khan Academy to the Rescue

We knew that our students needed self-paced lessons that provided them with the ability to start at their point of understanding.  We did not have the money in our budget to purchase specific commercial software.  It was around this time that we had heard of Khan Academy, a free resource that was readily available on YouTube.  We were able to design different levels of learning in our Moodle platform.  It was then a matter of embedding the Khan Academy videos from YouTube into the lessons.  Students and parents embraced the videos.  Teachers loved finding this free resource that was a part of an ever-growing repository of videos.

A Short History of the Future

Khan Academy logoSo, what is Khan Academy?  A short history of its creation is required.  In 2004, Salman (Sal) Khan began to remotely tutor his cousin, Nadia, who was struggling with the topic of unit conversion. This was preventing her from being placed on an advanced math track (Khan Academy, 2018).  Since Nadia was in New Orleans and Sal was in Boston, Sal began tutoring her over the phone and using Yahoo! Doodlepad.  As her progress improved, Khan began tutoring her brothers.  As word spread amongst his family, Khan could no longer schedule everyone for individual help so he began to screencast his videos and place them on YouTube for sharing purposes.  More people kept watching his videos and Khan Academy became incorporated as a non-profit organization in 2008.  In a short time, millions of people around the world began to log in to view videos about specific mathematics, science, and social science topics.  Khan’s screencast videos provide a visual lesson for students and teachers alike.

Today, Khan Academy is a platform unto itself.  While the videos are still available on YouTube to view, students can now create an account on the Khan Academy website.  Students then choose their age, subject, topic, and grade level understanding.  The student begins working in an area requiring tutoring.  The site provides the student with examples, videos, and formative assessments.  Students are able to track their progress as they move through these modules.

Is Khan Academy an Open Educational Resource (OER)?

Is Khan Academy an OER?  It depends on how stringent we want to be with the definition of an OER.  On May 27, 2019, UNESCO stated, “Open Educational Resources (OER) are learning, teaching and research material in any format and medium that resides in the Public Domain or are under copyright that has been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, reuse, repurpose, adaptation and redistribution by others” (C. Blomgren, Personal Communication, 2019, May 27).

Doug Leven of EdTech Strategies, LLC states that the OER community is looking for “automated feedback and analytics tools designed to save faculty time and work” (Hewlett Foundation, 2018).  In this regard, Khan Academy succeeds. The digital platform that Khan Academy provides takes students through lessons and then allows them to participate in formative assessment.  Teachers are able to see these results and track a student’s progress.

However, if we apply David Wiley’s 5Rs of openness, Khan Academy does not necessarily classify as an OER.  While the videos have been made available for teachers and students to view online through their platform or YouTube, downloading and revising the video is not easily apparent.  Khan Academy does not provide a download link for their videos.  Secondly, it is not easy to remix videos and lessons that Khan Academy provides.  In the section of his website entitled “Poor Technical Choices Make Open Content Less Open, Wiley lists “access to the right tools to revise; the level of expertise required; meaningfully edible, and self-sourced as the 4 points of the ALMS Framework to guide if a resource is an OER” (Wiley, n.d.). Khan Academy’s videos would be difficult to revise and require a significant level of expertise that many teachers do not yet have. 

Khan – A Great Fit in the Blended Classroom!

Checkmark iconKhan Academy is an excellent resource for any educator, whether they work in a classroom, blended, or distance, providing that it is not the only resource used.  Some of the strengths of this platform for a mathematics teacher are:

  • It builds a solid understanding of mathematical procedures. Many students do not have the necessary skills to apply mathematical concepts to solving problems.  Khan Academy provides this base learning. The videos are about the mechanics of mathematics (more on that, below).
  • It is free. There is no cost to using Khan Academy’s website or its videos.  The website indicates that they will always remain free for teachers to use.  For a blended or distance educator, this means that you can use the website for your formative assessment or even embed video in your learning content platform.`
  • It differentiates content for students. A student’s current level of understanding dictates where they will start.  Students can proceed at their own pace through the lessons.  The formative assessment then decides if the student should proceed to more difficult concepts.
  • Teachers can monitor progress. Khan Academy is a formative assessment tool.  It should not replace the teacher.  Educators can use the data collected on a student’s progress to further design learning to help the student reach their learning goal.
  • Skill-building content provided. Many teachers spend hours searching for content.  Khan Academy provides teachers with that content.  Teachers are able to spend their time designing deeper conceptual and problem-solving experiences.  The content is also refined over time and further content is always being added to the repository.

Caution: Read First!

caution iconTaking the time to think about any resource is necessary for good teaching.  Think about the following to ensure that Khan Academy is a good fit for you and your practice:

  • It is not a math course replacement. Robert Allen, a mathematician and educator affiliated with Grand Valley State University says “Khan Academy is not a substitute for an actual course of study in mathematics. It is not a substitute for a live teacher. And it is not a coherent curriculum of study that engages students at all the cognitive levels at which they need to be engaged” (Talbert, 2012).  Talbert (2012)  goes on to say,

“The videos are demos on how to finish mathematics exercises, with little modelling of the higher-level thinking skills that are so important for using mathematics in the real world. So the kinds of learning objectives that Khan Academy videos focus on are important — but they’re not enough.”

It is important for students, parents, and even teachers to remember that mechanical or procedural mathematics is only one of the processes of mathematics. Writing about mathematics, developing a disposition for mathematical thinking and demonstrating a conceptual understanding of mathematical topics are all more important than procedures. That said, procedures are still important, and Khan Academy provides one venue where students can learn them (Reich, 2012).

  • Ensure that the math in the videos is correct. There is criticism around the presentation in some of the videos along with the accuracy of the mathematics.  In 2012, Dave Coffey and John Golden critiqued a Khan Academy video.  A variety of errors in the presentation and mathematics are noted (Golden, 2012).  As is the case with open resources, it is important to vet these resources, first, before using them. Mistakes can be made by anyone.

Final Words

While not always a perfect resource, nor a completely open resource by definition, I would recommend that all mathematics educators have Khan Academy in their toolbox.  The number of ready-made resources is exceptional.  I commend Mr. Khan for keeping the resource free for others to use.  Any help that educators can get within the classroom and online is most appreciated. I have found that Khan Academy has become a vital part of the station model that I use in my classroom.  The formative tools that allow a teacher to track student progress are valuable when designing further learning.  How would you incorporate Khan Academy into your program….or would you?

References

Press. (2013, December 4). Canada’s Students Slipping in Math and Science, OECD Finds. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/canada-s-students-slipping-in-math-and-science-oecd-finds-1.2448748

Golden, John. (2012, June 18).  MTT2K – Episode 1 [Video file]https://youtu.be/hC0MV843_Ng

The Hewlett Foundation. How can technology advance open education resources? (2018, April 20).  Retrieved from https://hewlett.org/how-can-technology-advance-open-educational-resources/

Khan Academy. How was Khan Academy started, and who started it? (n.d) Retrieved from https://khanacademy.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/202483180-What-is-the-history-of-Khan-Academy-

Reich, Justin (2012, June 21).  Don’t Use Khan Academy Without Watching This First.  Education Week.  Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/edtechresearcher/2012/06/dont_use_khan_academy_without_watching_mmt2k_first.html?intc=mvs

Talbert, Robert. (2012, July 3). The trouble with Khan Academy.  Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/blognetwork/castingoutnines/2012/07/03/the-trouble-with-khan-academy/

Wiley, David. “Poor Technical Choices Make Open Content Less Open” (n.d.). Retrieved from http://opencontent.org/definition/

Images

Geralt. Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/geometry-mathematics-volume-surface-1044090/

Khan Academy.  Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Khan_Academy_Logo_Old_version_2015.jpg

Checkmark retrieved from https://pixabay.com/vectors/check-mark-tick-mark-check-correct-1292787/

Caution icon retrieved from https://pixabay.com/vectors/warning-exclamation-caution-sign-34621/

About the Contributor

Brad Skeet has been an educator for over twenty-five years and is currently the Vice-Principal at Ecole Joe Clark School, a K-5 school, in High River, Alberta.  Working with students primarily from grades 3 through 9, Brad has had a keen interest in the blended classroom where technology and teaching meet.  He is currently working on coursework in pursuit of a Masters in Education degree.

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