Flipping the Classroom: MOOC’s and The Khan Academy

The switch to conducting business online hit commerce and businesses as far back as the 1990’s. It may come as a surprise to many that the impact on education has been much more gradual – okay Schools have access to computers and the internet, but the lessons have stubbornly remained in the lecture hall and classroom.

Khan AcademyFor many people, sticking to lessons in a classroom seemed out of kilter with the way that people want to ‘consume’ education – online. You will hear this called the ‘flipped classroom‘ or ‘flipped teaching‘. It’s a blended form of learning in which students learn new content online by watching video lectures at home, and what used to be homework is now done in class with teachers offering more personalised guidance and interaction with students – instead of traditional lecturing and ‘chalk-and-talk’.

MOOC’s

The Open University has been a front-runner in delivering a university education online, but those with an eye on the news will see that US / UK Universities are now starting to join the rush and publishing courses online via Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC’s). A quick look at EdxCoursera (both US based) and Futurelearn (UK based) will show you what is on offer.

Receiving tuition online drives down the cost of learning for many, and improves accessibility – we are finally seeing an important change in the way that education is being delivered.

Whilst the focus maybe on universities at the moment, we would not be doing the subject justice without a good look at probably the most important US institution that has led this change – the Khan Academy.

The Khan Academy

From humble beginnings in 2006, the Khan Academy now has some 10 million students from all around the world.  It’s runs it as a non-profit educational website has one aim: to offer a free world-class education to everyone.

For its Founder Salman Khan, this goal can be traced back to the year 2004, when his cousin, Nadia, was struggling through her maths lessons at school. Khan agreed to tutor her remotely, posting short lessons on YouTube. Nadia’s grades did improve, but so did those of many other students, who were watching, learning from and commenting enthusiastically on his practical, entertaining online lessons.

Khan quit his job as a hedge fund analyst to focus all his energies on his new online tutorial academy. Soon, he would attract the attention of Bill Gates and Google, leading the latter to fund this project. The  financial backing enabled Khan to expand his team, to create software for use in schools and to branch out from maths into an array of relevant subjects, including Science, Economics and Finance, and Humanities, with information aimed not just at primary school children, but at secondary and tertiary students as well. Indeed, many university lecturers are referring their students to the Khan Academy to hone crucial skills in subjects like maths.

Delivering education

Instead of sitting in class and listening to their teacher wax lyrical on a subject, students watch a short video lesson the day before at home, using class time to undertake exercises with guided help from their teacher.

Using Khan’s dedicated software, teachers use a computer to view the progress each child is making on a specific set of exercises. They can also see how many seconds each child is taking to answer a question, and easily glean information on which children are stuck on a problem, as well as those who are whizzing through lessons.

Teachers no longer have to assume that one particular area of mathematics, for instance, calculus, will pose a stumbling block to the entire class. Rather, they can gather the students who are having difficulty in one area and take the time to explain that specific area to them, while other students are working on another different set of problems.

Those who resist the Khan Academy system may say that learning through computers is impersonal but in fact, the opposite is true; the idea is to personalise study so that each student can work at their own pace.

Students who are struggling, for instance, can take more time on one particular lesson, repeating the short videos and practice exercises as required, without feeling like they are incapable of keeping up with the teacher’s explanations. 

Teachers play an important role in mentoring students. In addition to using software to do so, they can also use the Khan Academy website, which allows a teacher or parent to sign up as the ‘coach’ of one student or set of students, to monitor their progress and see where they may be lagging behind.

Using the Khan Academy Website

When you sign up for a free account on the Khan Academy website, you are given a quick test to glean areas you may need help with. A specialised programme determines whether you need help with two-digit addition or subtracting decimals, for instance. As you progress through the many short exercises, a grid tells you how many skills you have mastered and how many require further practice.

The problems seem easy but some may surprise you; moreover, you can click on an icon to obtain hints and handy tips. For instance, we encountered the following problem: “Gabriel had to read pages 26 through 52 for homework. How many pages did she have to read?” If you click on the hint icon, you are told that the problem becomes much simpler if you subtract 25 from each number. By doing so, you realise that you simply have to consider pages 1 through 27.

Aside from practice games, there are a host of short tutorials covering a host of specific topics. For instance, if algebra or calculus have always been a stumbling block for you, all you need to do is click on those icons, under ‘Maths’.

The tutorials will take you through pre-algebra/pre-calculus levels and proceed to quite advanced levels. Best of all, as Salman Khan takes you through key concepts, his enthusiasm and sense of humour are great. Sometimes, the process that takes him to the answer of a complex mathematical equation of chemistry problem is not all neat and predetermined, since he tackles all subjects ‘on the spot’. 

Another appealing aspect of the materials on the website is that they are conveniently divided by age: for instance, in the mathematics category, you can either choose by category (i.e. Addition) or by age (e.g. Grade Three mathematics).

The millions of international users of the website indicate that it does not really matter that Khan bases his lessons on the U.S. educational system. Maths is maths, so parents and students alike can easily see what content is covered by each lesson, targeting their sessions at key concepts covered by the curriculum of their respective country.

The site is growing on a daily basis; as more and more subjects are covered and tutorial offered, the Khan Academy is coming to be recognised as a standard bearer for the future of education. In addition to the content produced by Salman Khan and his team, the site also features partner content (i.e. tutorials by respected bodies such as the Stanford School of Medicine, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the California Academy of Sciences).

In the UK, we are very much ‘stuck’ with the Government’s prescribed ways of delivering primary and secondary education – through the classroom. Time will tell whether we start to see flipped classrooms commonplace here – some schools like Denbigh are experimenting with it. Will it stick – I for one, hope so. 

I hope that you have found this blog post interesting. The world of online education is moving quickly, and we’ll be blogging about it again soon.

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