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Math Videos Go From YouTube Hit To Classroom Tool

Fifth-graders (from left) Reese Toomre, Lucas Nguyen and Michael An race through the Khan Academy's Trigonometry Challenge. The program allows more advanced students to move ahead, while other students can proceed at their own pace. (NPR)

Part 2 of a two-part report

A lot of struggling math students have found comfort in the mathematical stylings of Salman Khan.

A few years back, Khan started creating videos to help tutor his cousin in math. Those videos became so popular, he quit his job with a hedge fund to work on them full time. Now his online Khan Academy offers more than 2,100 videos and attracts scads of teachers and students. And some adventurous school districts are trying to bring Khan's approach into the classroom.

Working At Your Own Pace

Santa Rita Elementary school, in Los Altos, Calif., is part of a pilot program that is making the Khan Academy an integral part of the math curriculum.

And if three fifth-graders playing a computer game called Trigonometry Challenge are any indication, math class may never be the same. Michael An, Lucas Nguyen and Reese Toomre are tapping away furiously, their eyes glued to their laptop screens, and they are gobbling up math problems like a plate of Doritos. Teacher Kami Thordarson says that for half an hour a day, Khan Academy dunks these students into a completely self-paced world.

"They're all in different places. Some of them are working on calculus and high school math; some of them are working on multiplication of decimals. And that's OK," Thordarson says.

It's OK because students who need help can look up the appropriate video and listen to the academy's explanation of concepts like direct and inverse variation. Check out one of the videos at Khan Academy, and you can see his signature patient and unthreatening approach as he scribbles on the video screen and guides students along.

Kids are comfortable turning to Khan for help, Thordarson says. "It's kind of a private thing. It's not like you have to raise your hand in front of the whole class and say, 'I don't get this.' "

There's nothing flashy about the videos or the exercises. But Khan has clearly hit a sweet spot that makes this the most popular part of the day.

Thordarson says during "Khan-time," her class looks more like a busy engineering office than a traditional classroom. Kids collaborate, the teacher facilitates, and she doesn't have to lecture.

Some kids work on their own, following online exercises as they do calculations on a whiteboard or with pencil and paper.

An Expanding Reach

Next door, teacher Kelly Rafferty says that Khan helps her deal with the big class sizes that even this affluent district is facing — this class has 29 students, and class sizes could grow next year.

"Khan has definitely helped me reach all of the students. When you have that many kids, you end up sort of teaching to the middle. And Khan has allowed me to reach the lowest and the highest," Rafferty says.

Khan Academy also offers a kind of back-office function. While kids are working independently on exercises, Rafferty checks her own iPad, which displays a graph of her students' performance. "So with this I can look at all the kids, see who's struggling, who's not," she says. She can use that information to see who needs extra help.

Santa Rita Principal Sandra McGonagle says for her, the Khan Academy has some big advantages over other math materials. "One, it's free," McGonagle says. "And it's created by people who really just love math."

After this year's pilot program, the Los Altos School District is going to start using Khan Academy districtwide for the fifth and sixth grades. Khan Academy is hoping to see how this plays out in a wider range of schools. It expands to at least 10 new schools next year.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

A lot of struggling math students have found comfort in the sound of this man's voice.

Mr. SALMAN KHAN: Welcome to the presentation on using the quadratic equation.

NORRIS: Salman Khan started making math videos to help tutor his cousin, but they became so popular, he quit his job with a hedge fund to work on them full-time. Now his online Khan Academy attracts countless teachers and students.

NPR's Larry Abramson reports on the first effort to bring Khan's approach into the classroom.

LARRY ABRAMSON: It is shocking - three dissolute students in northern California are using school time to play a computer game. What's it called?

Unidentified Child #1: Trigonometry challenge.

Unidentified Child #2: Okay, one-half, what? 2X, oh yeah, okay.

ABRAMSON: Fifth-graders Michael An, Lucas Nguyn and Reese Toomry are actually hip-deep in the Trigonometry Challenge at Khan Academy. They're gobbling up math problems like a plate of Doritos.

This school is part of a pilot program at Santa Rita Elementary School in Los Altos, California. They're making the Khan Academy an integral part of the math curriculum. Teacher Cami Thordarson says, for half-an-hour a day, Khan Academy dunks these students into a completely self-paced world.

Ms. CAMI THORDARSON (Santa Rita Elementary School): They're all in different places. Some of them are working on calculus and high school math. Some of them are working on multiplication of decimals, and that's okay.

ABRAMSON: It's okay because students who need help can look up the appropriate video and listen to the Academy's explanation of concepts like direct and inverse variation.

Mr. KHAN: So I'll do direct variation on the left over here and I'll do inverse variation or two variables that vary inversely on the right-hand side over here.

ABRAMSON: Salman Khan scribbles on the video screen and guides students along with his signature approach: patient and unthreatening. Cami Thorderson says kids are comfortable turning to Khan for help.

Ms. THORDERSON: It's kind of a private thing. It's not like you have to raise your hand in front of the whole class and say I don't get this. You can go not get it on your own and nobody needs to know about it.

ABRAMSON: There's nothing flashy about the videos or the exercises. But somehow, Khan has clearly hit a sweet spot that makes this the most popular part of the day.

Unidentified Child #3: So you square that. That's 36. And you square that, that's nine.

ABRAMSON: Cami Thordarsen says during Khan-time, her class looks more like a busy engineering office than a traditional classroom. Kids collaborate, the teacher facilitates, and she doesn't have to lecture.

Some kids, like Hannah Albright, work on their own, following online exercises as they do calculations on a whiteboard or with pencil and paper.

Ms. HANNAH ALBRIGHT: Ninety minus seven, and then that would be 83. It's like an online teacher. They can help you anywhere.

ABRAMSON: You can go as fast as you want.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Yeah, and you don't have to wait.

Unidentified Child #4: Are we going to do - I need help...

ABRAMSON: Next door, in Kelly Rafferty's class, kids put their names on the board. Some want help on a concept; others offer to teach something they've mastered. Rafferty says that Khan helps her deal with the big class sizes that even this affluent district is facing.

Ms. KELLY RAFFERTY (Teacher, Santa Rita Elementary School): Khan has definitely helped me reach all of the students. So when you have that many kids, you end up sort of teaching to the middle, and Khan has allowed me to reach the lowest and the highest.

ABRAMSON: Much more than a textbook would, Rafferty says. Khan Academy also offers a kind of back office function. While kids are working independently on exercises, Rafferty checks her computer to see how they are doing.

Ms. RAFFERTY: So with this, I can look at all the kids and I can see who's struggling, who's not, which they've passed, how many it took for them to pass. So it gives me a lot more information.

ABRAMSON: Information she can use to see who needs extra help. Santa Rita Elementary Principal Sandra McGonagle says for her, the Khan Academy has some big advantages over other math materials.

Ms. SANDRA McGONAGLE (Principal, Santa Rita Elementary School): One, it's free, and it's created by people who really just love math. And the quality is so great.

ABRAMSON: After this year's pilot program, the Los Altos schools are going to start using Khan Academy district-wide for fifth and sixth grade. The Khan Academy is hoping to see how this experiment plays out in a wider range of schools. They expand to at least 10 new schools next year. Math class may never be the same.

Unidentified Woman: Okay, yeah, yeah.

ABRAMSON: Larry Abramson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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