Shelby Harris’s first period is not a typical seventh grade class. The students come in, get laptops and go to work.
“Without any instruction from me,” Harris says. “They know exactly what path they’re on. And they just work. It’s amazing.”
Harris teaches math at Kuna Middle School. She doesn’t lecture in this class, she spends her time working with students one-on-one or in small groups. It’s a method sometimes called the “flipped classroom.” Last school year Harris began experimenting with this approach by using Khan Academy every day in one of her seventh grade classes. She started as a skeptic but that’s changed.
“I’m actually teaching better,” she says. “But now instead of teaching the standards, I’m teaching the students.”
Khan Academy is one of the most popular education websites in the world. It’s a nonprofit that started with the goal of helping kids with math after school. Now Khan Academy wants to be a fixture in the classroom. This year it takes a big step toward that with a pilot project here in Idaho.
The J.A. and Katherine Albertson Foundation put up $1.5 million in grants for schools to try Khan. Forty-eight Idaho schools are taking part in this pilot project. That means more than 12,000 Idaho kids will use Khan this school year in their classrooms.
Each school created its own plan on how to use Khan. Some will use it frequently across many grades, others only occasionally in a few grades. But more than 200 Idaho teachers will experience some version of what Harris did last year.
She says it was a difficult transition to this model of teaching. She had to give up being the focal point of the classroom with all eyes on her.
“In some ways it feels less… teacher-ish,” she says. “You almost have to redefine how you see yourself as a teacher.”
Now she’s more of a sideline coach. Although, as she goes from student-to-student you might be tempted to call her the head cheerleader. She constantly encourages the kids as they work through difficult concepts, frequently employing what could be her catch phrase, “at-a-kid.”
Harris’ student Mickey Briggs is working on decimals. He brings up a Khan video on the topic. It’s a little like watching a ghost write on a chalk board. You don’t see a person, just a black screen where colorful numbers and diagrams appear and a disembodied voice explains math concepts.
These videos are what Khan is most known for. The website has more than 4,000 of them. But Briggs says there’s a lot more to it than videos. He describes using the site as an online worksheet, an interactive worksheet that can give you hints along the way.
But Briggs says he still frequently gets stuck and turns to Harris for help. He seems a little horrified at the suggestion he could skip class and just learn math at home with Khan Academy.
“If I get stuck on a problem and I can’t figure it out I don’t really have anyone there to help me except my parents,” Briggs says. “And if they didn’t know it I wouldn’t know what to do.”
Shelby Harris raves about Khan Academy. She’s not alone. Major news outlets have predicated the website will revolutionize education. And Bloomberg Businessweek called founder Sal Khan “the Messiah of math.”
But it has drawn criticism as well. A common one is that while Khan and his staff are math and computer experts, they don’t have any training in how to teach. Take President and COO Shantanu Sinha. He has four degrees from MIT, but none are in Education.
“It’s not just about the degree, it’s about the in the classroom experience,” Sinha says. “We started working with schools and classrooms for exactly that reason. Which is we knew we didn’t have all the answers. We had a tool set that we believed could be useful to teachers. And we wanted to work with teachers who could help guide and inform that and drive it.”
Teachers across the country have tried Khan Academy in their classrooms. The online nonprofit has worked with some schools, mostly in California where it’s based. But Sinha says they want to know how to become a big part of the public education landscape.
“We really don’t have a model for that,” he says. “We want to understand what it takes to think about this large scale of an effort.”
That’s where the Idaho pilot project comes in. The Academy and the Albertson Foundation already had a relationship. Albertson had brought Sal Khan to Boise to speak, and sponsored workshops to train teachers on the website. An Albertson spokesman says Khan liked how he and his site were received in Idaho and thought it would be a good place to experiment.
Eric Kellerer agrees it will be an experiment for Khan and for Idaho. Kellerer heads the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning at Northwest Nazarene University and is overseeing the pilot project.
“We’re going to pre-test, mid-test and post-test the students so that we can really verify if Khan Academy is really showing student achievement gains across the state,” Kellerer says.
He says he’ll also try to measure student engagement, attendance, and discipline. But Kellerer is already looking beyond this year’s pilot. He can envision Khan Academy being used in every Idaho school.
“It’s scalable because it’s free,” he says. “And it’s really at this point just about making sure we know how to implement it and what implementations work.”
While it is free to access the Khan Academy website, the nonprofit is funded by some big-name donors like Bill Gates, it takes computers and internet access to operate. Shelby Harris says she couldn’t do what she does with Khan without a computer for each student.
Last year Idaho voters rejected a plan to provide a laptop for every high school student and more recently a contract to increase mobile internet access in schools has come under fire. The Albertson Foundation hasn’t committed to funding more Khan grants. After this year, a spokesman says, the foundation will step back and review what worked and what didn’t.