Behind the Scenes at the Khan Academy

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.

I confess that I’ve never quite gotten all the enthusiasm over the Khan Academy. For those of you who have never heard of it, it’s the brainchild of Salman Khan, an MIT graduate who started tutoring a cousin in math over the internet a few years ago. He eventually started recording the sessions and turned them into a vast library of short videos explaining various concepts in math and science. Later he branched out into other subjects, some done by other lecturers, and now has a collection of over 2,700 instructional videos at http://www.khanacademy.org.

I’ve dipped into the videos from time to time, and truthfully, they’ve always seemed perfectly competent but not really all that special. On the other hand, they do cover a lot of ground; Khan has a nice, engaging speaking style; and students can watch videos over and over if they’re having trouble. But it turns out there’s more to it. Via Tyler Cowen, here’s a piece in Inside Higher Ed about what the Khan Academy does behind the scenes:

“I think too much conversation about Khan Academy is about cute little videos,” Khan said in an interview last week. “Most of our resources, almost two-thirds of [the staff], are engineers working on the exercises and analytics platform. That, I think, is what we’re most excited about.”

….Using math and computer science concepts decidedly more advanced than most of those in Khan’s video library, the Khan engineers have trained the website’s exercise platform how to predict, with startling accuracy, how likely it is that a student will correctly answer the next practice problem — and whether that student will be able to solve the same type of problem a week, two weeks, and a month later.

They do this by accounting for hundreds of data points that describe, in numbers, the entire history of the relationship between a learner and a concept. “If [a user is] logged in, then we have the entire history of every problem they’ve done, and how long it took them, and how they did,” says Ben Kamens, the lead developer at Khan Academy. “So whenever anybody does a problem, we see whether they got it right or wrong, how many tries it took them, what their guess was, what the problem was, how many hints they used, and how long they took between each hint.”

The Khan engineers are also working to tweak the exercise platform so it does not confuse genuine mastery with “pattern matching” — a method of problem-solving wherein a student mechanically rehashes the steps necessary to solve that type of problem without necessarily grasping, conceptually, what those steps represent.

Interesting! Maybe all those out-of-work Wall Street rocket scientists are finally using their skills for something socially useful. There’s more at the link.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest