Answering Your Questions About Educating Kids At Home

As we continue to navigate these unprecedented times, KCBS Radio is getting the answers to your questions about the coronavirus pandemic. Every morning at 9:20 a.m. Monday-Friday we're doing an "Ask An Expert" segment with a focus on a different aspect of this situation each day.

Today we’re looking at education and remote learning with Sal Khan, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Khan Academy, which offers free lessons in math, sciences and humanities. 

We've talked a couple of times since this all started and it became obvious that a lot of people were suddenly going to be thrown into new roles. One thing to be a parent and check the homework or help with the homework, it's another thing to be running school from your kitchen table. Since this thing started 8-10 weeks ago, what has the traffic been like? What have you learned there at Khan Academy?

As soon as we started seeing school closures in the U.S. and frankly, around the world, we saw our traffic go up by about a factor of 3. We were serving about 30 million learning minutes a day, now that number is closer to 80 or 90 million learning minutes. The clear thing is that teachers and students and parents were just feeling overwhelmed and they just didn't know how to start. A lot of folks were telling them, "here's 500 things on the internet that might be useful," and that's not too useful, because it's very overwhelming.

So we've been just trying to put some structure around it, reassuring parents that look, if you're even able to put in 30 minutes, 40 minutes a day in math, reading and writing, depending on the age of the student that alone could be really powerful especially if students can keep learning over the summer. So parents are just looking for reassurances, resources that they can put together in pretty simple ways and they just need to stop beating up on themselves because it's a stressful time for all of us.

Take us back to the origin story: wasn't the original Khan Academy lesson a math lesson?

Yeah, and ironically it was a distance learning math lesson. It was back in 2004. My background was originally in tech but I was an analyst at a hedge fund at the time. I had just gotten married and my cousins were visiting me from New Orleans after our wedding - I was in Boston at the time - and it just came up in conversation that my 12-year-old cousin Navia was having trouble in math. So I offered to tutor her when she went back to New Orleans, we started doing this remote tutoring thing back in the fall of 2004 and long story short, she started getting caught up with her class, a little ahead of her class. Then word got around my family that free tutoring was going on and I found myself with 10, 15 cousins all over the country that I was working with.

With a background in tech and software, I started making tools for them because I saw that a lot of them just had gaps in their knowledge. They might have gotten a C on a test in 5th grade and never learned to divide decimals right, and that's why they were having trouble in an algebra class, so I started writing software for them. That was the first Khan Academy. Then a friend suggested I also make videos to supplement that and I initially thought it was a silly idea but I did it anyway. Those kind of caught on a life of their own and in 2009 we set it up as a not-for-profit. I quit my day job and that first year was tough - by this point we had moved out here to the Bay Area - but by 2010 we got our first real support. And at the time we had about 100,000 users and now we have about 100 million.

And of those 100 million and of all the time you talked about that's being spent online, how much of this is teachers now? Because a big part of the story these last many weeks is teachers literally thrown out of school and told, "deal with it" with varying degrees of software support, training and skills.

Before the crisis about half of the usage of Khan Academy was happening in classrooms. So these were teachers who were signing up their entire class for it, they were using Khan Academy as a way to personalize the education. Every teacher knows that in a class of 30, kids have different levels of preparedness, they have different gaps, they're ready to move at different paces. And so Khan Academy allows them to do that, get practice feedback, and then the teachers get the data of where they can do more focused interventions. 

And so you can imagine that teachers that were already using Khan Academy, it was pretty easy for them to transition when the schools closed. And there's a whole new class of teachers that are registering - we're seeing about 5-10x normal teacher registration over the last two months - who are signing up very very quickly to use it in a similar way, but now they're leaning more heavily on it. The model we're seeing is, teachers are telling their students, "use Khan Academy 30-45 minutes a day," and then a couple of times a week they'll do a check-in over Google Meet or Zoom or Skype to answer questions or do a deeper type of problem.

Let's get to some questions and we remind our listeners you can send them in to

My son is in first grade and we've been doing a lot of worksheets. I mean a whole lot, and he's really had it. He's bored and I'm getting a lot of pushback. Any suggestions?

Well, a couple of things - and everything I'm talking about, obviously at Khan Academy we're creating a lot of resources but it's all free, it's all non-commercial. People often think there's some sort of a catch; we exist through philanthropic donations so everything I'm talking to you about, there's no ads, no upsell, no nothing on that front. 

We have an app called Khan Academy Kids; that app is for ages 2-7. It goes through the Common Core first grade standards. I have a son who's 5 and a half so I'm dealing with a similar situation at home. So what I would recommend, depending on your child's level probably get him on Khan Academy Kids. You can make it as the teacher so you can actually assign things on it and adapt to where your son is. It'll go through all of the first grade standards so I highly recommend that. My son is pretty similar as far as getting him sometimes to sit down with a piece of paper, but I think in the other room he's working on it right now. He's doing his 20 minutes a day of that. So that's one recommendation.

I think the younger age groups are the hardest for all the families. It gives us a lot of appreciation for what the teachers had to deal with during the regular school year (laughs). I try to break it up, celebrate the small wins. And for that age group, generally if you're able to get 20-30 minutes a day of focused math, 20-30 minutes a day of focused reading whether you're reading to him or he's reading to you, and a little bit of writing practice he's going to do just fine.

Are there other resources out there that you have come across that seem like a good add-on? Because for example, I know my granddaughter has been going around the world and looking at aquariums at lunch time. That's how my daughter's been dealing with it, she thinks, "hey there's nothing wrong with penguins." Places that you might tout that you've run across that would be sort of ancillary, useful and educational?

Oh there's a ton of stuff, I think often the hard part is sifting through it all. If you have older elementary school students, middle school, high school students obviously things like TED Talks are great to watch as a family and they almost always stimulate a great conversation to have around the coffee table or the dinner table. I recommend - we have coding stuff on Khan Academy - has some really great coding things. Scratch is great for programming for younger children. There's a ton. If folks have Disney+, we've been watching "One Strange Rock", it has Will Smith narrating. We've really enjoyed that, the whole family from my 5-year-old, 8-year-old and 11-year-old and my mother-in-law lives with us so all the way up to 70-year-olds. We've been enjoying watching documentaries together. 

And a lot of the software companies have made their creative tools free for the time being, so I think there's a lot of interesting things. My oldest son is spending a lot of time creating and editing videos that make him look like he's doing magic. My daughter is doing a lot of stop-motion animation. So there's a silver lining that kids are finding a little bit of time now to do some more creative projects.

We've been getting worksheet packets from our kids' elementary school; I have a first grader and a third grader. It only seems to take about 45 minutes to an hour for them to do the work each day. Does this seem like enough school time? 

Simple answer is, it could be. A lot of parents - and myself included - as soon as this happened were like, "oh well school lasts eight hours, nine hours, I have to somehow replicate that." And the reality is in school you have recess, you have lunch, you have changing classes. So between all of that if you think about how much focused problem solving or practice time you're getting during the school day, it's not eight hours. It's a smaller number.

I would target depending on the age of the student. If you're talking about younger students, like five or six-year-olds, 20-30 minutes of reading, writing, math everyday is actually pretty good, and especially if you're able to continue through the summer. Summer is actually, even when we're not in a COVID crisis, that's when a lot of the damage is done. Kids are not only not learning but they're forgetting, it's well-documented. So if you're able to keep your child learning and your school is able to hopefully keep the worksheets or whatever apps they're using going through the summer that'll be a major benefit. Or if even if they're not, just keep reading with them. I give my children every now and then spot math problems. Whenever I remember to be a better parent I give them each a problem while they're eating cereal in the morning and they tend to enjoy that. It's all about building a habit and doing a reasonable amount every day.

If I'm talking about older students: upper elementary, middle, high school then I would say closer to 40 minutes in each major subject area (math reading and writing) are the core. And then obviously middle school and high school students may want to go into the sciences and social sciences as well.

I have one child, 8, whose school is ending next week earlier than scheduled, while my older child, 12, remains in school. How do I keep the older child motivated and focused on school when the other is done for summer and they're both home together.

That's a good question, I didn't think about that situation. My answer is try to create something for the younger one. So the younger one also has - in air quotes - "school" so that they both feel like they have some structure to the day. Because as I just mentioned, especially for the younger child if school ended early and they're not going to go back to school for three or four or five months, that learning loss can be pretty significant. So what I would try to do is structure some form of schooling for the younger one. We actually have the schedules that we put out for students and parents and teachers on our site, if you look up "Khan Academy daily schedules." We also put up learning plans in math so for your 8-year-old you can set reasonable goals, you can put them on the 3rd grade course on Khan Academy. Once again all of this is free, it's not commercial and it's funded by philanthropy. If they're able to complete that course they're going to be super prepared. It's really just 20 minutes a day. 20 minutes a day you can make a lot of progress and on top of that, ask them to do a little bit of journaling everyday and then read with them, or have them read to you everyday for 20 minutes. If their reading level is there, have them read silently and then talk about whatever they read.

This is all about curriculum, curriculum, curriculum but the one thing my kid really misses about school is being at school. Any thoughts on how to replicate the social part of school?

Obviously screen time's a big issue, but screen time is a little bit of a lifeline in this age of Zoom and Google Meet and all of that. So we are definitely setting with my own children, Zoom and Google Meet playdates. Sometimes we try to do something fun like they have a dance party or something like that so it's not completely just staring at a screen. I'm not an epidemiology expert but there might be ways for older students, if they can avoid running into each other, to be socially distanced and meet each other at a park and be ten feet apart might be something that allows them to get a little bit of a connection with their friends and stay safe.

I think there's a lot of creative options. I gotta say, I've been connecting with more family members - including young family members - than ever through Zoom and Google Meet and things like that. So you can form pretty neat bonds that way. It's obviously sub-optimal. And as restrictions hopefully ease a little bit, I think meeting in parks and not touching each other could be a good thing.

What college subject areas are most and least amenable to online learning?

It depends what you consider online learning. Even your famous liberal arts Socratic seminars can now happen quite well on a Zoom call; in fact I've been a member of some of them. In some ways you get more participation from folks because people don't just hide to the back of the room. I would say your core math, for sure you can learn asynchronously, so not everyone has to be there at the same time on something like Khan Academy where kids can learn at their own time and pace, get as much practice as they want; and that goes all the way through calculus and statistics. And then you get on some type of video conference for problem solving with a professor or peer to peer learning. So I think the core of learning can actually be done quite well, either on video conference or not at the same time, asynchronously, on platforms like Khan Academy.

Then you say ok, so what else is the college experience? I think for most of us the best memories of college were the late night conversations in the dorm room, enjoying the clubs and laying out in the quad, throwing a frisbee and whatever else. Those obviously can't be completely replicated - some of the late night conversations may be - but hopefully as restrictions ease a little bit some of that socially distanced outdoor socializing may be able to happen a bit more.

What can a college student do to have the most benefit or fewest problems when taking online courses? Obviously this fall the whole state university system and a whole lot of other classes are going to be online.

I think there's two things. One, as a college student I know that this is maybe not the ideal circumstance. You're not able to get the full in-person college experience. But it can be a silver lining because to some degree a lot of distractions are gone and you can focus and go through some of those core academic courses in a more focused way.

What I would say is if you're having trouble motivating or you're like, "gee, I'm all alone in this" - if you're trying to workout or run you find a running partner: do the same thing with online learning. Find some other people and say, "hey, let's see if we can get through calculus over the next term together. We're going to hold each other accountable, we're going to get on video conference every evening, check on each other's work, answer any questions and then just keep going." So I think a group of five, six peers that you can set up for yourself, I think could really hold each other accountable and make sure that you can stay focused.

What should be done about students who do no work? If we continue "distance learning" in the fall, gaps will widen. Students who do no work include those with resources who just can't or won't manage their time as well as those without resources who, for one reason or other cannot complete their work.

This question is what I'm spending most of my time thinking about. The good thing is a lot of school districts at least at the K-12 level have been doing a good job getting devices. I just spoke to the chancellor of New York City public schools last week and they were able to distribute 300,000 laptops and the local telecomms carrier is giving free internet. So it's not a solved issue but a lot of the companies out there are doing the right thing, a lot of the school districts are doing the right thing. If there's a silver lining, I hope over the next few months a lot of the additional divide gets a little bit narrower.

But even if you're able to close that, to your point when we get back to school some schools are going to learn through the end of the school year and then not over the summer, some kids are going to learn through the entire summer and then some kids are going to learn not at all. So you always have a variance, a disparity of kids when you come back to school. It's going to be that much wider. And so all of us at Khan Academy, we're trying to create what we're calling "getting ready for" courses - getting ready for sixth grade, getting ready for seventh grade - that work students through all of the pre-requisites they need up until the grade level that they are entering. And we're recommending that teachers, students, parents over the summer or maybe even the first couple weeks of school really zero in on those courses so that they can be sure that kids are ready for grade level with really strong foundations.

Before I let you go, just one question from me. Are you able to tell from all the data that must come through with these millions and millions of minutes of use time, where people are? Where kids are relative to where they should be, grade level-wise, in terms of their understanding of concepts?

The simple answer is yes. We see generally speaking in our classroom usage, about a third of students are working on skills that are slightly behind grade level, about a third of kids are roughly at grade level and about a third of kids are a little bit ahead, roughly speaking. Our goal is to get that bottom third up to minimum grade level. 

Sometimes you see the student who's ahead, suddenly they hit a concept and they start falling behind. Or you see the other way, some of the kids who are "behind", as soon as they get through one skill they're able to race away. And that in our mind is the real benefit of personalization.