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Can Online Education Tackle Achievement Gap?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are continuing TELL ME MORE's first Twitter Education Forum. Join in on Twitter at hash tag NPREdChat. Coming up, we'll hear the voices of people you could argue have the most invested in America's schools, the students, but first, we turn to online education. If you or your child have ever been stumped by homework, then you probably already know about the Kahn Academy.

The company led by founder Salman Kahn has created thousands of online lessons in math, science, economics and history. They have scored nearly 200 million views by students and parents looking for a little extra help. Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates says he's even used them to help his own children master math concepts.

But what Salman Kahn is trying to accomplish actually goes far beyond helping the children of friends - or billionaires, for that matter - finish their homework. He's arguing for a radical change in how we think about and do learning.

And Salman Kahn lays out these ideas in his new book, "The One World Schoolhouse," and he is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

SALMAN KAHN: Great to be here.

MARTIN: Well, you know, YouTube is known more for cats playing the piano and kids falling off their bikes. Right? But, as we mentioned, your videos have been viewed more than 200 million times and, if you don't mind, I just want to play a short clip from one of the videos so people have a sense of what we're talking about if they're not already familiar with them.

KAHN: If I had two magenta cherries and I wanted to add to it three blueberries, how many total pieces of fruit do I now have? And you'd say, oh, one, two, three, four, five.

MARTIN: Now, you're not an educator by training. You were actually working in finance when you started the Kahn Academy. I'm just wondering, when you look back on it now, what do you think it is that you tapped into that has made these so appealing?

KAHN: I think there's a bunch of dimensions. I think, first of all, you know, there's a lot of students at all levels, at all ages, who have kind of gaps in their learning and when they're in a large classroom or a classroom of any size, they're embarrassed or they're afraid to raise their hand. I saw that with my cousins when I started tutoring them, and if you're in algebra, it's very hard to raise your hand and say, I'm a little shaky on fractions. I'm a little shaky on decimals.

And, at the same time, I think they're looking for something that is - it's bite-sized, but still comprehensive, focuses on intuition and is also conversational. And you heard that little piece just now. I made the first ones for my cousins and, even now, I kind of imagine that I'm making them for a larger collection of cousins.

MARTIN: You know, you make the point, over and over again, that the traditional classroom models don't work, that they don't allow kids to catch up when they miss something. They don't account for the way the brain really works. Right? And you say, for example, that the time allotted to learn something's fixed while the comprehension is variable, and that's partly what you do.

KAHN: Right. You know, we just presume - this whole conversation that we've been having on education this morning - it just presumes a system and the system is actually a human artifact. We literally got it from the Prussians 200 years ago of - and it's inspired by the industrial revolution - group kids together in batches and push them together at a set pace and kind of apply information to them and, at the end of it, you kind of filter them out based on how much they got.

And a lot of it - it's really set up to, or it guarantees that students will end up with these gaps. I mean, we've worked with - in a school in Oakland, we've seen - it was an algebra class and they had a great teacher and the students were trying their best, but we saw the data when they were using our tools that a good number of them didn't know their multiplication tables. A good number of them didn't know negative numbers. And it's not surprising because a lot them, when they were in pre-algebra or when they were in arithmetic, they got a C on an exam, maybe on multiplication, maybe on negative numbers and, despite that - or they might have even failed an exam - they were promoted to the next grade.

And then, all of a sudden, you're in algebra. There's no way to really address those gaps and then, when they fail, even despite having an excellent teacher, people say, oh, we need to test it more. We need to do this more. But the reality is - no. We should have just let them remediate, build their foundations. We should have never let them get to algebra without having at least a solid foundation.

So, instead of making variable how well you learn something, which is what we consider our grades and making that some type of a judgment on your intelligence, and what's fixed is when you learn something, we should do it the other way around. The variable should be learn at your own pace. The variable is when you learn it and what's fixed is that you have a very solid foundation.

MARTIN: If you just joined us, you're tuning into our Twitter Education Forum. I'm Michel Martin. I'm speaking with Salman Kahn, founder of the Kahn Academy, a popular online teaching tool, and he's just written a new book about his ideas.

I'm getting a tweet from Nancy Evans in Philadelphia and she says, how do you help students with limited access to computers? This goes back to equity and the achievement gap.

KAHN: Yeah. I think it's a huge issue. In some of the underserved areas that we've been working with schools, they've been setting up computer labs, extended hours on the computer labs. It's definitely not a solved problem, right now. You know, the good thing and the reason to be optimistic about it is the technology is getting dramatically cheaper every day. In the developed world, in our world, it's getting more and more common and ubiquitous. And in the developing world, it's also getting a lot cheaper, but I won't claim that it's a solved problem.

But, hopefully, over the next four or five years, as you know, you'll see sub-hundred dollar devices, broadband will get dramatically cheaper, we'll be able to address that.

MARTIN: And one of the other criticisms of Kahn Academy and - other Kahn Academy and or other online learning tools to be fair - is what's the quality control? You know, teachers in brick and mortar schools have to be certified and there's all this scrutiny attached to their results. We've been talking a lot about that in the course of this hour, the teacher evaluations and so forth. You know, you're not regulated and online companies like yours aren't regulated. How are you held accountable? How are companies like yours held accountable if the lessons confuse students or don't give them what they need?

KAHN: Right. Right. No. It's an important issue and, you know, we're not a company in the traditional sense, we're a not-for-profit. But it's still an important issue. If a lot of people are using this we got to make sure that it's quality material and it's definitely impacting things. On our side, we're working with a lot of people to educators, Ed researchers. We have a few people in house, a post doc at Stanford at the learning side. We get a ton of data. That's why I think a lot of the foundations are excited about, is we can start do learning analytics at a scale that people haven't seen before.

SALMAN KHAN: On top of that, we have third-party evaluations going on with many of the schools. We have 20,000 schools using us in some way shape or form. The ones we're working closely with what we're measuring, what are the impact on scores and on more subjective measures on how teachers feel about their jobs, how do students feel about the level of engagement. And then, you know, the next level is really something that has never existed before, which is traditionally, if there's a mistake in a classroom - or even sometimes a textbook - it won't get noticed because there's not other experts looking at it.

KAHN: One thing about the Internet is, you know, stuff that I produce or our organization produces it's out there for the world to scrutinize, to put feedback on. And unlike a textbook where we have to wait for the next publishing cycle to put out a revision, we can do it in a matter of minutes.

MARTIN: And speaking of a matter of minutes, we only have a minute left. But I did want to ask you this, if we get together five years from now - and I hope it won't be that long, but if we do - what kind of conversation do you think we'll have about education? What kind of conversation do you hope we're having - we will be having?

KAHN: I think we'll be in five years surprised how much things have changed. People are very cynical right now. They don't think a lot will change. But what we're seeing is adoption in schools far faster than I would have expected. And it's not, you know, one thing I emphasize, it's not about virtual replacing physical, it's about virtual being a tool for physical so that physical is more, interactive, more engaging. And so I think in five years we will be thinking about remember when classrooms tended to be dominated by lectures and all moved at the same pace? Isn't it great that we have technology now and it's universally accessible, where class time is very interactive and we envy the kids today because they don't have to sit and sit passively and kind of stare at a clock.

MARTIN: Salman Khan is the founder of the online Khan Academy. He is author of the new book "The One World Schoolhouse," and he was kind enough to join us from studios at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

Thank you so much for joining us.

KAHN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.