The Khan Academy and Arizona State University Prep Digital’s partnership to launch the Khan World School, a virtual school for high schoolers, brings together two powerhouses in digital learning with the promise of creating a breakthrough schooling model.
With the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rush to virtual schooling—or what some have termed emergency remote schooling—the results have been unsurprisingly poor. Many studies show that the students in the schools that remained remote longer have suffered greater learning loss.
Out of this challenge, Sal Khan told me that there was a sense that the Khan Academy had a responsibility to create something more robust.
“We have to create kind of an infrastructure for the world,” Khan said. “There’s a strategic oil reserve. There should be a strategic education reserve of systems and processes that in an emergency time a lot of people can lean on.”
As Amy McGrath, COO at ASU Prep Digital said, “Everyone was doing online, but not very well.… But our infrastructure that has been in design for quite some time really thrived. And our learners, in fact, outperformed state averages.”
As the Khan Academy and ASU Prep Digital launch the Khan World School in the fall, here are three areas where the design should result in important advances for education more broadly.
“The stereotype of online learning is that, ‘Oh, you’re just doing your own thing, you feel detached from other people,’” Khan said. “Honestly, that’s the stereotype of some in-person learning as well. You’re just sitting in a classroom and your eyes are glazed over.”
The Khan World School is aiming to tackle that stereotype with a daily, synchronous seminar where students debate topics that often aren’t discussed in schools—things like “Will the Fed be able to control inflation? Will CRISPR change the human genome? And [should] social media be blamed for the polarization in the world?” Khan said.
“We want to be able to have a place where we can have conversations, and teach students, and maybe the world, that there’s a way to have conversations and to be able to disagree about these things, but be able to do it respectfully, and learn from each other,” Khan said.
I argue in my forthcoming book, “From Reopen to Reinvent,” that this should be one of the six central purposes of K–12 schools: to help students understand that people can see things differently—and that those differences merit respect rather than persecution.
These seminar groupings would include mixed-age learning—a key tenet of the Khan Lab School, a Silicon Valley-based school that Khan and his team have been operating since 2014. The goal? To unlock human connection.
The next part of the Khan World School will tackle students’ core learning with a focus on student mastery.
The way in which the school will assess mastery is what’s perhaps most novel. Khan Academy operates a tutoring site called Schoolhouse, which is also a platform to validate mastery.
In essence, students record their faces and screens as they take a Khan Academy assessment and explain their reasoning out loud. That video artifact is then peer-reviewed by others on the platform who have already proved their mastery of the concept to assess whether a student has mastered at least 90% of the concept.
The platform is designed to authenticate that someone’s work is, in fact, their own to eliminate cheating and verify mastery.
“If anyone ever doubts it, they can click on that video and watch you perform it,” Khan said. “It’s a far better signal than saying someone got a 95% on a test that they took 10 years ago.”
This mechanism also allows students to show what they’ve mastered outside of the traditional school curriculum—say, in their outside reading and writing.
According to Khan, this also showcases a student’s communication skills. And for students who help vet other people’s learning, it also shows a signal of compassion and caring.
“Schools like MIT, University Chicago, Case Western, they’ve already put it on their admissions application because they think this is such a powerful signal of student mastery and student personality or student desire to give back,” he said.
What’s more, McGrath argues that the Khan World School will help blur the lines between high school and college. ASU Prep Digital already allows high school students to take real college courses from ASU. And according to Khan, the Khan Academy has started pilots with Howard University, in which students are able to earn college algebra credits while in high school if they demonstrate mastery of the appropriate material.
At present, the Khan World School is drawing interest from students around the world. The school will be free for students in Arizona by taking advantage of ASU’s charter school. But for those localities where it isn’t a public option, Khan said that they will be able to offer the school for less than $10,000.
What’s exciting is that affordability comes with quality and the ability to allow students to master concepts on their own time and pace, not at arbitrary junctions.
“We have over 50 efficacy studies at Khan Academy,” Khan said. “We just had a recent one come out. If students are able to put in even 20 minutes a day for three days a week, doing mastery learning in math, they’re going 50% to 100% faster than their comparable peers…. That’s just an hour a week doing that. Now, imagine Khan World School where that is the way that we’re going to learn everything. You’re just going to have a really strong foundation.”