Credit: Fermin Leal/Orange County Office of Education
Sal Khan with attendees at an event in Irvine on April 24 to kickoff the partnership between the Khan Academy and several county education departments.

In establishing relationships with several county offices of education in Southern California, the Khan Academy is hoping to expand its already large footprint in the world of personalized learning to make its online resources a more formal part of the school curriculum.

The move could mark a quantum leap in the use of online materials in the classroom.

Sal Khan, the Khan Academy’s founder, said he hopes the materials he has developed – online courses, instructional exercises, videos and a personalized “learning dashboard” – will become a “primary tool for practice” in the classroom, rather than just a supplement to the curriculum.

Last week, at a gathering in Irvine attended by more than 700 district representatives and others, Khan and five county offices of education – Los Angeles, Orange County, San Bernardino, Riverside and Imperial – as well as the Long Beach Unified School District announced they would collaborate to increase usage of Khan Academy’s materials, which the nonprofit organization will make available at no charge.

The counties encompass more than 200 school districts with a total enrollment of nearly 3 million children, or about half of all students in public schools in the state.

Khan Academy materials are used extensively by many teachers to complement what they are already doing in the classroom, and many students use the materials on their own without prompting from teachers. The organization has a global reach as well, with its offerings translated into numerous languages and used by students throughout the world.

But Khan said this is the first formal relationship his organization is establishing with large school districts in the United States. “Many teachers have been using us, doing personalized learning in the classroom for years,” he said. Working directly with districts, he said, provides “an opportunity for mainstream teachers to bring technology into the classroom in a way that immediately saves them time and meets their needs.”

Participation in the partnership by school districts will be entirely voluntary, both Khan and county superintendents emphasized. “No one is going to force anyone,” Khan said. “It is up to districts to decide if this is right for them, and even when they do say they want to be part of it, districts are not going to force the teachers.”

“We do see that a larger fraction of teachers will be using it in a highly engaged way,” he said. “But we are not going to expect every teacher to use it, or anything like that.”

A key factor in prompting Orange County Superintendent of Schools Al Mijares to initiate the new partnership was the success of the collaboration between the College Board and the Khan Academy initiated in 2015 to provide free SAT preparation. Working with the College Board, the Khan Academy developed a range of free online practice materials for both the SAT and the PSAT. The target audience was students whose families might not be able to afford expensive test preparation offered by commercial companies.

“We are trying to take it to a different level of engagement,” Mijares said. “It is not enough for schools to go to the Khan Academy for help. What we are looking for is to have more systematized interventions (by the Khan Academy) that become part of the school culture.”

As part of this effort, Khan said his organization has been developing a range of tools that will help teachers to integrate Khan Academy materials into their classroom practice.

“These tools we are launching are designed to be more core to what is happening in the classroom,” Khan said. “If teachers want to make an assignment, in the past they wouldn’t have had information on what students got right or wrong,” he said. “They will get all of that continuously, so the next day in class they will feel more confident about what problems to go over, and where to intervene with students.”

Khan is best known for his online math courses, but the Khan Academy offerings now cover most subject areas, including chemistry, biology, physics, world history and American history. An especially important part of its offerings are materials based on the Common Core standards.

He said that using the materials will allow teachers to more easily track the progress of their students using tools like the Khan Academy’s “Learning Dashboard.” Teachers will be able to sync the dashboard with education tools developed by Google, such as G-Suite for Education, which allows teachers and students to easily share and edit files. The goal, Khan said, is to help teachers personalize their students’ learning as much as possible.

So far, Long Beach Unified is the only district to have formally signed up to participate. Ninety percent of students in grades 8-12 have already signed up to use the Khan Academy’s SAT and PSAT preparation courses. As result, students made what Superintendent Chris Steinhauser called “huge gains” over the previous year in their scores. Now the district has endorsed the Khan Academy materials as a tool for practice and learning across all subjects and grade levels. The partnership, he said, will provide “endless opportunities for our students who are struggling in some areas, and accelerating kids who are on an accelerated path.”

Referring to Khan’s “learning dashboard,” Steinhauser said that while teachers try to track progress of their students, “we don’t have the resources or manpower to design a program that is so individualized.” He cited the example of a 3rd-grade teacher who found that eight of her 25 students needed more help in learning a particular skill. The teacher could connect them to the Khan Academy while other students worked at a more accelerated pace. “It is truly a game changer for kids and families in closing the achievement gap,” he said.

This fall, the Khan Academy will launch new tools for teachers anywhere, not just for the six Southern California partnerships, . The tools will make it easier for them to make assignments and to track student progress.

One of the benefits of the partnerships, Khan said, is that it will allow his organization to gauge the efficacy of the tools they are developing in large scale applications. “These will be places where we can work with teachers so we can understand what is working well for them, and what is not, and how we can improve the product, and how we can create training, and scale this up for teachers everywhere.”

To assist teachers, the Khan Academy will send what Khan called “super users” of its materials as “ambassadors” into schools to work with teachers.

One reason the newly announced partnerships are even possible is that in recent years school districts throughout the state have had to ensure that they have adequate technological and Internet access to allow students to take the Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced tests each year. For the first time, students have been required to take these tests online.

Khan said that districts have a lot more online capacity than they had two or three years ago. “That was one of the biggest catalysts, and why we can even have these conversations,” he said.

He stressed that the use of his materials in the classroom is not a “panacea” for the challenges of preparing students for college and beyond.

“This is a tool which we can use to intervene to help teachers and parents in a fairly scalable way, and actually measure students’ gains and their levels of engagement,” he said. “If we can show that this is doable in these large, diverse districts, it will be a powerful proof point that this is possible.”

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