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Math - tears = Khan Academy

Back to School | An increasingly popular online program is teaching children across the country to love a subject they once dreaded

Issue: "Back to School," Aug. 27, 2011

Tears. Frustration. That's how Shannon Reilly's homeschool math session with her 6th-grade daughter, Morgan, usually ended. Working out of a textbook without a teacher's manual, she found herself at times unable to explain math problems to Morgan.

In January, the West Virginia resident heard about Khan Academy, a free online classroom. Khanacademy.org has hundreds of 15-minute videos explaining math concepts, along with electronic practice problems that track a student's progress. Reilly traded the textbook for the program and asked Morgan to watch videos and spend 20 minutes each day working on the problems.

The tears are gone and Morgan enjoys math now. Her test scores have risen from below grade level to scoring in the 99th percentile in certain sections.

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Across the country in San Ynez Middle School in Santa Barbara, Calif., Joe Donahue uses Khan Academy to teach his 7th- and 8th-grade math classes. Donahue requires his students, all on netbooks, to master-at their own pace-25 topics by the end of the trimester. During class time Donahue walks around the room, answering questions and helping those falling behind, as students work on Khan Academy.

He says the difference is huge: "They keep telling me how much they enjoyed what we did. I had kids asking, 'Can we work in here at lunch? I want to finish a concept.' They never did that before."

Despite the different types of education Reilly and Donahue provide, their students are now all watching the same videos and learning the same topics, thanks to Khan Academy. Some education experts say the online classroom is a way to improve math learning in America, where student test scores rank 25th in the world, well behind economic competitors such as China, South Korea, Germany, and Canada. Critics, though, acknowledge Khan's usefulness but don't think it gives American students the innovative, competitive edge they need.

A not-for-profit organization, Khan Academy began when Sal Khan, a hedge fund analyst (see sidebar below), started making videos to tutor his cousins. The videos, which feature Khan's narration explaining a problem as he digitally writes it on a black screen, started garnering a large following. Viewers left comments expressing how much the videos have helped them: "First time I smiled doing a derivative," read one.

Khan started getting letters from parents who thanked him for teaching their children math concepts they had tried so hard to convey, and Khan realized that he was on to something. Homeschooler Reilly likes the simplicity of Khan's videos: "He talks well. He makes it very fun. He draws a little sketch so it's more like he's a human instead of just a math guy."

In 2009, Khan quit his job and started working on Khan Academy full-time. With grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Google, he was able to expand his site, making over 2,400 videos that have been watched more than 63 million times. His next project is to translate all his videos into the world's major languages to provide his classes to anyone with an internet connection.

Last year, Khan added a practice component to the program. The computer continually generates problems until the student correctly answers 10 in a row. Then the student can move on to the next topic or "module." The modules start from addition and subtraction and continue all the way up to calculus. To encourage students to learn more, students can earn badges if they watch a certain number of videos, work quickly, or master a lot of modules.

Teachers have found their own ways to incentivize doing math. When Donahue's students complete a module, he rewards students with stamps by their names and gives them raffle tickets for a weekly drawing for silly prizes. The stamps let the students see where they are in relation to the rest of the class and create competition among the students to do more math. Other teachers give students printouts of the Khan Academy badge to stick on their notebooks when they receive digital badges.

Harsh Patel, a Teach for America member, teaches 5th-grade math at PFC Omar E. Torres charter school on Chicago's South Side. Having watched Khan's videos in high school and college, Patel remembered the site when he started teaching last year. Almost all of his students come from low-income families. The school did not have enough computers for every student, so he scraped together computers from friends and family until he had enough for half his class.

Starting last December, he split his class in half. One half would listen to him teach about math topics for state standardized tests, while the other half worked on Khan Academy. After half an hour, the two would switch.

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