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Interviews: Ask Lead Developer Ben Kamens About Khan Academy 69

Posted by samzenpus
from the ask-away dept.
Ben Kamens spent over 5 years at Fog Creek, eventually working his way up to VP of engineering. However, after watching one of Salman Khan's talks he started to volunteer his time at Khan Academy, and is now the lead developer. In-between providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere, he's graciously agreed to answer some of your questions. As usual, ask as many questions as you'd like, but please, one question per post.
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Interviews: Ask Lead Developer Ben Kamens About Khan Academy

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  • Higher Education (Score:5, Interesting)

    by null etc. (524767) on Monday February 11, 2013 @03:10PM (#42863939)

    Joel Spolsky has famously stated that he prefers software engineers who come from highly accredited universities, preferably Ivy-league. His thought is that one has to distinguish oneself in order to be granted admission to such places. Do you think that Joel's opinion, and those of other elitist employers, will change with the introduction of free, quality online education?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Conversely:

      It has been argued that Ivy League schools, and to an extent, other well-regarded schools often distinguish themselves not necessarily by having the best educating, but by being able to select the best performing individuals. Either way, they stand out, either because they are a good filter, because they provide a good education, or some combination of the two.

      Taking into account the "filter" issue, and success-breeds-success, what does Khan Academy do to make it's students stand out compared to

      • by Anonymous Coward

        teach them the difference between it's and its?

    • No. The teaching is arguably better and the controls that assure that the student who is given credit for the course on the transcript is actually the same student who attended class and took the tests to achieve the grade on the transcript are definitely better.

  • As somebody who works in the educational workspace providing information management services to schools, I would be fascinated in your take on the Learning Registry's potential for making low cost content available to teachers/students [learningregistry.org].

  • We've seen a lot of these "post your questions" topics, but hardly any answers lately. When will we start seeing responses?
  • lead dev (Score:2, Interesting)

    by vlm (69642)

    Lead dev, eh? I'm betting you sit in on lots of spec definition meetings. Maybe with The Man himself. Does he give informal presentations just like the real lectures or ? Feel free to lie if the answer would get you fired. Hmm maybe this question sucks.

    Ah F it that was dumb lets ask something more realistic. I always ask coder/tech types whats their coolest hack / coolest piece of code. Not something else someone else did, not some giant overall project or vague thing like "world peace" just your coo

    • by Teckla (630646)

      Ah F it that was dumb lets ask something more realistic. I always ask coder/tech types whats their coolest hack / coolest piece of code.

      Ugh, I hate that question. It always seems to "make the cut", and the answer is invariably dull, uninspiring, and boring. It's such a complete waste of a question.

      Please people, quit asking the stupid "coolest hack" question, or at least don't vote it up!

  • by GeneralSecretary (1959616) on Monday February 11, 2013 @03:17PM (#42864037)
    I've heard that KhanAcademy has a platform for schools. Students can learn using Khan Academy and teachers can monitor their progress and help students where they need it most. When I last heard about this the platform was a pilot program being launched at select schools. Are there plans to make this platform generally available? or even open source?
    • by vlm (69642)

      To help google for it, its an old TED talk maybe came up in the rotation a year ago. I saw the presentation you've only heard of. It was fairly cool.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I use Khan Academy to teach my daughter math since I don't have time to, and I use the tool you are talking about to monitor her progress. It is available to anyone who signs up for a Khan Academy account. You have the "student" sign up for an account and then ad you as a "tutor". Once this is done you can see all of their progress, statistics, and the likes. It is awesome!

  • Verification (Score:5, Insightful)

    by GeneralSecretary (1959616) on Monday February 11, 2013 @03:20PM (#42864077)
    It seems to me that the problem with online education is being able to prove what you have learned. I can learn Calculus online at Khan Academy or at my local community college. I'll probably learn Calculus better at Khan Academy and for less money. But, I cannot use that knowledge to get a degree nor would I have any other way of proving my knowledge to other schools or potential employers. Do you have a solution to this problem?
    • by griffjon (14945)

      To add on to this, P2PU is working with Mozilla's Open Badge system for providing a badge-based verification process; can this model gain traction in academia? (http://info.p2pu.org/tag/badges/)

    • by vlm (69642)

      nor would I have any other way of proving my knowledge to other schools or potential employers

      Google for CLEP tests, older than dirt or at least older than me.

      One school I attended only allowed two CLEP tests per semester. I have absolutely no idea why both in this practical situation or in theory. Also they only accepted CLEP tests for certain classes. I'm pretty sure calc was one of them, but if there is a CLEP test for diffeqs and you pass yet they refuse to accept it via the xfer process, you're pretty much SOL other than the appeals process.

      Potential employers don't seem to care about much o

      • I took a lot of CLEP tests. It could be a model for a solution, but there's room to grow. As you said, colleges often don't accept them or limit them, and there are a limited number of tests available.
      • One school I attended only allowed two CLEP tests per semester. I have absolutely no idea why both in this practical situation or in theory.

        Possibly because wider acceptance of CLEP test results for material learned online would put them out of business.

    • It seems to me that the problem with online education is being able to prove what you have learned. I can learn Calculus online at Khan Academy or at my local community college. I'll probably learn Calculus better at Khan Academy and for less money. But, I cannot use that knowledge to get a degree nor would I have any other way of proving my knowledge to other schools or potential employers. Do you have a solution to this problem?

      Apropos of this, a number of MOOCs -- don't know if Khan is doing this as w

  • I find the idea of having ebooks for free and then K-12 kids getting an ereader for saving the school district money. Expanding this, I feel edutainment was never done right and could be explored again. Finally if some professors do their lecture once, they wouldn't have to do it again stored in video format.

    I think the notion of going from paid books to free content is noble, and I'd be willing to work for well below a standard software engineer salary. How can I get in contact with you to possibly get employment?
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Not one single "Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!" joke?!

    Not one?!

    You are a disappoint Slashdotters!

    • by Dins (2538550)

      Not one single "Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!" joke?!

      Scroll up...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 11, 2013 @03:32PM (#42864253)

    Where are all the "traditional" Computer Science courses? I'm not asking about the "interactive manual" type courses like how to do loops in Python - there are a ton of materials about that all over the web. I'm asking about theoretical computer science, such as Turing completeness, Chomsky hierarchy, abstract data types, compiler design, that kind of stuff which is the backbone of a university computer science education.

    The reason I'm asking is not to diminish the value of hands-on courses, but because many (including myself) were not able to get a "traditional" CS degree, coming into programming jobs from other disciplines (or no degree at all) and are largely self taught. Self teaching is great when it comes to practical stuff early on, but once you move on to more senior roles you start feeling the gaps of not understanding the theory behind your tools, design, and implementation, as much as you should.

    • by Cragen (697038)
      Where are my mod points when I NEED them? This^(googleplex). There is a HUGE gap between the basic intros and actual useful (soph, junior & senior level courses) information. In fact, this is probably what is holding back ANY info. "revolution". Until then, there are no truly useful answers in the crowd.
    • Where are all the "traditional" Computer Science courses? I'm not asking about the "interactive manual" type courses like how to do loops in Python - there are a ton of materials about that all over the web. I'm asking about theoretical computer science, such as Turing completeness, Chomsky hierarchy, abstract data types, compiler design, that kind of stuff which is the backbone of a university computer science education.

      The reason I'm asking is not to diminish the value of hands-on courses, but because many (including myself) were not able to get a "traditional" CS degree, coming into programming jobs from other disciplines (or no degree at all) and are largely self taught. Self teaching is great when it comes to practical stuff early on, but once you move on to more senior roles you start feeling the gaps of not understanding the theory behind your tools, design, and implementation, as much as you should.

      Khan Academy was launched to help school-age kids (they talk a lot about something called "K-12" on the site, but I have no idea what that means.

      So for a variation on your question:

      Is it likely that Khan Academy will expand "upward" into more university-level courses or does the current roadmap only plan for "outward" growth into other subject courses at the school level?

  • by fermion (181285) on Monday February 11, 2013 @03:37PM (#42864327) Homepage Journal
    Lecture has ruled the classroom for hundreds of years, usurping the dialogue. However we now know that lecture is not effective for all students, and probably more damming, is may not be effective at teach concepts that students are not previously familiar [harvardmagazine.com]

    As Khan Academy, at least in my exposure to it, is about listening to someone talk watching writing on a board, do you think that this is teaching good pedagogy? Do you think it reinforces the idea that visual learners are the smartest people, the people who deserve to be educated? Is there any plans to expand the current format ot include other learning styles. For instance, I am not one of those that thinks manipulative have to be used in math, but I do think a math classroom with no manipulative is not as reaching to as broed a learner base as it could be. Or having an interactive element where a formative assessment might be conducted during the video?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 11, 2013 @03:56PM (#42864603)

    I'm a middle school teacher experimenting with using KA with my classes. I think it is an amazing tool, especially for differentiation -- helping teachers to help their students who are behind have successes in math and, ideally, work towards getting caught back up to their peers. I think it can allow math teachers to do more interesting and fun (non-drill) types of work in the classroom, such as focusing more on students learning by doing open-ended, authentic, rich projects with each other.

    The key word there is that I *think* it must be helpful to the type of classroom described above. I want to know it is, and as part of our practice in Ontario, Canada, it is encouraged that teachers engage in personal inquiry projects to get more data on whether what we think is working actually is. It is difficult to get the data I need out of KA. We're having to do a lot of manual grabbing of student usage times and populating spreadsheets with that. Any plans to extend the external API to allow more sophisticated queries? Or, perhaps plans to provide a tool allowing more extensive data dumps which researchers can use?

    And if you don't have plans at the moment, does this post influence that? ;-) With a more thorough access to student data, I expect there will be researchers who will be more interested in investigating KA in their research and fleshing out the actual benefits (and also any issues that might be addressed).

    My students and I thank you!

    (mr.walker at walker-clan dot com)

    • by uncqual (836337)
      This is perhaps the most glaring weakness of Khan Academy for classroom use. I can't find much data (once one figures out a few undocumented APIs by guessing at their names) that isn't available in the API -- but "available" does not necessarily equate to "practical".

      My question: Is an efficient API in the works for those who want to extract data for hundreds of students and process them offline using traditional analytic tools?

      If you don't have too many students (like maybe less than 150), it's pract
      • KA dev here. Nothing's in the works right now but I'd love to hear how the current APIs work and don't work for you – if you email me at alpert@khanacademy.org what you're doing then I'll take a look.
  • by fantomas (94850) on Monday February 11, 2013 @04:08PM (#42864807)

    I've heard a criticism of the Khan Academy pedagogic approach is that it is explanation based (effectively the old model: the teacher talks, the student listens, the student carries out an exercise, listens again) - while schools are moving towards exploration based learning (where students are encourage to try and approach problems from different angles supported by teacher-as-facilitator).

    To what extent does Khan Academy replicate a very old fashioned rote-learning form of education (albeit delivered and presented via a new media with minor improvements like pause and rewind), and in what aspects does it offer significant new pedagogical advances in learning?

  • (in your view) have on the cost of a four year degree in the next 20 years? I am not speaking directly in context of Khan academy - but online courses in general at universities - as well.

    Traditionally, the cost of a course is divided between the limited physically present students. With the advent of online universities and courses, that cost can be divided across students across many geographical boundaries. A student in his parent's basement in Malawi could theoretically take a Political Science course
  • How do you know how effective your programs are? How do you calibrate your presentations? How do you accommodate different learning styles?

    I ask because most of the methods that rate teaching effectiveness is thin. That is, “Does New Math work better then drilling students?” “Does this video work for dyslexia students?” etc.

    I have seen may teachers guided by antidotal evidence or heuristic rules – which makes sense because you need to evaluate students taught by thousands of te

  • Why videos? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by magic maverick (2615475) on Monday February 11, 2013 @04:36PM (#42865209) Homepage Journal

    One of the big things about Khan and other massive online course systems is videos. Yes, videos. E.g. I once saw this 5 minute video explaining why dividing anything by zero was not defined. Rather than, plus infinity. I summarized it as:

    Dividing by zero is undefined. Why? Well, let's divide by 1 by really small positive numbers.
    1/0.1 = 10
    1/0.01 = 100
    1/0.000001 = 1000000
    So, it looks like, 1/0 could be infinity. But positive infinity.
    Because, look at what happens when we divided by really small negative numbers
    1/-0.1 = -10
    1/-0.01 = -100
    1/-0.000001 = -1000000
    So, maybe 1/0 should be negative infinity. But that doesn't match what we saw above. It can't be both, and it makes no sense to give it an arbitry value as that wouldn't work with the rest of mathematics.
    Therefore, undefined.

    OK, so the question is: why videos? You are cutting off most of the world's population who do not have access to decent Internet and thus can't download and watch all these videos. If you provided text (even if just a transcript along with some screenshots where necessary) you would be able to reach a much bigger audience, including those who could benefit most.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      KA Lite

      If you need to use Khan Academy in an environment without internet, we recommend using KA Lite, an unofficial volunteer-driven initiative to provide a version of the Khan Academy videos and exercises that works offline.

  • As someone who is currently a senior in computer science and looking for summer internships, what is it that Khan Academy developers look for in perspective interns? I've looked over the blog posts from some of the past interns, and their projects all seem pretty amazing. Is it possible for someone who doesn't have a fair amount of professional level experience to jump in to the internship program with Khan Academy? Disclaimer: I currently have an application in for the internship program, hence my curiosi
  • Does the academy's curriculum include (or plan to include) courses on advanced genetic engineering, cryogenics or advanced political science?
  • I've rummaged a bit through the sources presented on https://github.com/Khan [github.com] and I could not find the source for the actual website.

    How do you plan to implement support for I18N in the exercises ?
  • Hi Ben, thank you for doing this. A while ago Sal mentioned the possibility of doing a grammar video series and creating modules to help students practice and master the concepts. Is this still being worked on or has it taken a back seat? If a back seat, to what? I feel that a lot of the educational websites (KA, Udacity, Coursera, etc) focus on math/programming/science and the humanities have been *somewhat* neglected. Thanks for teaching me linear algebra!
  • Should we cut degree into smaller chucks?

    That are a better fit for people who want to learn but don't have the time / funds for a full time college?

    Can make tech / trades schools have more meaning and not be roped into the older degree system.

    Fix the skills gaps issues

    Let people who learn betting by working hands on get something out of it.

    Get people in the armed forces something to to say that they can do X job with out having to go to school for a full 2-4+ years to get a piece of paper saying the same th

  • Discussions about online learning tend to remind me of the book "Jude the Obscure," by Thomas Hardy. It's been a couple of decades, but from what I remember it's the tragic story of a poor working man who dreams of pursuing education/knowledge but who can only barely scrape by with the essentials and can rarely afford even the occasional book. Do institutions like Khan Academy mostly or completely erase that scenario in the modern day? Would a modern Jude have been able to educate and better himself? Are th
  • Fundamental programming methodologies, such as Test Driven Development, seeming to be increasing in popularity. To what extent does Khan Academy teach any form of fundamental software development methodology, and why?
  • Why is it that a bug accepted in 2010 [google.com], and which received a lot of comments from others with the same problem, is still not acted upon? Is it lack of resources?

    Disclaimer: I filled this bug report.

God doesn't play dice. -- Albert Einstein

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