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I Started Khan Academy. We Can Still Avoid an Education Catastrophe.

Virtual school will never be a perfect replacement for in-person learning, but there’s a lot of room for improvement.

By Mr. Khan is the founder of Khan Academy.

It is becoming clear that many of our nation’s children could be attending school from home for this school year and possibly longer. If educators and families aren’t empowered with the right support and tools, this will evolve from an education crisis to an education catastrophe.

As the founder of the philanthropically funded nonprofit Khan Academy, which provides free online exercises, videos and software to over 100 million users in 46 languages, I’m something of a poster child for online learning. It all started 16 years ago, when I was working as an analyst at a hedge fund in Boston and learned that my then-12-year-old cousin Nadia — who was visiting for my wedding — was struggling with math. She lived in New Orleans, so I offered to do distance tutoring with her every day. It helped her catch up with her class within a few months. Word soon spread in my family that free tutoring was available, and by 2006 I was working with 15 cousins and family friends in my limited spare time. I decided to make math practice software and videos to help even more. Before I knew it, people who were not my cousins started using those materials. Fast forward to today and that family side project has become my life’s mission: to provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.

Despite all this, I’ll be the first to say that for most students, distance learning can’t replace a great in-person experience. Pure distance-learning is suboptimal, but we have to do it out of necessity because of the pandemic. I have been working with teachers over the last several months and together we have realized that lesson plans designed for in-person classes don’t work in this coronavirus world.

The lessons are falling short in terms of the social-emotional experience that school should provide. Remember that school is where most of us developed our deepest friendships, were inspired or motivated by amazing teachers and learned to collaborate with others. Because every aspect of a child’s life has become more “distanced” during the pandemic, there’s an even higher burden on distance-learning to emphasize human connection.

These traditional lessons are also too long and not interactive enough to hold a student’s attention over a video conference. The traditional paper-based homework that’s being assigned does not provide students with enough feedback or teachers with enough information to understand what students are learning.

So, no, virtual school will never be a perfect replacement for in-person school, but we can do a lot better.

Let me give a concrete example of what I’ve seen many teachers do effectively along these lines during this past spring. Imagine a sixth-grade math Zoom session in which the teacher provides a challenging problem that can be solved in more than one way. The teacher spends two to three minutes presenting the problem and then asks students to spend the next 10 minutes trying to solve it. After 10 minutes, the teacher asks students to submit their answers over the videoconference chat or polling function. Based on the responses, the teacher then sorts the 30 students into five student virtual breakout groups of six each for 10 minutes. Each group will be asked to reconcile answers and methods of solving the problem. This will allow the students to socially interact with one another and allows for strong peer learning. Finally, the 30 students will be brought back together to report out what each breakout group learned.
I have also seen teachers use high-quality asynchronous online tools to ensure students get sufficient practice and content coverage that can’t all happen over Zoom sessions. With these online resources, students receive practice at their own time and pace, ideally for 30 to 45 minutes per day per subject (with priority given to math, reading and writing). The teacher gets real-time reports on who is engaged and progressing and who needs help. Through personalized practice, each student can work on the skills that are most appropriate for them with a focus on the gaps that they may need to fill. Ideally, parents should also have access to the data to ensure their students are on track.
I’ve noticed that some teachers are replicating their lectures in YouTube video form, and this has been incredibly time consuming and depleting for them. But doing this isn’t necessary. After all, video lessons on almost every topic already exist on the internet. Teachers’ time is valuable and should often be used instead for maintaining interaction and connection with students. Teachers should be given the liberty to focus on how to create more interactive touchpoints with students, more than trying to recreate online resources similar to those that already exist. This isn’t just healthier for the students; teachers will also get more energy from interacting with their students than they do from spending time in a home recording studio making Khan Academy-style videos.

Finally, distance learning has made it much more difficult to ensure that students are doing their own work. To avoid a situation where students either get credit for knowledge they don’t have or vice versa, educators need simple mechanics to authenticate student work. For example, teachers could ask students to submit recordings of themselves thinking out loud while taking an exam.

Everything I’ve talked about assumes that students have access to devices, the internet, and that their school or family has the resources to support them. But there is of course the deeply concerning fact that too many students do not have adequate access at home. We need concrete steps to fix access, like the #ConnectAllStudents campaign calling on Congress to close the digital divide.

We also need more free, noncommercial digital tools to support students and their teachers once they get access. That’s why beyond all of the work of Khan Academy, I am also working with volunteers on a project called schoolhouse.world to provide free live tutoring to any student. Only by pulling out all the stops can we have a chance to ensure that what is already a health care and economic crisis doesn’t also leave an entire generation of learners with insurmountable gaps in their education.

Sal Khan (@salkhanacademy) is the founder and CEO of Khan Academy, an educational nonprofit that offers free learning resources for preschool through the early years of college.

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