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Khan Academy CEO Sal Khan on prepping for fall, virtual learning



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USA TODAY

Last spring, with schools shut down to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, educational apps became a lifesaver.

As parents, educators and students adjusted to the virtual classroom, many leaned on apps and tech to help bridge the gaps in learning.

Among them was the popular Khan Academy, started by founder and CEO Sal Khan in 2005 to provide videos and tools to help students learn math, science and more subjects.

In an interview with USA TODAY, Khan said he first learned of school closures due to the pandemic in February, after receiving letters from South Korea of teachers using Khan Academy. In the following months, schools began to close in the U.S. in favor of virtual learning.

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“When it started to become clear that school closures might happen we started to do a bit of a war room around ‘OK we’ve gotta provide more support for teachers, for parents,” said Khan. “We’ve got to put more structures on how you can use not just Khan Academy but other resources to structure a day that can approximate home schooling or quarantine schooling or whatever you might want to call it.”

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Khan said before COVID-19, the site was averaging 30 million learning minutes per school. At the peak of spring, Khan Academy was averaging 90 million learning minutes.

Last week, The Amgen Foundation awarded Khan Academy a $3-million grant to support initiatives including virtual biology lessons and a collaboration with LabXchange, an online science learning platform.

USA TODAY spoke with Khan about what to expect this fall, and how parents can cope.

Question: Where do you see apps like Khan Academy fitting in with the changing school curriculum?

Khan: We call ourselves a strategic supplement. It’s kind of an ambiguous term, what does that mean? Pre-COVID, you have this notion of a core curriculum. When you and I were going to school, that tended to be kind of a combination of a textbook, a teacher’s manual, and maybe some lecture notes or pacing guides the teacher or district developed. Now, there’s some more fleshed out core curricula that have lessons day by day that teachers can work through.

Patty Candelaria is a teacher at Kiker Elementary in Austin, Texas. (Photo: LOLA GOMEZ/AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

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Regardless of which curricula you look at, whether it’s the text-based ones or some of the more modern ones, they’re good at prescribing day-to-day lesson plans. Where they lack – and this is pre-COVID – is they’re not good at giving sufficient amount of practice for students, especially practice where they get immediate feedback. They don’t necessarily provide supports where teachers can know in real-time what students are doing, what they know, what they don’t know.

And traditional core curricula are really weak in how do you address the problem of every student has gaps coming into the school year. You’re giving them a synchronous lesson every day. But what if kids aren’t ready for that lesson, or what if some kids are ready to move ahead? How do you do this differentiation and that personalization? And so that practice, that feedback, the teacher progress monitoring, and that personalization, mastered learning, those were the areas where Khan Academy saw its role in the classroom, where we could add value as a strategic supplement.

Now you get into a COVID world, something really interesting happens because that traditional curriculum that you were anchored on actually doesn’t necessarily work the same way anymore. Most traditional curricula are predicated on having – just imagine a math classroom, five 55-minute sessions a week and then you go do some problem solving on your own. Now, at best, you’re going to be getting two to three Zoom sessions a week, a lot more has to happen remotely, distance learning, using some form of online tool.

Jacqueline Aviña, 15, checks her homework for the week from her school at home as her mother, Alma Vargas, does chores in May. Preliminary schedules indicate students will have the choice between in-person, virtual or hybrid learning. (Photo: LOLA GOMEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

We see ourselves to continue to be the strategic supplement in that practice, feedback, teacher progress monitoring and personalization space, but we’re imagining – and this is what we saw in the spring – is that people are going to lean that much heavier on it because you can’t get as much synchronous time together in this world. It’s kind of the same idea, but the value, I think, these online tools provide are that much more important right now.

Q: What are some new features or offerings you’re hoping to introduce this fall?

Khan: There’s the get ready for grade-level courses. Not only is that a way to understand whether kids are ready, but it’s also an outlet to help them prepare and get ready for grade level, or even if you move into grade level simultaneously for them to fill in any gaps they might have accrued even pre-COVID, but especially over the COVID period.

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