Khan Academy: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Khan Academy brings the virtual classroom just a little bit closer to home with thousands of how-to videos of a variety of academic subjects and hundreds of practice modules for students of mathematics. Sal’s compelling dream to create an alternative to the “traditional” education model really has grabbed many people’s attention, including Bill Gates.

I accidentally stumbled upon Khan Academy while preparing for an algebra lesson on youtube. While many other online video lessons use quite dry narrator, Sal’s deep voice carries the listener through the video; he seems more like a fried telling someone how to do something. Also unlike many other youtube videoizers, no long annoying intros bore the listener and the audio streams through crystal clear to anyone with decent speakers. After watching his TED Video last year, I knew I would have to try this in my classroom.

So I am trying it out and I just wanted to let anyone thinking about using the program how it has been working for my classroom. There are some really great things about the program and there are some things about the program that I would absolutely change if I could.

Let’s start with the good things.

Arguably, probably because of Sal’s data driven background,, the site literally goldmines data for it’s users. Not only can you see how many problems your student got right or wrong, but also how long the student takes to complete the problem, whether or not they used a hint, and what answers they put in each time they got the problem wrong. If you had your students scanning in their scratch paper, you might be able to analyze student data all paperlessly.

But with the good, there is the bad and the ugly. Setting up student accounts was akin to trying to jump through fire. I honestly couldn’t even set up the accounts at school because, for some weird reason, you can only sign on to the site through google or Facebook.

Right off the bat, this sends up red flags. I haven’t done a lot of research on how Khan Academy gets its funding, but we certainly know that Facebook and google make their money through advertising. Thus, signing in through Khan Academy from these portals inevitably sends more of our data away to corporate giants who will sell that information to the highest bidder. Considerations of student privacy could be in order here and just general good practice would call on the creators of Khan Academy to create a more “in-house” approach for creating student accounts.

Teachers also really need to have up to date computers that are not finicky with sites like Khan Academy. In our classroom, we constantly fight with the school internet to allow us to get to the site because the security certificates and whatnot to not match up well with LAUSD. I am using mac iBook G4s from 2004 to run Khan Academy and it took quite a few workarounds before I found the right version of firefox to work with the practice programs.

Finally, the data simply cannot be downloaded or taken off-site. To put the data into a grade book requires a lot staring back and forth from one screen to another. I don’t have the option of dual screens at school at the moment, so this requires a lot of mission control back and forth on my macbook. The designers of the site really need to come up with a simple way to download the data into a CSV file so that teachers can edit and disaggregate the data in a way that is helpful to them.

All in all, I would highly recommend the actual practice and videos available on site, but I would think twice if you are thinking about using it as a tool for student assessment because of the many hurdles you might run into with it as a system.

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