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.
ByMr. 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.
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.
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