Khan Academy: Where Does it Fit?

I’m a fan.   Khan Academy‘s visibility and popularity seems to be fast-growing, especially since getting such a laudatory piece on CNN: Innovation in Education: Bill Gate’s Favorite Teacher.

By any measure [it is] the most popular educational site on the web. Khan’s playlist of 1,630 tutorials (at last count) are now seen an average of 70,000 times a day…His low-tech, conversational tutorials -only his unadorned step-by-step doodles and diagrams on an electronic blackboard — are more than merely another example of viral media.

Khan Academy holds the promise of a virtual school: an educational transformation that de-emphasizes classrooms, campus and administrative infrastructure, and even brand-name instructors.

I think the lectures are great; he demonstrates that difficult and important learning concepts can be effectively articulated and demonstrated in bite size nuggets.  My 11 year old son, last spring, became obsessed with the chemistry lectures here, and watched hours of Khan’s high school chemistry lessons, and then was the star of his summer school chem class.

I am curious to know others’ reactions: are some of you in my #cpchat universe feeling differently about Khan’s quality?

But more than that, I am interested in what you are thinking about how Khan Academy can contribute to educational progress and transformation.  I realize that virtual academies are growing, and it is clear that Khan’s resources can  inform and improve on-line learning, but for those of us who are committed to site-based learning, how do we “blend” khan into our schools?

Three of my initial thoughts:

1.  Small: Khan Academy can provide a great value for students who need or could benefit from tutoring, but are unable due to finance or other reasons to have a tutor.   Teachers and administrators who have made a practice of “recommending tutoring” should suggest khan as an alternative.

2. Small: Khan offers great value to students who miss a class due to illness, or wish to review difficult topics; teachers should be recommending this widely.

3.  Big: Khan offers us an opportunity to rethink the norm, and invert our conventional school  model of lesson delivery and skill application.

Currently, teachers often take class time, 30, 45, even 60 minutes, to teach lessons by lecture on the white-board while students listen and take notes.  Some students acquire the understanding swiftly, and are bored to tears by the teacher’s  repetition and exemplification; some students need to see the explanation more times than the teacher is able to provide.   Then, we ask students to go home and apply their learning by solving, individually and unsupervised, difficult problems.  Some students at home are required to do the same problem over and over, but don’t need the practice; other students just can’t do the problem without assistance; both groups are underserved.

Now, and others like it let us invert the normal order: homework time is for lesson delivery, classtime for application and problem-solving.   Have kids watch Khan’s lessons at home; some need only watch it once, those that need to can watch the succinct and crystal clear explanations many times if they wish.   In-class time is used for learning applications and problem solving.  Students that can quickly demonstrate to their teachers their mastery of the problem can be provided harder problems to extend their learning.   Students struggling can get help from teachers then and there.   Students can work together in collaborative, but supervised ways that out of class time cannot provide.  The problem of copying and cheating on homework, rampant at present, also is reduced:  if homework is to watch khan, what is there to copy?

Ted McCain’s Teaching for Tomorrow, so inspiring to me, helped me toward this framing; he calls for inverting the order of learning by putting problems first, content and skill delivery second.  Now Khan lets us take the next step, to invert class and homework time, and I think we should seize the opportunity.

But am I wrong?  What am I missing?  And how else can we/should we be seeking to harness the value and richness of Khan Academy?


  1. […] Khan Academy: Where Does it Fit? Now, and others like it let us invert the normal order: homework time is for lesson delivery, classtime for application and problem-solving. Have kids watch Khan’s lessons at home; some need only watch it once, those that need to can watch the succinct and crystal clear explanations many times if they wish. In-class time is used for learning applications and problem solving. (tags: new_forms) « Don’t Miss K12 Online Conference 2010- Cultivating the Future  Email This Post  Print This Post […]

    September 5, 2010
  2. John Sowash said:

    Reverse instruction is a very interesting idea that has a lot of potential. I have been trying it out with my HS Anatomy & Physiology class for the past two years. It has it’s inherent challenges, the biggest being the need to retrain students to think about class and school differently when they have been doing it the same way for 10+ years. It’s also challenging when all other classes are taught in a traditional manner while I am using reverse instruction. The students have given the process mixed reviews. I think that it can be successful, but only if students take watching/listening to the lectures seriously and use class as an open lab to have their questions answered.

    Excellent ideas. I have had a lot of interest in my reverse instruction process. I guess I should write a blog post about it soon!

    September 5, 2010
    • Hi John: Thank you so much for reading my piece and for your comment. I am learning so much from my Connected Principals participation, and my PLN, and I am very appreciative.

      I hope it didn’t seem that I was claiming any originality for my concept of inverting classtime and homework learning; it is certainly out and about in the broader conversation about rethinking learning. But I did not know, and am delighted to learn more, about “reverse instruction.”

      I went over to your blog, and it is terrific. It is fun for me to see that you wrote the comment above on Sept. 5th, and then when I googled tonight “reverse instruction” in order to learn more, the first site google listed took me to was your fine post on Sept. 6th. In fact, I didn’t even connect the dots right away. I guess you took up your own suggestion to write a blog post about it, and I am honored to have contributed to your motivation to do so.

      Connected Principals readers: definitely go over John’s Electric Educator site to read his much more thorough and thoughtful piece about reverse instruction:

      I am going to read more, and write more, about reverse instruction as I seek to learn more about it. Onwards!

      September 10, 2010
  3. I’m still on the fence about flipped classrooms in the form of “watch lecture at home first, practice in class second.” It reinforces the notion that school is about digesting someone else’s knowledge, rather than constructing your own. The videos could be a useful resource following knowledge building in the class, but I haven’t found any KA videos that work for me.

    While Khan argues that his videos now eliminate “one-size-fits-all” education, his videos are exactly that. I’ve actually tried finding KA videos for my students to use as references for studying, or to use as a tutorial when there’s a substitute teacher. However, I teach physics from the Modeling Instruction paradigm, and so I haven’t found one good one. They either tackle problems that are too hard (AP Physics level) or they don’t use a lot of the multiple representations that are so fundamental to my teaching (kinematic graphs, interaction diagram, energy pie graphs, momentum bar charts, color-coded circuit diagrams showing pressure and flow, etc.) that the videos are useless to me because his videos do not align with proper Physics Education Research pedagogy.

    Instead of relying on lectures and textbooks, the Modeling Instruction paradigm emphasizes active student construction of conceptual and mathematical models in an interactive learning community. Students are engaged with simple scenarios to learn to model the physical world. You can watch one Modeling class in action here:

    In comparison to traditional instruction, under expert modeling instruction high school students average more than two standard deviations higher on a standard instrument for assessing conceptual understanding of physics:

    More discussion about the ineffectiveness of lectures here:

    And even more discussion about the ineffectiveness of Khan-like videos for learning science here:

    While I agree that Khan Academy may be a supplement for students, it shouldn’t replace solving complex, real-world problems. My take on that here:

    Interested in your thoughts about my points…. Thanks!

    April 14, 2011
    • I agree wholeheartedly, Frank.

      I too believe that “While I agree that Khan Academy may be a supplement for students, it shouldn’t replace solving complex, real-world problems.”

      For teachers who feel they are being entirely effective in a constructivist approach, such as Modeling Instruction, it is very likely that KA has much to add.

      It seems to me there are many who would like to move toward learning by problem-solving, but they can’t see how to let go of some degree of content delivery– and it seems to me that KA can be a bridge for that, in some curricular areas. I am not at all suggesting that teachers who don’t lecture now should add KA in, but that instead that teachers who lecture a lot now might consider using KA to offload some of that lecturing. But I only am suggesting this be considered within a blended approach, and only to use KA to enhance learning by problem-solving, not to diminish it.

      My son, who is 12, has enjoyed learning more about Chemistry and Physics on KA– it is a neat resource for him. I like that there is this opportunity for kids and adults to learn more, but it should never be used in place of great, effective classroom learning like you so clearly practice.


      April 16, 2011
  4. Pat Hallquist said:

    The Khan Academy raises some interesting ideas about how to teach large numbers of students cheaply. However, aside from issues about how students best learn, there are too many mistakes in the chemistry and physics videos to really make them useful. See the lists of reported problems on the Khan Academy website.

    June 19, 2011
  5. […] Educator gets my nod, however, if I only have one.   John offered me enormous value in the conversation of sorts we had on Connected Principals just over a year ago about reverse instruction, and his site continues to offer great insights and […]

    November 25, 2011
  6. Angel Plaza said:

    I think Khan Academy should expand. It’s truly a wonderful site that helps you with math and science. I currently use Khan Academy as a back up for my algebra 2 class, if I have trouble understanding it from my teacher the first time around. What amazes me the most is it only takes about 10 minutes for him to explain the topic and I already have a strong understanding of the topic long before the video is done, but sometimes at school it takes my teacher about 20 or even 30 minutes for her to expalin the topic. Even then I struggle. But after watching a couple of Khan’s lecture videos I seem to have the math concepts down-packed. And when I move onto the problems its a challenging breeze. Sometimes its easy, sometimes its hard but the more problems I do the more I understand and use the concepts. Overall I truly praise Khan because he has reignitd people’s love and passion for certain subjects, in which they considered to be too hard.

    December 5, 2011

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *