Online program brings mixed results in Treasure Valley classrooms

NAMPA — In at least a few schools around the Treasure Valley, open-source educational tool Khan Academy is achieving a teacher’s dream: It’s getting students excited about math.

Khan Academy is an online math tool for supplemental use in the classroom, launched by educator Salman Khan in 2006. Six years later, the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation provided $1.5 million to start a pilot program of Khan Academy in 46 schools across Idaho.

Northwest Nazarene University’s Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning helped support the implementation process of that pilot in its first year. Eric Kellerer, director of the center, said NNU has tracked results across the state, and the feedback from educators has been positive.

“One of the things teachers are saying to us is they can really help a student where they need to be helped,” Kellerer said. “A lot of teachers in this process have gone to small group instruction where they say ‘I’ve got 5 students who need help in this particular issue.’”

The program will enter its second pilot year this fall, but the approach is a little bit different. Kellerer said instead of choosing schools again as grant recipients, this time they have chosen 42 teachers who showed the highest gains with students using Khan Academy. Those teachers will become mentors for other teachers taking on the program for the first time.

“We want to see if this can become a grassroots-type movement,” he said. “… If we can be successful at this, then we drop the cost of education and raise the strength of the teacher. We empower teachers without having to indebt schools.”

One of those mentors is Holly Hall, who teaches freshman and sophomore level math in Marsing, where the program has had great success in some classes. Hall said implementation hasn’t gone off without a hitch, since she and her students experienced a “learning curve” with the technology, but overall it has been useful in her classroom.

“I like that it gives some of my struggling students confidence. It’s really nice when they say ‘I can do math,’” Hall said. “I don’t expect every kid that walks out of my classroom to love math, I just want them to understand it. As long as they understand it, then it’s not something they dread so much. And I think Khan Academy did help with that.”

Andrew Book, a seventh-grade math teacher at Lone Star Middle School in Nampa, will also be a mentor teacher this year. He reports mixed results — Khan Academy gives some students the “opportunity to soar,” but it’s still difficult for him to motivate students who have more trouble with math.

“I think we just ran out of steam last year, and it was a little bit of a novelty that wore off, so I’m really looking forward to collaborating with some other teachers who I know have had that same issue,” Book said.

Marsing also uses Khan in its after-school program, Academies, and for summer school. Third-grade teacher John Barenberg works with students after school as well, and he said the immediate feedback and the games students can play within the program are what makes it an effective tool.

“(Khan) gives me immediate feedback on the coach reports, I can see exactly who’s mastering certain skills and who’s struggling,” Barenberg said. “So rather than going home and grading a stack of papers … it shortcuts all that and I immediately know who needs help.”

Kellerer said the hope is to expand the program to more schools as more funding for technology becomes available. The focus, he said, goes beyond Khan Academy and into the realm of “blended learning,” with the use of Google Chromebooks and applications for classroom use.

“What we want to do in the end is take what we’ve learned from Khan Academy and then move it to a different platform that is also a blended learning platform, and say, ‘What did we learn, and can it be used in this case, as well?’”

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