The Classroom of the Future

The founder of Khan Academy talks about how technology and new teaching models can transform education.

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Imagine a school where dozens of students of different ages engage with multiple teachers in the same room. Some tackle art or technology projects while others work on computer-based lessons and interact with teachers and peer tutors. There are no letter grades, but students are instead assessed by tests that can be retaken, personalized evaluations, and portfolios of original work. Such are some ideas for the classroom of the future—which might not be far off—as envisioned by Salman Khan, a former hedge fund analyst turned education innovator and author of The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined. In 2008, he founded Khan Academy, a California-based nonprofit focused on improving and expanding access to education through a range of videos, software programs, and other resources. Khan recently spoke with U.S. News about how technology and different teaching models can play a role in engaging students. Excerpts:

What's the extent of Khan Academy's reach?

Today it's a collection of videos, software, exercises, dashboards used by over 6 million students every month. And it's primarily covering today kind of K-16—university-level math plus sciences, but it's starting to have some humanities as well. On actual classrooms that are using Khan Academy, the ones that we're aware of looking at our data, there's about 20,000. There's [roughly] 50 that we're working directly with. And that's growing every day.

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What are the educational benefits?

One thing that we struggled with when we went district-wide is that every teacher was using it to different degrees. So there's inconsistent kind of uses, which has been actually a good data point. We saw a strong correlation between students achieving proficiency on Khan Academy and doing well on third-party assessments. The more that they were using this in the classroom, the better they seemed to do.

What's your vision of a school of the future?

There's Summit, which is a charter network. I've been pretty excited by some of what they're starting to pilot. It's very rough…but it's getting better every week. Math time, which is two hours, is 200 kids, seven teachers. They set their goal. They have resources—Khan Academy is probably, I guess, their main resource but they have others—to try to learn it. If they have trouble, then their peers, the teachers literally run a tutoring bar like the Genius Bar at Apple. There's constantly these project seminars running, and [students] literally sign up for them, they opt into them. It's a very self-directed, owned-by-the-student, competency-based type of school.

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With online education, do you worry about losing the human element of teachers and students interacting?

No, this introduces the teacher-student element into the classroom. This is introducing interactivity—interactivity not with computers, interactivity with humans. It's removing passivity. The thing that excites me most is when I see kids tutor each other; when I see students literally view a teacher as their friend that they want to work with, who they trust, who trusts them; when I see students take ownership of their own learning.

In your book, you note that American students are lagging in science and math proficiency. How do we address this?

The one thing that I think could be most systemically important is literally moving to a competency-based model, K-16. What type of a model do we have now if it's not competency-based? It's based on you sitting in a chair. A significant chunk of our kids, they're not learning anything. I would blame the system more than any individual actor here. And so if you move to a competency-based model, at least it becomes more apparent. But where America is very good—more than any country, especially any large country—is it has a culture of entrepreneurship and creativity and innovation and risk-taking that no one else has. That is why, despite everyone being afraid of everyone else being able to do algebra better than us, we still are the center mass of STEM of the world.