Harsh Patel, a Teach for America member, teaches 5th-grade math at PFC Omar E. Torres charter school on Chicago’s South Side. Having watched Khan’s videos in high school and college, Patel remembered the site when he started teaching last year. Almost all of his students come from low-income families. The school did not have enough computers for every student, so he scraped together computers from friends and family until he had enough for half his class.

Starting last December, he split his class in half. One half would listen to him teach about math topics for state standardized tests, while the other half worked on Khan Academy. After half an hour, the two would switch.

As the students worked on Khan Academy, they would often ask each other for help on different sections. Patel noticed that students didn’t know how to teach their classmates and would just end up telling them the answers. So he handpicked several students who were further along and taught them how to teach others.

Khan Academy also allows teachers to gauge how their students are doing: A dashboard shows how much time students spend on videos and questions, which questions they get wrong, and where they need more help. The dashboard helps teachers like Patel pinpoint where students struggle and pair them with peers who understand the material.

If Patel sees that several students are getting the same types of problems wrong, he meets with them in a small group outside of class time and explains the concept to them. That way, the students who understand the material don’t have to listen to things they already know.

Patel found from standardized tests that his students gained one to three years of math knowledge after using Khan Academy for a semester. One student, Jocelyn, had hated math, but quickly caught on to Khan Academy, eagerly mastering modules and continuing on to new topics.  She would ask Patel questions about what she was learning: By the end of the year, her scores showed that she advanced 5 ½ years in math.

“This is the way a lot of education is heading,” Patel said: “When students are older, they don’t need to be spoon-fed what they do and don’t need to learn. I think it’s moving in a better direction where they choose what is interesting, and they can start learning a lot more independently.”

Khan Academy has some critics. Dan Meyer, a former math teacher at San Lorenzo Valley High School, thinks Khan Academy is ideally suited for teaching standardized tests, but doesn’t show the bigger picture of how math applies to the real world. He says Khan’s lectures and multiple choice questions teach students how to get the right answers, but do not spark a deeper interest in math.

“Math should be developed in an environment where you can dig in, mess around, and play with the numbers,” Meyer said. When he taught 9th-grade remedial algebra, each class would focus on solving a problem: One day he put up a picture of a giant pyramid of pennies a man had created over many years, and students were curious as to how many pennies were in the pile. He then taught arithmetic sequences and other topics necessary so that students could figure out how to solve the problem themselves.

Other teachers share Meyer’s concern about Khan Academy’s lack of context. Both Patel and Donahue plan to add a project component to their classes, where students can watch Khan’s videos to learn certain skills and then use them to answer practical questions.

Meyer doesn’t think Khan should be used in class to replace a teacher. Unlike having a teacher in the room, Khan’s videos cannot make eye contact with students, pause and answer questions, or have a relationship with students. Still, he sees the benefit of Khan Academy as a supplementary tool in math classes if a student misses a day of school or needs extra help with a certain topic. He also believes that it would be helpful in situations where high-quality teachers are not available.

Patel agrees: “This kind of stuff really levels the playing field in bad schools where teachers aren’t good or if students have a bad home environment. If teachers can teach kids to learn by themselves, the possibilities are limitless with online learning.”

Publication Date: August 30, 2011. Used with permission.