March 14, 2016

Learning in the digital age

Online resources can augment learning on campus—and everywhere else
by Jenny Corke

Ever wonder how students can receive learning benefits from online resources? Or whether online content actually interferes with deep learning experiences? With support from the Tang Institute at Phillips Academy, members of the math department have been working with Khan Academy—the nonprofit that provides free education to anyone with Internet access—to explore, test, and implement new applications for online learning. And, as is the case with many big questions, the answers might not be all one way or another.

A truly great education requires students interacting with teachers who know them, who care about them, who work with them face-to-face. Technology can complement and even improve those in-person meetings. If we’re clever about it, technology can extend PA’s reach to students throughout the world, with powerful results. It’s an exciting, 21st-century way to express our calling to be a private school with a public purpose.

John Palfrey, P '21 Head of School

Chapter 1: Laying the Groundwork

Soon after assuming his post at PA, Palfrey had the idea to collaborate with Khan Academy in order to share PA’s expertise in education with Khan’s network of worldwide learners. Palfrey invited the visionary Sal Khan to campus in early 2013 and, from there, an exciting partnership began to develop.

William Scott, Chair of the Math, Statistics, and Computer Science Department, along with colleagues Matt Lisa and Chris Odden, participated in the first official planning meeting at Khan Academy headquarters in Mountain View, California (a trip from which Scott said he returned with his “eyes wide open”). PA’s role would initially focus on contributing AP Calculus content, created by PA math teachers, to Khan Academy’s website.

“Agreeing to partner with Khan Academy was a watershed moment,” said Scott, who led the effort. “This was all new and asking the department to find time in their busy schedules to work on a project like this was exciting and scary at the same time.”

But participate they did. Several of Scott’s colleagues—along with students in his classes—pulled together to write nearly 3,000 AP Calculus problem sets. Learners everywhere received access to an on-demand “virtual tutor” and comprehensive study resources—written and curated by PA faculty—that were designed for learners at all different levels. Some of those learners might be “just-in time” students, looking to clarify or learn specific items quickly, while others might be enrolled in a course at school, seeking to complement their classroom experience. Either way, they’re using it. All together there are about a million attempted problems per month, says Scott.

The content roll out also had important effects on campus. Scott and his colleagues decided to test the materials internally with PA’s own AP Calculus track courses. In the first iteration, during 2014 and 2015, three teachers led AP Calculus classes that blended online and traditional learning for ninety-three students. When surveyed afterward on their experiences, students overwhelming recommended that PA continue using hybrid approaches. In the next set of classes, which began in spring 2015 and will conclude this spring, the effort has expanded even further, with 210 students participating in classes taught by eight teachers.

“In my opinion, this trial has been wildly successful,” said Scott. “In the past, we would lose at least one section, sometimes two sections, of students to the non-AP senior calculus class. In spring 2014, we started with six sections and ended with six sections the following March.”

Technology with a Purpose

Scott notes that what his students like best about the online resources is access to instant feedback. At all hours, they are a click away from answers carefully written by their own teachers. Cassandra Tognoni ‘05, who participated in an alumni session that Scott gave on the project, appreciated the use of technology to bring tangible outcomes.

“Bill and his colleagues started integrating technology into the classroom, not for the sake of being current, but because they realized kids could easily short-change their development of real mathematical thinking by Googling answers to homework questions,” said Tognoni, the founder of a charter school and creator of Book Report software, who was recently named to the 2016 Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list. “When technology is implemented in response to a real problem like that and frees up time in class for teachers to facilitate deep mathematical thinking, we’re actually allowing technology to improve kids’ educations, not just digitize them.”

But Scott acknowledges it’s not just students who are benefiting.

“You’re only as good as the information you get, which is particularly important for teachers to keep in mind,” he said. “I had been planning to tell a particular student to try harder, but when I looked online I could see he had been the number one user of study materials. So instead, I figured out exactly what he was struggling with and planned a lesson accordingly.”

Chapter 2: Covering New Topics

Based upon encouraging results from the AP Calculus project, the partnership has since flourished into the “Khan Academy initiative,” with a second chapter currently underway in AP Statistics. Other pilots in hybrid learning are also in the works, within the larger umbrella of explorations that the Tang Institute calls Hybrid Learning.

“Our aim is to build strong partnerships that bring bidirectional benefits, with each side enhancing what the other offers to education,” said Eric Roland, Precourt Director of Partnerships at the Institute. “And that’s exactly what’s happening with Khan Academy.”

As a fellow at the Tang Institute in 2015–16, Matt Lisa is working with four students and faculty colleagues at PA, including instructors Karin Knudson and Joel Jacob, as well as colleagues at The Lawrenceville School, to create a complete, online AP Statistics curriculum. One of the collaborating colleagues from Lawrenceville, Daren Starnes, a thought leader in the AP Statistics community, actually wrote the print AP Statistics textbook that is currently in use at PA and other schools. Yet now, as one student points out, some of the information that the project team is cultivating will create a new type of textbook, in online format.

The content creation effort, which Lisa says requires a lot of thoughtful writing for context and project management, is focused on developing math problem sets with hints and skill checks and editing articles that explain topics in depth. The group has also invested a significant amount of time planning for and implementing a structure for the content on the Khan website. Lisa notes that drawing upon existing, AP Statistics content for the articles—curating and editing them from Open Source—is a major shift in approach for academics.

“Content doesn’t need to come just from just the teacher or from oneself; it can also come from students and from other content writers in the wider world. There doesn’t need to be ownership or original content all the time,” said Lisa. “Everyone can work together, as we have the same goal here: providing free content for learners.”

During a recent phone conversation, Elizabeth Slavitt, director of content at Khan Academy, commented that Phillips Academy is the first high school to provide core content of this nature to Khan’s website. Yet she also notes that a trend is underway.

“This is the golden age of openness in education,” she said. “There are more than 10 million unique visitors to our site each month.”

The overall goal is to “go live” on the Khan Academy site with the statistics curriculum sometime during the 2016–17 academic year.

Experiences with the Wider World

The PA students involved in the statistics project, all from the class of ‘16–Tyler Lian, Samantha Lin, Samir Safwan, and Claire Tao–chose this work as their Independent Project. For them, this is a learning and real-world work experience combined.

“What they get to imagine,” says Lisa, “is this is what it’s like to have a job.”

They are involved in weekly check-in meetings with Khan Academy; they have a set of deadlines and deliverables; they are learning the necessary lingo, style guides, and tools of the trade; and, most importantly, they consider their end-users as they produce and structure content. They collect feedback, too, from peers.

“I try to test my problems with friends in stats class,” said Tyler Lian during a recent Lunch & Discussion about the project. “I ask them, ‘Do you understand this, or can you do this?’ to make sure everything is as helpful as it can be.”

What particularly excites the students about the project work is the notion of opening access to all learners. But they have found a number of personal benefits, too.

“Education is changing, especially in math and science, because of technology resources,”said Lian. “Khan Academy’s content mission is noble, and it’s really awesome for PA to be part of that. Working on this project allows me to give others access to course information online and, at the same time, learn even more about statistics than I did last year because I am really getting inside the content.”

“In general I love working with people at Khan Academy, and I love feeling like I’m creating something useful for millions of others,” said Samantha Lin.

But increasing access to content is not just about online sharing. The students comment that considering their international audience and taking into account potential cultural differences and language nuances are all important aspects. When they’re writing a problem set, the prompts need to be engaging and relevant. They often name the “character” in the problem description, for instance, with a name typical of another culture. Or they pay attention to the fact that someone might not know who “Cy Young” is or that the universal measurement system is different from what we use in the U.S.

Teaching for the Future

Next up, Lisa is planning to add the project work to his AP Statistics course this spring. Once his students complete their AP Exam, he would use a portion of the final three weeks of school for students to get involved in developing problem sets for the online curriculum. He thinks this type of “learning-on the-job” experience is invaluable for all PA students.

Commenting about the future of online learning in education, Lisa cites the possibility that “maybe some day these online resources could, in fact, enable math faculty to move away from printed textbooks entirely.” As for Khan Academy, their content team leader sees additional opportunities for working with Phillips Academy.

“We’d like to do this for as many subjects as possible, to build out a library of content,” said Slavitt. “Andover has so much deep content expertise, working with students and having successful outcomes, so this is a natural partnership that makes great teaching happen everywhere. Together we’re providing a service to the world and a service to students.”

PA’s Head of School sees ongoing work with Khan Academy as a technology-driven output of non sibi. But he also sees it as part of the Academy’s effort to advance connected learning, the educational approach that is based upon the belief that learning experiences happen both inside and outside of the classroom. One student might enjoy designing online tools, while another might express himself through art or music. Tying together a student’s in-school and out-of-school activities and interests—online and offline—not only helps to make learning fun and keep students engaged, but also prepares them for the lives they’ll lead later.

“We, as educators, should embrace the imperative to prepare global citizens who can make meaningful contributions in a digital age,” said Palfrey. “Our work with Khan Academy is one exciting example of using technology toward that end, among others that are underway. What’s ahead of us? All sorts of possibilities we haven’t even imagined yet.”

Categories: Connected Learning, Partnerships, Featured

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