Khan Academy’s Sal Khan shares advice for online learning

Salman Khan founder of Khan Academy. Photo: Twitter @salkhanacademy

For the past 12 years, Salman Khan has been touting online learning as the future of education. But even he didn’t imagine us crashing into that future so suddenly and with little time to prepare.

Now millions of schools are starting the fall semester with distance learning over laptops and tablets to minimize the spread of the novel coronavirus, while many others have started with a hybrid of in-person and online learning. Teachers, parents and kids are figuring out what works or doesn’t, fumbling and adjusting along the way. Khan hopes to help guide them.

Khan is the founder of the nonprofit Khan Academy, a collection of online learning tools and video classes for kids that he started in 2008 after successfully tutoring his own cousins over video. In 2014, he started an in-person school in Silicon Valley called the Khan Labs School, which has also had to make the switch to online classes this month.

In the spring, after schools began closing down, usage of Khan Academy’s free online tools was up 300 percent with more than 30 million kids using them, according to Khan. He sees similar patterns already and thinks the final number could be far higher this semester, as more schools start with more fleshed out plans for teaching.

We asked Khan about the limitations and risks of remote learning, his advice for making the most of it and if it’s okay to push back against demanding schedules. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: Distance school is starting and some kids are being asked to be on Zoom for hours. What is too much? Is there a best practice?

This is a brand new world for everybody, I definitely worry. Even as adults we can’t be staring at a screen forever.

For younger kids, you want these to be shorter sessions with more breaks. If you’re talking about early elementary, I think 30 minutes at a stretch is plenty, and then you should have nice, healthy breaks. Not to just use the restroom, but get a snack or stretch and play.

The last thing we want to do is burn kids out and burn out their families and burn out their teachers.

Try to focus. Don’t try to do everything school tries to do. I would argue even during a regular school year, trying to teach six or seven classes all at once is kind of ridiculous. You don’t get to learn anything that deeply then.

Instead of one 55 minute session with 30 kids and Zoom, it’s much healthier for that kid to get a 20-minute session that has 10 kids in the room. That’s a win on two fronts. It’s less video conference fatigue, and you get more attention in that time.

One thing folks don’t realize is, yes, it’s distance learning which is hard. But ironically, distance learning for a lot of kids, because every other aspect of their lives is distant now, is the most consistent social interaction they are going to have in their lives right now, especially with people their own age.

Q: What advice do you have for school districts?

Focus on the basics and do those things really, really well. The basics are reading, writing and math. If kids are able to progress in those, or at a minimum not atrophy in those, they’re going to be able to pick up where they left off in other subjects. But if those things really degrade, everything is going to suffer. Those very fundamental things are hard to fill in later, and that puts you on a slower track, frankly for the rest of your life.

Don’t just map what you were already doing into a video conference. That might be a good first step, and it’s better than nothing. But there’s an opportunity here to rethink everything. It’s okay to do less and do it better. Have something that’s sustainable, that focuses on the basics, is my best advice.

Q: Are you worried about distance learning worsening inequality?

This is the biggest concern. I can’t overstate how big of a problem this is. I’d be the first that wishes I could wave a magic wand and have an easy solution where all of this could be solved.

A teacher I know says there’s just 5 percent or 10 percent of her kids in Mountain View, Calif., who are just checked out. She can’t get them to show up. She can even see that their language has degraded because they haven’t spent as much time with adults or peers in an academic setting.

That’s the one that I feel the most helpless on given what we can do at Khan Academy. We can make the content, we can make it as engaging as possible. But how do you reach those kids who need extra support at home when you literally can’t be there with them?

Q: Do you think this is a moment Silicon Valley and the tech industry can step up?

I think if people have tools and resources that can serve a really important need right now, yes, make yourself available to folks. It depends what the different business models are. Our business model is we’re philanthropically funded and we can make all this available. Others have a different business model where they may have to charge or whatever else.

What I would encourage folks to realize is there’s some really good free stuff out there that’s actually been more tested, more trusted and more scaled, and actually more engaging for students. Don’t think money and quality correlate.

There are two or three good for-profit companies like Lexia, Raz-Kids, Newsela. Google Classroom on the LMS [learning management system] side, which is free – those are the obvious ones to me.

I am surprised, just as you are, when I see really esoteric tools showing up just because somebody’s cousin is a salesperson for the company. Ed tech, I think, has a big issue with how fragmented it is. But there’s a lot of other stuff out there I wouldn’t name, and it wouldn’t be obvious why people are turning to it, other than somebody is already familiar with the platform.

Q: What kind of tips would you give to parents or someone helping at home given what you’ve learned over the years?

Step one is try to understand as well as possible what the school is asking of your child and yourself. Try to do what they’re asking, and understand it, but really keep a good check on how well it’s working for you and your child. And if you feel like this is not a sustainable thing, definitely make it known.

In certain cases, the school might welcome it, because they’re hearing all sorts of competing voices. Some parents are like, “You’re not doing enough. We want more, more time with teachers.” While for some people, this is overwhelming – you’re trying to make us do too much, pare it down.

It’s super important for people to communicate very respectfully right now, understanding that everyone has a lot of competing interests that they’re trying to balance. But if you are feeling like it’s unsustainable or it’s not good for your child, you should definitely communicate it with your teacher. Not blaming the teacher – because the teacher’s going through a lot right now, not blaming the school – but starting a conversation.

A parent’s judgment here could go a long way to saying, look, I think my child is progressing in math, reading and writing. This one elective course sounds great, but it’s just too much for my family right now. Does my child have to do it? Can I go to pass/fail on it? Can they do less work? I think that should all be on the table.

Q: Do you think this is pushing us into the future at a faster pace than we would have without the pandemic?

If this lasts – and I think it will last through the school year at least – it will fundamentally alter a lot of things. More kids are going to have access [to technology] at home coming out of the crisis. And people will treat that as a must have, even when distance learning is no longer operative. Even pre-covid, if you really wanted to leverage a tool like Khan Academy for homework or whatever, you’d have to assume that kids had access. That’s going to be a new normal coming out of the crisis. I think you have a whole generation of educators who have to jump into the deep end with technology and video conferencing.

There’s going to be negative long-lasting impacts, too. We talked about the percentage of kids who already had significant gaps and needed extra support. I hope we can slow the divide, because they’re going to need even more support when we come back to school.

Before this, home schooling was a very niche thing. You had public schools, private schools and a subset of public schools that were charter schools. Even pure distance learning was a very niche thing.

Coming out of this I think you’ll see a lot of folks – it will probably be the middle class, upper middle class – that actually see value in this more flexible model. They jumped into it out of necessity, but then they realized, hey, this is nice. I’m able to get support from professionals, but I’m also able to be more involved and my kid’s getting more attention now. I would expect that’s going to become more mainstream, even post-covid.

Q: Anything else you want schools or parents to really think about as they’re taking on distance learning?

Really be very conscientious of your own stress and anxiety level. It’s like a frog in boiling water. Stress and anxiety hit you before you know it. If you’re starting to get easily triggered by your kids, if you’re stressed, it’s just going to create a really hard environment to learn in at home. It’s not good for you as the parent or educator, and it’s really not good for the kids. Try to be mindful, try to not put too much on your plate, and try to be very open, communicating with others about your boundaries.

I’d like to believe this is a time when people are going to be understanding. Hopefully your employer is understanding, hopefully the school is understanding, hopefully your kids are understanding, hopefully your partner is understanding. This is not a time to try to be a superhero. This is a time to take care of yourself, and try to focus on doing a few things very, very, very well, and try to draw some healthy boundaries for your family’s mental health.




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