Math Videos Go From YouTube Hit To Classroom Tool

June 23, 2011

Larry Abramson

Larry Abramson
Fifth graders (from left) Reese Toomre, Lucas Nguyn and Michael An race through the Khan Academy's Trigonometry Challenge. The program allows more advanced students to race ahead, while other students can proceed at their own pace.

Part 2 of a two-part report.

A lot of struggling math students have found comfort in the mathematical stylings of Salman Khan.

A few years back, Khan started creating videos to help tutor his cousin in math. Those videos became so popular, he quit his job with a hedge fund to work on them full time. Now his online Khan Academy offers more than 2,100 videos and attracts scads of teachers and students. Now, some adventurous school districts are trying to bring Khan's approach into the classroom.

Working At Your Own Pace

Santa Rita Elementary school, in Los Altos, Calif., is part of a pilot program that is making the Khan Academy an integral part of the math curriculum.

And if three fifth-graders playing a computer game called Trigonometry Challenge are any indication, math class may never be the same. Michael An, Lucas Nguyn, and Reese Toomre are tapping away furiously, their eyes glued to their laptop screens and they are gobbling up math problems like a plate of Doritos. Teacher Kami Thordarson says that for half-hour a day, Khan Academy dunks these students into a completely self-paced world.

"They're all in different places. Some of them are working on calculus and high school math, some of them are working on multiplication of decimals. And that's OK," Thordarson says.

It's OK because students who need help can look up the appropriate video and listen to the Academy's explanation of concepts like direct and inverse variation. Check out one of the videos at Khan Academy, and you can see as Khan scribbles on the video screen, and guides students along with that his signature patient and unthreatening approach.

Kids are comfortable turning to Khan for help, Thorderson says. "It's kind of a private thing. It's not like you have to raise your hand in front of the whole class and say, 'I don't get this.'"

There's nothing flashy about the videos or the exercises. But Khan has clearly hit a sweet spot that makes this the most popular part of the day.

Thordarsen says during "Khan-time," her class looks more like a busy engineering office than a traditional classroom. Kids collaborate, the teacher facilitates, and she doesn't have to lecture.

Some kids work on their own, following online exercises as they do calculations on a whiteboard or with pencil and paper.

An Expanding Reach

Next door, teacher Kelly Rafferty says that Khan helps her deal with the big class sizes that even this affluent district is facing — this class has 29 students, and class sizes could grow next year.

"Khan has definitely helped me reach all of the students. When you have that many kids, you end up sort of teaching to the middle. And Khan has allowed me to reach the lowest and the highest," Rafferty says.

Khan Academy also offers a kind of back-office function. While kids are working independently on exercises, Rafferty checks her own iPad, which displays a graph of her students' performance. "So with this I can look at all the kids, see who's struggling, who's not," she says. She can use that information to see who needs extra help.

Santa Rita Principal Sandra McGonagle says for her, the Khan Academy has some big advantages over other math materials. "One, it's free," McGonagle says. "And it's created by people who really just love math."

After this year's pilot program, the Los Altos School District is going to start using Khan Academy districtwide for the fifth and sixth grades. Khan Academy is hoping to see how this plays out in a wider range of schools. They expand to at least 10 new schools next year.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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