Slashdot is powered by your submissions, so send in your scoop


Forgot your password?

Interviews: Khan Academy Lead Developer Ben Kamens Answers Your Questions 24

A couple of weeks ago you had the chance to ask Khan Academy lead developer Ben Kamens about the future of online education and the academy itself. Below you'll find his answers to the questions we sent and a few extra that he found interesting.
Higher Education
by null etc.

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?

Kamens:Yes. It's not just access to education, it's the ease with which somebody can demonstrate their ability. Ask any developer if they'd sleep better at night having just hired:

A) somebody from a no-name school with an impressive github profile and side projects
B) somebody from an impressive school with no github profile nor side projects

Then take everybody who answered B and keep them away from me. And here's the thing: I'm confident Joel agrees. Joel's most famous edict when it comes to hiring is making sure somebody's "Smart and Gets Things Done." There was a time when a college degree was the best credential for Smart and Gets Things Done. In many hiring situations, it still is.

In the programming world right now? Not so much. There are too many chances to prove your ability before you graduate for that name on your degree to carry all the weight. Sure, between two otherwise equal candidates, neither of whom have littered the internet with blog posts and side projects and bits of their code, highly accredited universities can still help differentiate. It's a helpful filter, especially when sorting through thousands of otherwise similar resumes.

Even at Fog Creek 6 years ago, graduating from a top-tier university only gave you one point (out of 6 possible) in the initial resume screening process...which was the most trivial part of an otherwise lengthy recruiting pipeline designed to figure out if you're Smart and Get Things Done.

Short version: yes, this is changing and will continue to. Quality online education will hopefully continue advancing alongside easier and easier ways to demonstrate your skills to the world. At Khan Academy, we've hired people from all sorts of colleges (even three high schoolers!) who've demonstrated tremendous skill way before a degree credentials it. We'll continue to do so.

Platform For Schools
by GeneralSecretary

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?

Kamens:It's actually for any teacher in any school right now, for free. Our "teacher toolkit" is the best place to start, w/ videos of other schools' usage and tips from their implementations.

When a teacher signs up and gets their class on Khan Academy, they'll get the exact same platform our pilot classrooms receive. Same product a parent would get if they signed up with their child. Those teachers in the pilot program you mention aren't using anything special.

The significant difference is our ability to personally engage with specific teachers and classrooms. We're a small team and have to focus on a (relatively) small number of classrooms. We use these few pilots to get feedback, learn from students, try to understand how our product can empower teachers, etc. But any changes we make as a result are then given to all students around the world.

by GeneralSecretary

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?

Kamens:It's a big deal. The MOOCs have already started tackling this. Coursera, Udacity, and edX are working with colleges to provide official credit for their online classes.

There's more than one way to work this issue. The MOOCs are attempting to build an educational brand that's valued in much the same way as, say, Stanford. They can then hand out stamps of approval that serve as signals for employers or colleges who're trying to assess candidates.

There's also the github model. Github doesn't bill itself as an accreditation machine. It doesn't try to hand out branded stamps of approval. But talk to employers about the power of github profiles and you'll hear an interesting story. And they're not the only ones. Sites like Stack Overflow have managed to build systems of reputation that send meaningful signals (disclosure: I'm biased about Stack Overflow).

Bottom line: your question represents an *enormous*, world-changing opportunity, and Khan Academy has some important choices to make. The team is sprinting on this problem as I type.

Where are all the CS courses?
by Anonymous Coward

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.


I'd encourage you to check out the computer science section we have. While it's not the high-level content you mention, it's far from those "interactive manuals" you see around the web. John Resig and his team have built something pretty special.

That being said, the most honest answer we can give when asked about missing content is that we've chosen to focus on a few topics (like core math) until we nail them and the experience built around them.

We're opportunistic when we find an incredible person to help us teach other areas while the rest of the team focuses on core math. Examples would be Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker's Art History content and Vi Hart's brilliant and somewhat indescribable videos.

We are building quite a content team. There's little we don't hope to cover one day. Just not focusing on higher-level CS *yet*.

Explanation vs exploration: Pedagogical challenge?
by fantomas

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?

Kamens:Dangit, I just listened to Sal answer this exact question at a dinner yesterday. Now you're gonna make me feel like I'm a puppet. I'll do my best to break free of these puppet shackles and answer with my own words.

The fundamental belief of Khan Academy is that students should engage with content they need on-demand, at their own pace. We agree that any curriculum that forces all students in a class to follow the same, preordained "watch this video, do this exercise, watch this other video" path isn't using technology in a meaningful way. So we design our product and work with teachers to help students feel ownership of the learning process.

Our classrooms see varying implementations, but the best of them try hard to help students move at their own pace. Some students might never need to listen to Sal say a word. They can master content by experimenting on their own. Absolutely. Fine. By. Us. Others may benefit from rewinding one of Sal's videos over and over and over until a concept clicks. But not every student masters content at the same speed.

It takes a fearless teacher to embrace this controlled chaos in a classroom. I've seen it happen. I have the highest respect in the world for those teachers able to do it. They're simultaneously ready to help mentor a student who's stuck working on fractions and another who may've advanced all the way to trigonometry. They let one student run free on her own while giving another strong encouragement to try the next challenge. Watching these teachers in action is a sight to behold.

Khan Academy exists to give students the freedom to engage with the content they need while giving teachers immediate feedback about who's working on what and where they need help. We think we can help teachers by making this acquisition of core skills a more personalized, efficient process.

In doing so, we hope to move teachers _up_ the value chain so they can focus on exploration-based learning and targeted coaching with the rest of their class time.

I personally think that'd be a significant advance in learning. And FWIW, we consider anybody who fights for exploration-based learning to be an ally of Khan Academy.

Plans to make KA easier for researchers to use?
by Anonymous Coward

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!

Kamens:Holy crap, I should've just pasted your first couple sentences in response to the previous question! Would've been way more authentic.

Ouch. This one hits home. I want our API to support this type of thing, and I know it's far from perfect. Can you make sure the specific API queries you need are requested here? We haven't had time to do everything we want, but we're always on the lookout for big API wins that'll enable the community to build cool stuff. Thanks for being an early API adopter. Sorry you've had trouble. Please know that we want to help.

The large data dump request is a bit more complicated due to student privacy issues, but it's on our radar.

lead dev
by vlm

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 coolest isolated to one individual "thing" hack. Something they did personally not hired someone else to do, or something their boss did. Maybe in your LOB its an amazing caching technique, or an astounding way to compress video or whatever. Or some astounding workflow thingy. A short story just a paragraph no more. The kind of thing a /. audience would respond with "cool!" when they read it.

Kamens:While I can't promise "amazing" or "astounding" I can at least make you cringe. A couple years ago we had to take Khan Academy down for maintenance. Was gonna take a couple hours. We put up a cutesy little "Shhhh...we're studying!" page to let users know we'd be back soon.

We were Google App Engine novices at the time. The method we used to display that "Shhh...we're studying!" page did something we didn't expect: it returned a caching header that told all downstream clients to cache the page. For 365 days. For _all of our URLs_. And this was _entirely_ our fault (not App Engine's).

Every server or browser between us and our users was now allowed to return "Shhh...we're studying!" for every Khan Academy URL without ever asking us for new content. Our users were gonna sit there, smashing reload, and seeing "Shhh...we're studying!" for a freaking _year_. And our servers would never even see their requests to get a chance to fix the problem. Thankfully, the App Engine team came through in the middle of the night and gave us a way to clear the cache for exactly two URLs on all of their frontend servers, where most of this problematic caching was happening. We chose the homepage URL,, and (here's where the hack comes in), the URL of javascript file that all of our pages, including the static "Shhhh...we're studying!" page, happened to be referencing. Something like We replaced that javascript file with a single line that redirected users to a new subdomain we'd set up at The www2 URLs weren't cached all over the entire internet, so kids could start learning again!

Once the disaster died down we switched back to and modified our URLs in a different way to avoid any remaining caches. Surprisingly, our traffic didn't take a hit and everything recovered nicely. But we wondered for about a year if anybody was still seeing that "Shhh...we're studying!" page.

by Niris

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 curiosity :)

Kamens:Side projects. Blogs. Having built or written things that others find useful. Being passionate enough to find us and ask interview questions on slashdot.

A past filled with creating value will go a long, long way. Rooting for you.

Jude the Obscure
by Quirkz

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 there other obstacles that replace the cost as a barrier to taking this free learning and finding advancement or satisfaction?

Kamens:Ever read The Diamond Age? We give a copy to all interns on their first day. Our long-term sci-fi dream is to remove exactly these obstacles. If we can get one small step closer to The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer (sounds like it would've helped this Jude)...well, that's a dream.
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Interviews: Khan Academy Lead Developer Ben Kamens Answers Your Questions

Comments Filter:
  • by Trepidity ( 597 ) <delirium-slashdot.hackish@org> on Monday February 25, 2013 @01:03PM (#43004381)

    I don't think there's a universal answer for this one:

    Ask any developer if they'd sleep better at night having just hired:

    A) somebody from a no-name school with an impressive github profile and side projects
    B) somebody from an impressive school with no github profile nor side projects

    Github profiles and side-projects select for particular kind of developers, mostly software developers, mostly focused on web stuff. That's great for some things, especially if the job is mainly a programming job, although it does also often select for a sort of dilettantism. If you want someone who's solid on engineering fundamentals because you're hiring for an aerospace engineering job, on the other hand, you might have different preferences, and be more interested in their level of formal education than in the Ruby blog software they wrote on the weekends.

  • by PhloppyPhallus ( 250291 ) on Monday February 25, 2013 @05:39PM (#43008251)

    Seems to me a lot of what you want doesn't fit into the vision of KA. You want to be able to control what content the students see and when they see it, so that you can keep the entire class working on the same stuff at the same time and at the same pace. That's in opposition to what I understand to be Khan's goal of encouraging self-directed learning, where students learn at their own pace, ability, and interest. So, the long and short of it is that I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for KA to implement these features given their limited resources and goals.

It seems intuitively obvious to me, which means that it might be wrong. -- Chris Torek