Next On Deck For Khan Academy: Better Diagnostics And Internationalization

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Even though Sal Khan is now running a platform that serves 6 million students and people a month, he’s still churning out a couple videos a week.

What’s been most recently on deck? World War I.

To make a video, Khan says he’ll front-load several books worth of reading on everything from the Armistice Day to the sinking of the Lusitania. Then he’ll start to make videos once he feels he has a decent grasp on the subject material.

“If I’m hanging out waiting for the dentist, I’ll just start reading something about World War I,” he said in a recent interview.

From the original tutoring calls he’d arrange to help out relatives, to the initial YouTube channel he started, Khan Academy has grown to reach 75 million users to date, with 230 million lessons delivered and 1 billion problems answered in 30,000 classrooms throughout the world.

Naturally, there’s been quite a bit of hype (with both its good and bad consequences). Khan Academy has the reach but it’s still proving out the data to show that its lessons measurably affect learning outcomes beyond the handful of pilots the non-profit has tried.

“Teachers are rightfully skeptical, I think. They’re overworked. They have a million things to do,” Khan said. “It’s an incredibly tiring job and you’re throwing a new thing at them, even if they intellectually recognize the benefit of it.”

Two of the top things on Khan’s priority list for the next fall are internationalization and diagnostics. The Khan Academy has pioneered ways of measuring progress, to help ensure that students don’t develop a “Swiss Cheese”-like base of knowledge with different weak areas.

But he acknowledged the site isn’t as good at telling students where they should begin. What if they’re competent at certain things like logarithms but terribly behind in trigonometry?

“One of the biggest complaints we get is that people don’t know where to start. By this August, we should have good diagnostics where people can figure out where they stand,” he said.

He’s personally interested in Carol Dweck’s theories around fostering a growth-centered mentality in children and students. Her research is the basis for a series of media stories and discussions around how much you should praise children and whether you should attribute their success to persistence or innate capabilities. She’s found that children who internalize not innate talent, but rather diligence, tend to do better one the longer-run. He also said that the Khan Academy will be re-architecting some of the game mechanics and rewards to help with retention.

While he thinks that more traditional forms of diagnostics like standardized tests aren’t all bad, they’re limited.

“Standardized testing by itself isn’t a horrible thing. They’re not going to be testing every dimension though,” he said.

He envisions a future where an admissions officer might not only look at grades and SAT tests, but also whether students have a record of trying over and over again even when they don’t get it right away.

“If I was an admissions officer in the not too far off future, you’d look at the narrative of data: Who showed a strong degree of perseverance?” he said.

He also said that it’s going to be increasingly important to have a body of creative work beyond demonstrating raw academic performance. The Academy’s platform for teaching computer science lets students create a body of programs they’ve written. (So far, students have made about 100,000 programs.)

Likewise, if they were going to expand to other things like writing or music composition, they’d also encourage students to create their own portfolios.

As for the growing wave of for-profit and venture-backed companies like Coursera, Khan says he’s still believes his academy should attack education problems with a non-profit-based approach. His only hesitation about going the non-profit route had to do with attracting technical talent, but the big-name hires they’ve been able to get like Google’s first employee Craig Silverstein, have tempered his original worries.

“My gut tells me that education — it has to be done with the best of both worlds. When I talk to investors, I ask them, where do your kids go? How many of them are willing to send their kids to a for-profit school? It’s not that for-profit schools can’t be good and I don’t want to be self-righteous about it, but considering the sensitive stuff like the students’ data and the credentialing, my guess is that’s going to have to be in the not-for-profit realm.”