A few times each week, the students in Gayle Dyer's fifth-grade class at Bubb Elementary put down their books, worksheets, pens and pencils and switch on a school set of iPads to watch instructional YouTube clips and take interactive quizzes.
They are participating in a pilot program created by Khan Academy -- a Mountain View-based education company behind an extremely popular series of streaming educational videos.
Dyer, who jumped at the opportunity to be a part of the pilot, says that the program has worked to get her students jazzed about doing math exercises, while simultaneously giving her new, high-tech tools for tracking and analyzing individual student progress in real time.
"The kids are highly engaged in it," Dyer said. "When they do it on the iPad, it's fun. So they're practicing more."
Engagement and analysis
The Khan Academy videos and computer game exercises are effective for a number of reasons, Dyer said.
Since students each have their own iPad to use, they can go at their own pace. This means students who get it can skip ahead, and, perhaps more importantly, those who have been struggling can go back and watch a lesson again -- without broadcasting their lack of comprehension to the entire class. "It's a safe place for them to practice skills that they may not have mastered that they probably should have mastered already," Dyer said.
On the other hand, sometimes showing off their progress to their peers is the whole point. Students compete for high scores and badges, just as they might do when playing a social media game like FarmVille or Mafia Wars.
It is common for students to gather in clusters and watch a classmate who is close to breaking a record -- either by completing a quiz in record time, or getting enough correct answers in a row.
While Dyer's students are learning about math, she is learning about them. When she logs in to her Khan Academy account, Dyer can see who is doing well and who is struggling; and drilling down, she can see exactly which problems the struggling students missed as well as the mistakes they made along the way.
"It gives me a lot of info on what the students are doing," she said. "I can use that to figure out what I need to do with those individual students."
Dyer said she has only really begun to scratch the surface of what Khan's analytics apps can do for her as a teacher. "It's still new to me; I'm still learning," she said.
"We're giving teachers the tools to be able to do individualized and mastery-based learning," said Matt Whal, a Kahn representative who has been helping Dyer learn to use the new tools. Whal's goal is to help Dyer create a "flipped" classroom -- a place "where students move at their own pace and master subjects before moving on."
Whal said that gaming mechanics are also a big part of the Khan Academy's learning "cocktail." There are awards given out for a wide variety of different tasks -- from simply watching a video for the first time to completing a number of tasks quickly, all the way up to the "black hole badge" -- "which is this mysterious badge that kids get really excited for."
"We really view badges as a way to incentivize students," he said.
The Khan Academy, which currently has more than 2,800 video tutorial clips online and has delivered an estimated nearly 121 million lessons, began very humbly back in late 2004, when the company's founder, Sal Khan, began remotely tutoring his cousin, Nadia.
Khan tutored his cousin over the telephone, using a product called Yahoo! Doodle, which allowed them to share a virtual notepad. When his tutoring sessions produced results, he began helping Nadia's brothers. Pretty soon, in order to save time, he started recording the sessions and uploading them to YouTube, instead of performing them in real time.
Word eventually spread about his easy-to-understand lessons. Khan kept making the lessons, and people kept watching them. Now, eight years later, the company has grown tremendously, and Khan has given TED talks and been profiled by the New York Times.
"We're excited about the future," Whal said of the company, which now occupies office space on Castro Street.
He said Khan Academy is currently working to create an iPad app so students like Dyer's kids will be able to work out problems using the device's touch screen (right now, they have to access the Khan Academy lessons through a web browser app and do their calculations on scratch paper).
In response to concerns and critiques that the Khan Academy is seeking to replace live teachers with rote repetitive exercises, Whal said the goal has never been to marginalize the role of the instructor.
They want "great teachers to maximize their time," Whal said. "We just think that there's a lot of potential for teachers to use tools to grow what's possible in the classroom."