09/27/2012 09:32 am ET Updated Nov 27, 2012

Reflections From Two Years of Khan Academy in the Classroom

It has been two years since we first started working with schools to see how Khan Academy can support teachers and students in the classroom. We started off modestly with three teachers in Los Altos School District (LASD). The initial results were exciting, and the movement quickly picked up steam. Khan Academy has partnered with numerous other schools, including Summit Prep, Eastside College Prep, Oakland Unity, and Marlborough. LASD has expanded the blended learning effort district-wide across all 5th-8th grade classrooms. An additional 15,000 classrooms use our free and open resources without our direct involvement. This is likely the largest blended learning experiment in existence.

We are still extremely early in this effort, and things change fast. However, we have learned a lot, and I thought I'd share a few observations:

Not only is every student different, but every classroom is different

We quickly noticed that the variability in how our resources could be used was significant. Every classroom has unique needs and is guided by a teacher with a unique style. Some teachers embraced personalizing their instruction and spending quality one-on-one time with each student. Others embraced bringing more project-based learning and interactive activities into the classroom. Others pushed the model even further with mixed-age classrooms and heavy use of peer-to-peer learning. There is no single solution, and the right answer depends on the specific needs and capabilities of the class. However, when a classroom is properly enabled, it is clear that many new and exciting things are possible.

Flipping the classroom is a great catch phrase, but completely misunderstood

Many years ago when Khan Academy was a YouTube video library, some teachers emailed Sal and told him they were using the videos to "flip the classroom" and assign videos as homework. The phrase stuck, although most classrooms that now use Khan Academy have pushed the model much further than those early days. In our view, what's most important is that students have the support they need to master topics at their own pace, and precious classroom time is used to promote interactive, creative, and engaging shared experiences.

The difference is subtle but important. A model where a teacher assigns the same video to every student does not necessarily support personalized learning, as it is highly likely that students have different needs and should access different resources. Additionally, videos are an important component, but only part of how technology can help. Our practice problems and interactive exercises help ensure students deeply engage with the material. If the student struggles, a video is available, but so are detailed text-based hints that help the student pinpoint their exact error. If the student has a question, an active online community is ready to immediately help. Additionally, a parent or teacher is provided with real-time data and reports to help facilitate direct in-person support. We are constantly working on ways technology can support every step of the learning process, including enabling more creativity and cross-disciplinary learning.

Students need to be given the opportunity to take ownership of their learning
One of the most striking changes we often see in Khan Academy users, particularly historically underperforming students, is a dramatic increase in engagement, confidence, and ownership of the learning process. Many people assume personalized learning works best for high-achieving students who are self-motivated. However, we regularly hear stories like these from Oakland Unity, on dramatic changes in student study habits and overall confidence.

It turns out that you can turn a demotivated student into a motivated one when you actually give him the opportunity to succeed. The traditional one-size-fits-all classroom approach takes a student who fails a test, slaps him with a poor grade, and moves him to more advanced topics he has no hope of understanding. It is almost comical that we ever thought this would work. Not only are we pushing the student forward inappropriately, we are telling him he is a bad student and breaking his confidence.

Our approach with Khan Academy is fundamentally different. We allow students to jump back to the material they need help on. They can take as long as necessary to actually learn it. They gain a sense of success and accomplishment when they progress, no matter where their starting point was. They finally see a path in which they can improve, and they take responsibility for their learning.

Teachers are more important than ever
There are some people who believe that technology in education diminishes the importance of teachers. In our experience, nothing could be further from the truth. The fantastic teachers we have seen implement Khan Academy are bright, innovative, creative, and they take their classrooms to new heights. Their role is not diminished. Rather, their responsibility is increased.

Technology allows the role to evolve and become what most teachers actually went into the profession to do. Instead of spending so much time grading homework or giving the same lecture over and over again, they can use real-time data to ensure they use their time most effectively. They can personally interact and provide guidance to every student. They have time to facilitate more collaborative activities with students actively interacting with each other. Technology will not replace teachers, but it will empower them to be great mentors to their students.