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Making virtual learning work for you: Tips from Khan Academy founder Sal Khan

While virtual learning is not expected to be a long-term substitute for in-person learning, there are various creative ways in which educators can innovate and experiment to improve the experience. Sal Khan, Founder and CEO of Khan Academy, an education nonprofit with more than 100 million users and videos in 46 languages, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    When Sal Khan founded the Khan Academy website in 2008, his mission was to provide a free education for all by providing online tools, software and video tutorials on dozens of school subjects.

    Since then, his site has grown with more than a 100 million users and videos in 46 languages.

    I spoke with Sal Khan recently, in part about a recent bit of advice he offered in the New York Times: How to "avoid an education catastrophe" as schools, parents and students continue to navigate these uncertain waters.

    Sal, I'm assuming that people are using Khan Academy more now than they have pre-pandemic?

  • Sal Khan:

    Yeah, pre-pandemic, we had about 20 million folks coming per month and they were using us about 30 million minutes per day.

    Last spring, we saw that increased dramatically, about 250 percent of normal. We saw about 85 million minutes a day, 30 million folks doing that. And it was pretty much all over the world.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So this is one of those things that I'm sure that you've thought through, but Khan Academy is not a replacement. I mean, it can be a supplement, but it doesn't replace what happens in a classroom, right?

  • Sal Khan:

    Yeah. You know, I was speaking as someone who's inadvertently become something of a poster child for online education, and I'll be the first to say that for my own children or anyone's children, if I had to pick between an amazing teacher in a physical classroom and the world's best technology I would pick the amazing teacher every time.

    Now, pre-pandemic, we in theory could do both. We could have amazing technology in service to an amazing teacher. But now we have the hand that we're dealt, we have the constraints of COVID and what are saying and we're really seeing teachers do this well in certain pockets is, even though we're doing distance learning, the irony is that that distance learning is a lot of kids' main connection to a community, to social interaction right now.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How does a teacher build community across screens?

  • Sal Khan:

    Well, right when a teacher gets on to their video conference and highly recommend at least one touch point per day.

    And first of all, they can rethink how that is. It doesn't have to be what you were doing in the physical environment where it was an hour a day, five days a week. It could be 10 minutes each day but with a smaller group of students that you can focus in on and make sure you get to know them.

    When you get on the conference call or the video conference, try to pull them out. Ask them what they're doing today. How are they feeling? Spend five minutes doing that.

    And then as much as possible, ask them interesting questions and ask them to work with each other, ideally in virtual breakouts or whatever else. That's going to that's what's going to really get the kids interacting and get to a good mental place.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You know, that mental portion of it that you're referencing is so important.

    I mean, how, you know, it's one thing in a physical classroom where a teacher is able to see that the child just really hasn't slept much and is tired and can go over and ask what's going on at home? How does that happen across this medium now?

  • Sal Khan:

    This is clearly a suboptimal situation. You're absolutely right, that just body language that affects that you can get when you're in the room with someone, it's much harder over video conference.

    I've seen some districts do some things pretty well. The Phoenix School District has made a point of an adult from the district trying to call each kid at least once per day to ask exactly those types of questions. And in some ways, that might be better than what a lot of students were getting when you just show up and you're one of 30 kids in a classroom. Now, at least someone, maybe it might be a two or three minute call, but they're checking in on you.

    Another really solid practice that I've seen is in Maryland, there's about 5 or 10 percent of the population that even when they're distributing laptops and getting internet connections, they just don't have the supports at home, they don't have the context at home. And so what they're doing is they're opening up the schools for distance learning. So the teachers aren't there but the students can go there into a safe environment, they can get their meals with other whatever other social services they need. And then there are kind of childcare folks there that can help make sure that the kids are on task in a COVID-safe way.

    So that's a real good stopgap measure for the 5 or 10 percent of the population that we, frankly, I'm most worried about right now.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So it seems like there is a possibility here that some of the lessons that we learn in how to keep in touch with our students should last even after this is gone?

    I mean, it doesn't seem like a bad idea to have someone from a school district reach out to a child every day and make sure that there is that connection there.

  • Sal Khan:

    Yeah, yeah, I think that's the interesting thing.

    You know, as suboptimal as the situation is, it's putting everyone into kind of this innovative, creative, experimental state. Teachers are trying new things and to some degree, they have more permission to innovate right now because the alternative is not that great. So we're seeing a lot of teachers try things, sometimes they're working, but it's OK if they fail. They can fail forward on that. And we're seeing a lot of innovation out there.

    You know, even on the Khan Academy side, we're creating new courses to make sure kids can fill in all the gaps they have, get ready for grade level courses. I have a separate school works project called SchoolHouse.World another nonprofit. We're trying to match kids who need free tutoring and it's open to anyone with amazing volunteer tutors who are willing to provide these types of experiences. And everything that we've talked about best practices on a video conference classroom, these are actually the best practices in a physical classroom as well. You know, just a one to many lecture has never been the most engaging thing. It's always great when you're having a conversation when you were able to work in breakouts and really collaborate on things.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Okay. Sal Khan, Khan Academy, thanks so much.

  • Sal Khan:

    Thank you.

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