A Letter to Sal Khan

Over the summer, I spent some time following online discussions about the role that Khan Academy and similar sites can or should play in education.  Much of what I read and much of my own thinking was prompted by the tweets and posts of Frank Noschese, who has consistently been both fair-minded and critical when it comes to Khan Academy.

My thoughts began to gel as I considered how I would like to be able to use Khan Academy in my own classroom.  It became clear to me that the many great resources available on Khan Academy are not nearly as useful for my students as I would like them to be.  The main reason for this is that I have few tools to customize and curate these resources for my students.  A person who wants to be taught a potpourri of math topics on his own could find much of use to him on Khan Academy, but this is not how school courses happen.  Courses have shape and structure, and each one is unique because individual teachers bring their own ideas and approaches to the table.  School, district, and state curricula bring to bear their own powerful influences.  Khan Academy, as it stands, does not have the capacity to adapt itself to this variety of circumstances.

As my thoughts along these lines came into focus, I decided to write a letter to Sal Khan and his colleagues.  You’ll find a copy of it below.

At first I tried sending the letter through the Comments and suggestion email address provided on the Khan Academy website, as well as through the one for Feature Requests.  When several weeks passed without a response or acknowledgement, I—in a moment of audacity—blasted the letter to every Gmail and Khan Academy email address that I could think of that might belong to Mr. Khan.  After still not hearing a response, I made the more reasonable move of tweeting to a variety of people on the Khan Academy team listed on their About page.  Ben Kamens responded to my tweet and told me to email him the letter, explaining that it had probably been received already but that the Khan Academy staff doesn’t have time to respond to all of the feedback and suggestions that they receive.

When I followed up a few weeks later with Ben, he said that he couldn’t say much, but that the Khan Academy team is at the moment seriously considering ideas along the lines of those that I brought up in my letter.  Needless to say, I was really excited to hear this!  I think these kind steps could really turn Khan Academy into a powerful tool for classroom teachers.  I’m really looking forward to seeing how the development and use of Khan Academy unfolds in the future.

Not receiving a reply to my emails for a long while was a little frustrating, but I’m really glad I wrote and sent it.  It definitely helped me to clarify my own thoughts, and maybe it will have some small effect in the dialogue at Khan Academy.  I hope that by sharing my letter here it might prompt thought and discussion about the ways in which Khan Academy and similar resources can best be incorporated into the future of school.  I’d love to hear your comments.

*****

Hi Sal,

I hope that this message reaches you and relevant members of your team.  I teach middle and high school math at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, NY.  I have followed the Khan Academy with interest for some time now.  I really appreciate your efforts at creating, sharing, and popularizing resources for learning.  My own adventures in incorporating Khan Academy’s resources in my own classroom have produced promising results, and I look forward to working to find more and better ways to use it to help my students to learn.

There are three ideas I want to share with you about the future of the Khan Academy—possible to implement independently, but mutually supporting in spirit.  Perhaps you and your team have thought of them as well; in that case, consider this an enthusiastic letter of support.  These ideas have to do with the customization of learning and with putting the best learning tools into the hands of students, teachers, and independent learners.  I think it would be a quantum leap forward for Khan Academy if on the site:

  • Teachers could create and share their own instructional videos.
  • Teachers could devise and share their own exercise sets.
  • Teachers could design and share their own customized “knowledge maps”.

These three features in tandem would move Khan Academy from being a supplemental resource in my classroom to a central and crucial pillar.

For instance, one of the classes I’m teaching this coming year is a high school geometry course.  I have a list of skills that I want all of my students to master by the end of the year.  Each skill is small and focused, and each has connections to other skills.  Mastery of these skills is just one goal I have for my students, but it is an important one.  In the past I’ve created multiple practice worksheets for these skills and I allow students to quiz on individual skills at their own pace, but it is difficult to truly customize individual students’ learning experiences.  You have created videos for many of these skills and exercise sets for some of them.  Others of these skills aren’t included in Khan Academy’s offerings, and some likely never will be because they’re peculiar to my own way of approaching geometry.

Videos and exercise sets for more of these skills would be available if other teachers were building up Khan Academy’s offerings by creating their own videos and exercise sets.  I could then create and share my own content for the remainder of the skills, and other teachers and students would have access to these in turn.  Once all of the videos and exercise sets that I want for my course are available, I could organize them into a knowledge map that would be specific to my course’s goals—pruned of skills that are too basic or too advanced to be relevant.  Students could proceed at their own paces in mastering these skills and together we could chart their progress.  Being able to curate the full resources of the Khan Academy into a course-specific knowledge map would allow for focus while still retaining a connection to the whole universe of other skills that students could learn on Khan Academy outside of the structure of my course.  All told, having all of the content that I want for my class and being able to organize it in the way most suitable for my students would make Khan Academy a powerful tool for my students in taking ownership of their learning.

Now, it’s the case that an individual teacher could create their own website with their own videos, their own exercises, and their own knowledge map, entirely apart from the Khan Academy.  But there are strong arguments that creating such a learning environment within the Khan Academy would be a much better option.  First, it would allow easy access to the content that you’ve already created. Second, it would allow for the use of the coherent and powerful software environment that you’ve created.  I don’t have the knowledge needed to create my own exercise engine, but I bet it wouldn’t be too hard for me to learn how to drop a new exercise into the structure that you’ve already created. Third, the visibility and popularity of the Khan Academy provide a unique opportunity to build a wide community of teachers and learners who would mutually benefit from collaborating on and sharing learning resources.  We teachers are so often isolated in our own classrooms or schools, having access only to the limited and pre-packaged resources of textbook publishers and the small amounts of content that we can create ourselves.  We are only beginning to see teachers use the internet to share and collaborate on learning resources, and the Khan Academy could be the clearinghouse that takes these grassroots efforts to the next level.

You have created an enormous amount of learning content and a powerful portal in which to house it. Together these have already helped millions of people toward their learning goals.  I understand that the ideas I’m proposing are something of a departure from the Khan Academy’s current model, and that there would be obstacles to their implementation.  It might even be difficult for you to give up being the sole content provider on the site.  However, I believe that true customization of learning can only come with the variety and creativity that will be released upon opening up the Khan Academy to the world.  Teachers know their own students best and need to be able to adapt the structure of the Khan Academy to their own classrooms.  In particular, having a single unalterable knowledge map is not amenable to personalized learning.  Finally, projects like Wikipedia have shown that having the right portal and the right momentum will draw in remarkable and robust content.  I suggest that the brightest future of the Khan Academy lies in becoming such a portal for education.

I would be thrilled to be in conversation with you about these ideas and would volunteer all of my own energies and talents to help to implement them—from the pilot level to something full scale.  As you might suspect, I could go on and on about these topics, but I know that you must be very busy and want to remain somewhat brief.  You have a powerful position and voice in the current national conversation about schools and learning.  Please use that position and voice to help teachers create more customized learning experiences for our students.

Thank you!

Justin Lanier
Saint Ann’s School
Brooklyn, NY

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5 responses to “A Letter to Sal Khan

  1. Your suggestions are EXACTLY what I would love to be able to offer to my classes. It’s terrible to see everyone trying to rebuild the same structure again and again. Would be amazing if Khan Academy would at least offer a sharing option or an infrastructure option on the side. Very interested to see if any outcome. If not … has the time come for a group of teachers to just make it? I sense many teachers in the online space are ready for this project.

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  4. danpearcymaths.wordpress.com

    Justin,

    I agree with this excellent letter. It is well reasoned, positive in tone and solution focused.

    It’s been great to see that students want to use the Khan Academy to further their own learning but simultaneously frustrating that the “Khan curriculum” does not match to their own curriculum. It would be great if I could direct an IB student to the IB section of the site or a GCSE student to that particular section to reduce the liklihood that students don’t return more confused than they were originally.

    One key point however – the quality of the videos MUST remain! The reasons for this are so obvious that they need not be stated. A Khan Academy panel of subject specialists/teachers could go someway to assessing the quality or alternatively the students and teachers themselves could assess videos after an initial trial period on the site.

    I thoroughly respect Sal Khan’s efforts to offer education to all. Indeed, I have enjoyed many of his videos. My hope is that he hears your words and opens the website up to educators who know their own syllabi. Let the personalised learning begin in which students can learn independently without becoming confused by material that they have not previously been taught or is currently too advanced for them to handle. They simply don’t have time to interpret it with all the other pressures on their time.

    Dan Pearcy

  5. How about the ability to rate other teacher videos? After a video receives a certain number of poor ratings, it gets the heave-ho. You all are right: We know our kids best. Help me help them!

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