Evaluating Khan Academy as a platform for learning

As we continue our move towards a progressively more technological world, education has seen a shift from traditional learning paradigms to new models such as internet-based distance education, computer-assisted learning, and many more. A plethora of educational websites and software has emerged and each aims to accomplish a specific mission. Are they successful however? Do they fulfill their stated missions and are they practical for learning? What follows will examine Khan Academy (http://khanacademy.org) – an educational organization founded on the principles that anyone can come and learn something regardless of geographical location, social class or level of education. In examining the website, its components related to learning will be critically assessed from a practical standpoint where usability, ease of access and learning outcomes will be discussed.

Khan Academy: A summary

Before delving into the assessment, it is important to have a basic understanding on what Khan Academy is and what it’s striving to achieve. Founded in 2006 by Salman Khan, Khan Academy has the simple mission of “providing a high quality education to anyone, anywhere” (Khan, 2006). What first started off as a YouTube channel eventually snowballed into something greater, however, Salman’s approach to delivering content was not necessarily revolutionary. Khan’s videos were (and still are) created in such a way that the viewer sees a canvas on which Salman Khan himself uses a pen tablet to draw in any explanations while his voice can be heard explaining the concepts as he goes along. Whereas the YouTube channel is limited to one-way transmission of information, the website includes several other components that introduce interactivity and self-paced assessment. What do users visiting the website have to gain? Khan Academy covers various topics ranging from mathematics and sciences to humanities and even offers preparation for certain types of exams. Visitors can search through the library of videos, find what they are looking for and watch it at their own pace. As a registered user, a visitor is open to ask questions about topics discussed in the respective videos. Other users are then able to not only provide answers to the questions being asked but also rate other answers. Furthermore, it is possible for users to take the knowledge they have acquired through the videos and apply it by solving related problems. Khan Academy adds a fun, almost game-like twist to the mentioned. Users are encouraged to become proficient in a topic by correctly solving several topic-related problems in a row. As users reach different proficiencies, achievements are unlocked and points are earned. Not only can users practice problem solving but they have tools available that allows them to monitor their progress and even set self-defined goals for learning. Progress monitoring is provided by Khan Academy in the form of several different graphs that measure different facets of the learner. Best of all, Khan Academy is a not-for-profit organization which means that everything offered through its website is free of any sort of fees. Finally, where is Khan Academy today? At the time of this post, Khan Academy hosts over 2,800 videos, all created by Salman Khan, and approximately 300 problem solving exercises (Khan, 2006). In 2010, Microsoft Co-Founder Bill Gates endorsed Khan Academy (Kaplan, 2010) and today, it is looking to go beyond the confines of its website and usher in a new learning paradigm in classrooms (Khan, 2011).

An Instructional Approach

Qian (2001) proposed criterions for categorizing educational websites into several possible categories. With Qian’s (2001) framework in mind, Khan Academy can be assessed to determine the category in which the website would come under and thus help educators and learners to better understand if the services that it (Khan Academy) offers are in-line with learning goals and objectives. Of the categories Qian (2001) mentions, the one that is of particular interest is: Instructional.

An Instructional website is characterized as including: an “intended learning outcome, instructional strategies, [and] learning materials and activities” (Qian, 2001). Does Khan Academy fit the profile however? Khan Academy’s intended learning outcome is to facilitate real-world learning of various topics and has its users acquire new knowledge or expand on existing knowledge through the instruction provided via videos and problem solving exercises. In evaluation the learning strategies, Qian’s (2001) definition of a learning strategy is considered. That is, a learning strategy is a pedagogy technique enacted in order to make learning easier by mixing in teacher and learner activity (Qian, 2001). Khan Academy’s strategy is straight forward: transmit content to the learner in a unidirectional way and have the learner reinforce and apply what they retained through problem solving. Of course, one could argue that the teacher element is lacking but in fact, the teacher is embedded into the content through the voiced over videos. By Qian’s (2001) framework, this is an acceptable inclusion.

Khan Academy also meets the final mandatory condition in that it does provide learning materials and activities to promote meaningful learning of the various topics. The main limitation at the moment is that the learning activities (in the form of problem solving exercises) do not stretch to cover all the different topics explained through the videos. Instead, most problem solving questions are related to Mathematics thus leaving very little learning activities for Sciences, Humanities and other. Qian (2001) also mentions a forth, optional criterion for Instructional websites: assessment.

A form of self-assessment is offered through each problem solved. Not only are learners given access to relevant problems but they can see how they have fared on each question. A higher level assessment view is available to learners that helps to show them (and their coaches), where they stand in terms of proficiencies for topics of interest.

Consider the Limitations

Many have argued that our education system is out of date and needs to be revisited and changed to accommodate a new generation of learners. Among the supporters for change is Sir Ken Robinson (2010) who believes that among other things, we need to change our teaching paradigm to go beyond the teacher using the chalkboard approach that we are all so well familiar with. Interestingly enough, Khan (2011) also brings up the teaching paradigm and states how we will re-invent education. Khan Academy might certainly be on its way through its pilot classroom projects but the website itself is perhaps far from changing a paradigm. Arguably, the biggest criticism behind Khan Academy’s approach for delivering content is that the videos are not necessarily any more engaging than a classroom lecture where a teacher is at the front of the class writing on a board and explaining material. The only true difference between watching one of Khan’s videos as opposed to being in a classroom is that you can learn from home instead of displacing yourself.

Unlike a classroom, the possibility to raise your hand and ask a question mid video also is not possible, though this is an expected limitation of any asynchronous medium. To compensate, learner-to-learner communication is encouraged through each user’s ability to ask questions under each video. Teacher-to-learner communication on the other hand is virtually non-existent. The closest interaction that a learner can have to a possible content expert is their coach(s). According to Greenwald (2003), the human interaction between the teacher and the learner is essential and a lot of that is lost when computers are used as the medium. Realistically however, the model of distance education makes it difficult for direct human interaction to exist, especially between a learner and a teacher. That said, perhaps Khan Academy would benefit from building a teacher-to-learner component as an added layer of support for users that are having difficulty grasping a concept but seek an answer that goes beyond what the community of learners can offer.

After taking the time to watch several videos on a familiar subject, another evident limitation to Khan Academy’s re-invented approach becomes obvious. The videos themselves do not seem to go very deep into concepts; instead, they skim over the surface of most topics and usually explain through examples. Examples do help to contextualize content but it risks inspiring rote learning if the learner is not taught the underlying foundations of the content being presented. For this reason, Khan’s videos are better suitable for learners who are already familiar with the topics they are interested in and are instead looking to review what they already know (Muller, 2011). Muller (2011) is in agreement that Khan Academy’s videos – particularly those that teach science – do not promote meaningful learning because learners often think they know the material and as a result, do not always pay complete attention and end up believing their own misconceptions to be correct.

Several learning theories have come to exist and among them, constructivism and connectivism are the newest trends, even if our education systems are slow to adapt to them. If educators are increasingly changing their ways of teaching to encourage constructive learning among students then why is Khan Academy promoted as a revolutionary change when there is little constructivism occurring? Noschene (2011) describes Khan Academy as “sit-and-get” and in fact, he is right. Constructivist teaching involves more than simple one-way delivery of content where learners are a little more than passive receptacles as knowledge. Khan’s videos are not designed to address misconceptions and furthermore, they aren’t tailored to address different audiences as their promotions claim. The material presented is either too advanced for a high school level or is too simple and falls short of achieving course objectives (Noschene, 2011). Furthermore, the problem solving exercises are not designed and contextualized to emulate real world problems; however, learners are encouraged to build off of previously acquired knowledge to solve the next set of questions. In fact, in order to advance to more difficult exercises, learners are expected to have attained a level of mastery of the previous level.

Concluding Thoughts

Khan Academy’s free learning environment does have a lot of positive societal effects. Any individuals – regardless of socio and demographic factors – who have an interest in learning and have access to the internet can benefit from Khan’s videos and reach a certain level of mastery of different topics through on screen problem solving exercises. From a critical standpoint, perhaps the videos may not be as engaging as they could be due to the traditional “classroom like” method that they are delivered in, however, concepts are generally explained in a clear and concise manner (although, often limited in scope). The amount of meaningful learning that actually takes place is questionable since concepts are explained primarily through examples and as such, does not address misconceptions viewers might have nor does the platform as a whole promote constructivism. To conclude, Khan Academy is a great place if you are looking to review concepts that you are already somewhat familiar with or are looking to expand your personal knowledge, however, it is far from being a tool that is revolutionizing education – at least in its current state.


Greenwald, Stephen R. (2003). Are We Distance Learning Educating Our Students to Death? Some Reflections on the Educational Assumptions of. Retrieved February 9, 2012, from http://radicalpedagogy.icaap.org/content/issue5_1/04_greenwald-rosner.html

Kaplan, David (2010). Sal Khan: Bill Gates’ favorite teacher. Retrieved February 7, 2012, from http://money.cnn.com/2010/08/23/technology/sal_khan_academy.fortune/index.htm

Khan, Salman. (2006). Khan Academy. Khan Academy. Retrieved February 7, 2012, from http://www.khanacademy.org/

Khan, Salman: Let’s use video to reinvent education | Video on TED.com. (2011). Retrieved February 7, 2012, from http://www.ted.com/talks/salman_khan_let_s_use_video_to_reinvent_education.html

Muller, Derek. (2011). Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos | Action-Reaction. Action-Reaction. Blog, . Retrieved February 11, 2012, from https://fnoschese.wordpress.com/2011/03/17/khan-academy-and-the-effectiveness-of-science-videos/

Noschese, Frank. (2011). Khan Academy: My Final Remarks | Action-Reaction. Blog, . Retrieved February 12, 2012, from http://fnoschese.wordpress.com/2011/05/10/khan-academy-my-final-remarks/

Qian, Yufeng. (2001). Categorizing Exemplary Educational Websites. Retrieved February 8, 2012, from http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED470176.pdf

Robinson, Ken. (2010). RSA Animate – Changing Education Paradigms « Sir Ken Robinson. Sir Ken Robinson.com. Retrieved February 10, 2012, from http://sirkenrobinson.com/skr/rsa-animate-changing-education-paradigms

About Harry Kavallos

Faculty Dean @ Vanier College
This entry was posted in Educational Technology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Evaluating Khan Academy as a platform for learning

  1. Anon says:

    The wishy washy constructivist approach to teaching is based on [assumed] psychological cognitive learning models and should never have been developed into a method of teaching in the first place, especially not for novice leaners in elementary school.

    The whole enquiry/constructivist theory is horrendous, leaves children confused, huge gaps in their knowledge and basically doesn’t work. Yes, it keeps teachers and children happily ignorant of what they don’t know, so from the outside it appears fun. Whatever problem solving skills or higher order thinking these people think is going on, it simply is not happening in those children. It’s chaos, cloaked in buzzwords and ignorance, and topped off with hegellian dialect.

    • I do agree with you that constructivism, in my opinion, is not the best approach for novice learners – primarily because it is challenging for those learners to scaffold knowledge on what’s still very much a developing foundation. Essentially, it’s hard for these children to build off knowledge they might not have yet acquired. To that end, I believe more traditional forms of education work best on younger children (though, my experience is exclusively with higher education so I could very well be off the ball with this statement). On the other hand, I find learners at the high school and collegial level do have something to gain from constructivism when it is thought out and implemented correctly.


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