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Chair of Math Department Bill Scott Reflects on Partnership with Khan Academy

Bill Scott had been Chair of the Math Department for less than a month when he first flew out to California to meet with Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy. Khan Academy is an online learning platform that offers coursework across various subjects and skill levels, according to khanacademy.org.

Scott arrived in California in August of 2013, accompanied by his colleagues Christopher Odden and Matthew Lisa, Instructors in Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science, to meet with Khan Academy developers regarding the rehauling of the Khan Academy calculus curriculum.

According to Scott, the calculus content at the time was extremely limited.   

“I wasn’t sure how the meeting would go. I wasn’t sure if it would be fruitful, because what we saw, we didn’t like. So I opened it up and had the audacity to say that we looked at the content and that we didn’t think it was very good. And [Khan] looked across the table and said, ‘Well that’s why you’re here. We know it’s not good,’” said Scott.

Khan proposed a partnership between Andover and Khan Academy, with Andover Math Instructors writing problems and Khan Academy coders launching them to Khan Academy’s website.

Scott conveyed the proposal at the first Math Department meeting that fall, asking for volunteers to commit to the project.

“I knew that the only way that we could pull it off is that there would have to be a group of us who contributed to this effort. To imagine that one or two people could do it is ridiculous,” said Scott.

With several teachers from the math department onboard, Khan Academy created a new development platform that allowed Andover teachers to write and upload problems to Khan Academy. Scott estimates that about five teachers contributed most of the content, with another six helping intermittently. Some students even wrote problems.

“The students who were involved in it, they graduated a few years ago, but they were very excited about it. And what a cool thing to say, ‘Oh, yeah, I did work for Khan Academy as a 17-year-old,’” said Suzanne Buckwalter, Instructor in Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science.

By the following October, the Math department had submitted approximately 33,000 problems, drastically changing the landscape of Khan Academy calculus. According to Scott, Khan Academy calculus currently has nearly 11 million problems attempted per month by 10 to 20,000 unique     users.

Since the last content submission in October 2014, the Math Department hasn’t had any further direct involvement in Khan Academy’s calculus curriculum. Scott, however, is now featured on both the A.P. Calculus A.B. and A.P. Calculus B.C. pages on Khan Academy’s website, khanacademy.org.

“Working with Sal Khan was fabulous, and he was a lot more hands-on than I imagined that he might be. I was imagining, frankly, that he was going to cut the deal with us and then I would never see nor hear from him again. I flew out to Khan Academy again and he welcomed us. I’ve continued to have email exchanges with him since then,” said Scott.

Not only did the Math Department transform the Khan Academy calculus curriculum, but Khan Academy has come to transform Andover’s calculus program, with many calculus teachers utilizing the online learning tool in their classes.

Buckwalter voiced the benefits of having both a tool to monitor student progress and problems tailored to the Andover calculus curriculum.

“As a calculus teacher, I am totally comfortable saying, ‘Hey, go look at these problems,’ because I know that they were written by my colleagues, and that they are [Andover] level… We can see where the weak spots are in an entire class. The teacher interface will actually give you an overview of how individual students are doing, and then of how the whole entire class is doing as well,” Buckwalter said.

Scott added that the ability to monitor his students’ progress has also made classwork more efficient.

“Fifteen of 16 kids had successfully [completed that day’s homework]. Now when they walk in the classroom today, I don’t need to go over that homework. Because I know that they know it,” Scott said. 

According to Scott, students are widely in favor of work based on Khan Academy.

“I read my survey at the end of the term. In a class of 16, 12 or 13 love it, two or three find it okay, and there’s usually one person in a class who doesn’t enjoy it. And I can live with that. I don’t think my job is to make everyone happy.”

Anna Ionescu ’20, a student in Scott’s B.C. calculus class, has a “love-hate relationship” with Khan Academy.

“Khan Academy is very good practice, and it’s good that it gives you the solution and the steps for the problem if you get it wrong, just so that you know how to fix it,” Ionescu said. 

According to Ionescu, paper homework is often more comprehensive and challenging.

“Written homework is more complex and in this way, it helps you prepare better for tests because it helps you think more,” said Ionescu.

Emmeline Song ’20, a student in Scott’s calculus class, agreed with Ionescu.

“[Khan Academy] gave us a really good basic structure to practice basic principles and learn basic concepts, but at the same time, it doesn’t go very in depth, so we would go from Khan Academy to really complicated worksheets that we had no idea how to do,” said Song.

Hywot Ayana ’20 said that she found Khan Academy to be a helpful tool to supplement what she learns in class.

“If there’s a concept I didn’t quite get, I’ll check Khan Academy for a video, then talk to my teacher if I still don’t have it,” Ayana said.

Scott said, “We’re blessed here at [Andover] of having years of working with college pros who know how to teach math, who’ve had practice working with great kids here, and now to take that experience and to share it with the world in the way that we have, it’s crazy.”

Editor’s Note: Tessa Conrardy is a Layout and Illustration Editor for The Phillipian.

Dec 7, 2018