There is an education crisis hiding behind Covid’s health and economic crises

When the coronavirus pandemic forced schools around the world to stop offering in-person classes this year, more than 1.5 billion kids wound up at home, struggling to learn—with their parents struggling alongside them.

For the online learning nonprofit Khan Academy, which is best known for video tutorials for middle- and high-school math, it was a big moment. Usage of the platform has soared since the onset of Covid-19, from 30 million minutes of learning a day to a peak of 92 million, and an average of 75 million minutes. Registrations for students and teachers increased five to six times; for parents, 10 to 20 times. Engagement for kids who qualify for free and reduced lunch meals has doubled.

“It’s been full-court press here,” says Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy.

But if shuttering schools and shifting to all-online learning overnight was daunting, so is what comes next. “Once you solve the health care crisis, and then the economic crisis, the education crisis is right behind it,” says Sal Khan.

As educators try to prepare for back-to-school, they have to figure out just how much learning was lost when kids were suddenly sent home in February and March. (Research from the global education nonprofit NWEA shows that some students could be nearly a year behind in math come fall). At the same time, they have to figure out how to make online learning meaningful, particularly given that schools may well close again if hit by another coronavirus wave and parents will not be as tolerant the next time around.

That leaves schools, and learning platforms like Khan Academy, operating in overdrive.

“The uncertainty will make people realize they have to leverage these tools in the regular school year, not because it’s tech and you will look modern, but because these are real pedagogical problems you are trying to solve,” he says. Every kid has gaps in learning, and the whole world is now paying attention to just how damaging they are.

The problem of “Swiss cheese gaps” in learning

That kids need more support for their learning was apparent before Covid-19 hit. Too often, students never entirely grasp an important lesson in math, like understanding how to divide decimals. They scrape by, get a 70% on the math test, and carry on. Then they get to algebra, and all the accumulated holes in their learning become even more problematic. The losses, which Khan calls “Swiss cheese gaps,” compound, and kids fall further behind.

Teachers, under the crunch of one million priorities—numeracy and literacy and state tests, but also, active shooter drills, sex ed, digital literacy, media literacy, financial literacy, and consent—do their best to help every student with their holes. But there are not enough hours in the day. So kids fall behind, give up, or drop out.

This crisis was “always happening in slow motion,” Khan says, but Covid-19 put it “more in stark relief.”

One stat Khan often cites: In the US, 70% of kids in US who go to community college have to take remedial math, which means they didn’t learn much beyond sixth or seventh grade.

“The crisis is you already had a large bunch of kids who were a lost generation, and now it will be a larger group who will be farther behind.”

In the US, McKinsey estimates that the average student could fall seven months behind academically, while Black and Hispanic students could experience even bigger learning losses, equivalent to 10 months for Black children and nine months for Latinos. Meanwhile, the Education Endowment Foundation in the UK estimates that the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their classmates at the end of primary school narrowed, from 11.5 months in 2009 to 9.2 months in 2019. School closures due to Covid-19 are likely to reverse that progress.

Learning outside the classroom

While this may be edtech’s golden moment, Khan has always recognized the limitations of technology for teaching.

“It feel somewhat obvious to me,” he said recently at a CogX event. “If I had to pick for my own children, and by extension anyone’s children, an amazing teacher who has literally sand and a stick—some technology but not too advanced—some tech vs. the fanciest AI blah, blah, blah technology, I would take the human teacher every time.”

The reason? “The learning experience is fundamentally a human connection experience.”

That said, he says, online learning has a few distinct advantages of its own:

  • Tech can deliver personalization, customization, and immediate feedback, adapting to individual needs and surfacing data on learners’ progress.
  • Kids can learn at their own pace, and in their own time. They can watch decimals being divided on the video 100 times, if needed, to understand it. No teacher can do this for 25 different kids every day.
  • Learning can happen anywhere, anytime, so long as kids have an internet connection and a device.

Traditional education is built around the idea that learning takes place during a certain number of school days in a year, and during a certain number of hours in a day. It is set by grade levels set by age and not by kids’ mastery of the subject matter. In 2020, with ample technology to measure progress in real time, that’s a weird system.

“People are starting to see learning as something that is not bound by time and space and should kind of continue all the time,” Khan says. The current moment has also drawn attention to the issue of how kids who are already disadvantaged may fall further behind in school because they lack broadband access and devices. New York City, for example, committed to distributing 300,000 laptops to students at the beginning of Covid-19—causing many educators to wonder what took so long.

The cost to closing the digital divide in the US is about $11 billion. Khan is optimistic it will happen.

People are also starting to see that there might be benefits to giving students credentials for skills as they learn them rather than one big degree at the end of high school, Khan says. He’s trying to connect with more employers and colleges to convince them to accept credentials for skills gained on Khan Academy.

“None of these things are new,” he said. “These are things I hoped would happen in the next 10 years, but I think will happen in the next 18 months.”

Leveling up

When Covid-19 started, Khan Academy created detailed daily schedules for students ages four to 18 to help parents, teachers and district administrators keep students learning at home. It also created webinars for parents and teachers. Khan himself started hosting a livestream homeroom on Facebook and YouTube answering questions every weekday, and interviewing people like movie director Francis Ford Coppola,and philanthropist Bill Gates.

He also accelerated every single 10-year goal he had, including expanding Khan’s suite of offerings to every subject and every grade in every language. While there are math resources for pre-K through college, and sciences for high school and college, there’s no science yet for elementary and middle school. English and language arts are being rolled out now.

In mid-June, Khan Academy launched “Get Ready for Grade Level,” a program to help students master the most important math skills they’ll need for their next grade. They can use the new courses to figure out where they may have gaps before they enter that grade. The hope is these diagnostic tools can help students and teachers see those “Swiss cheese holes” and provide teachers with a dashboard of information for every child.

Khan Academy has also launched Camp Khan, a 10-week summer math challenge for ages 13 and up. Students can get weekly tips and advice as well as recognition of their accomplishments as they progress through Get Ready for Grade Level.

Meanwhile, Khan is personally exploring a way to connect students who need help with teachers who want to give it via, a website with the mission “to enable any student with internet access to connect with teachers for personalized, interactive instruction outside of the classroom. It’s being rolled out to 50 teachers and all 80,000 students in the Long Beach Unified School District. Many of the participating teachers seem to hail from the Khan Lab School, a private school which Khan founded that uses a mastery-based model rather than sorting kids by age and grade.

Khan knows that the videos he created helps kids learn. (Here’s the evidence.) But he also knows they need interaction and feedback. The question of how to incorporate more of those things into online learning is one that has stuck with him throughout Covid-19, as teachers reported to him up to 20% of their students missing from classes and low levels of engagement.

“Khan Academy is nice, you can learn in your own time and pace, you can pause repeat get as much practice and get feedback,” he says. “But we all know that students at some point or another would like immediate feedback and motivation, the things only a human being can do.”

If Khan would seem to be the busiest man in Silicon Valley, he is still operating at a deficit and scrambling to secure the funding he needs for this moment. “I get heartburn when I have to think about it,” he says, referring to raising the money every year to cover the costs of the organization.

Like many people, Khan doesn’t want the world to go back to normal after the crisis. He wants to use the current shakeup as an opportunity to make education better. “There’s a window where you can jump in and help guide how the world recrystallizes,” he says, “and maybe we can help crystalize it in a way that it should have crystalized it in the first place.”


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