Susan Midlarsky

author • consultant • tutor | inspiring excellence
Adult Education Algebra Math Education Tutoring US Education Website

Review and Using Khan Academy Tools


I’m so inspired about a new tool to enhance math education. A friend sent me the link to a TED talk (embedded at the bottom of this post) showing the evolution of the Khan Academy into something truly useful for – well, for just about anybody.

I had come across the Khan videos some time ago, and I thought they were useful and well designed to teach more advanced concepts. Since they were not necessarily pertinent to my work, though, I didn’t return to them.

Then I saw this video, and how the Khan Academy has evolved, and I got excited. I set up accounts for several of my tutoring students and asked them to try the site while I checked their previous work, a few minutes of what used to be down time for them. Right there, I have increased the learning efficiency of my tutoring time.

The first student I set up, a fifth-grade girl, got happily into the site right away. When she discovered you could earn badges for different accomplishments, that sold her – and not only that, but she knew that her seven-year-old brother would like the site too.

For teachers, tutors, parents, etc., a wonderful feature is to sign up as a coach and have your student(s) or child(ren) add you as a coach. I think they can even add more than one coach, so both a teacher and a parent coach the same student, for example.

After only using the site for two days, I can already see the progress my students are making, as well as areas in which they are struggling. This will allow me to focus my next session with them better and help them master the skills they need, as well as move more quickly past the ones they have mastered.

The site design is excellent, with only a few minor glitches. Having looked at many educational websites, I can say that this is a rare find. To set up an account, one needs either a Google or a Facebook account. This can be a hurdle in itself; you have to be 18 or older to have a Google account, so for children, they need to either lie about their birth year or use a parent’s account. I did run into this problem in setting up student accounts, unfortunately. Facebook has its own pitfalls; while the minimum age is lower (though still too high for most of my students), parents often have more objections to their children joining that site than Google. Khan Academy recommends teachers signing up for Google Apps for Education; I haven’t looked into that option yet, but I may do so, if I qualify as a private tutor.

Once the signing-up hurdle is jumped, the sign-in process is easy and smooth. The site design is clear and simple to navigate, though I wish the “Add a Coach” link would be easier to find.

The real gem for me is the Practice interface. When you click the Practice link, you face a constellation of skills, with Addition 1 at the top. As you demonstrate proficiency, you earn a star in that constellation, and the graphic indicates the suggested skills to work on next.

The interface is simple but effective. When you start to practice, the problems show up as images, and you enter the correct answer in a text box. What’s great about it is that it’s Flash-free, meaning it works on iPhones, iPads, etc., making fun math practice freely, and widely, available.

There was another minor technical glitch, though. At first, I was using my little Asus netbook tablet, and I was thrilled to discover the “Show scratch pad” link. This enables a vertical bar on the left of the screen showing tools like a pencil, eraser, etc. that allow you to write on the screen to do your work, like on a note pad. On the tablet, this was awesome, because my students could use the stylus like a pen to work out their answers right on the screen. I thought the iPad would be as good or better for this, but instead, the touch interface interacts only with the browser controls (like scrolling up and down), and I couldn’t make it register any marks. I’m not sure if this is browser-related, a site programming problem, or an issue in the iOS. It would be great if this could be solved. But it would be ideal for a teacher with an interactive whiteboard as well.

To test the system further, I chose a math topic about which I am very rusty. When I clicked on the subject’s button, I saw a problem that stumped me completely. What to do?

In a classroom situation, a shy student might just sit there and be miserable. But in this tool, right below my choices were the friendly words, “Need help?” and a selection of videos that could show me what I needed to know to succeed in this topic. Better still, I didn’t lose any points by watching the videos – though I would if I asked for a hint.

Are the videos perfect? No, but they’re good, and they have the advantage of being easy to watch over and over until you understand the concept. It would be great if he used more of the methodology in Singapore Math to teach the basic concepts, but we can’t have everything at once. Maybe someday.

One criticism of Singapore Math I have heard is that it needs more skills practice. I think this site is one way for a student to get this practice in a low-key, interactive, fun way. It’s also a terrific tool for students and teachers to improve their learning progress, and for anyone who wants to learn.

By the way, math isn’t the only subject addressed on that site, though I think it’s the first and probably the most thoroughly done. The other subjects, including test prep, are worth visiting too.

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