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Making Online Learning Work

Effective strategies for remote learning — for teachers and parents.
Sal Khan
Khan Academy Founder Sal Khan
Photo: Khan Academy

With many children learning remotely this fall, Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, a leader in online learning, knows that it’s a daunting task for teachers — and parents — to deliver a high-quality experience.

Since starting the academy in 2005, Khan has gained unique insight into how to best use online learning to reach children. On this Harvard EdCast, Khan shares some of the most effective teaching strategies for remote learning, and especially how parents can help support online learning at home.

“No one's going to be writing about the COVID gain, that kids have learned 20% more this year magically. The catastrophe that we need to avoid is a large chunk of kids just falling off of their path,” Khan says. “A lot of it is just going to be a mental health issue, making sure they're engaged. I think if kids are engaged in mental health and they're having regular touchpoints with amazing teachers, things are going to be fine. The crisis is going to stay a crisis. It won't become a catastrophe.”

Khan offers ways to make online learning successful:

  • Create opportunities online for students to connect with each other as part of the school day. Encourage conversations and use online breakout rooms to help further allow kids to interact with each other. “If the adult is talking for more than three or four minutes, then it should probably be a video. Even that I would debate whether you need it. This is a time and I would argue this is probably always the case, but especially right now, kids need interaction,” Khan says.
  • Keep lines of communication open and constructive between teachers and parents/guardians. Teachers are trying hard to acclimate to remote learning too. Instead of providing negative feedback offer constructive ideas to teachers.
  • Focus on core skills at home. “If kids' skills atrophy in math, reading, or writing, it's going to be very hard for them to reengage in any other subject, whether it's in the sciences or the humanities,” Khan says. “As a parent, you can pretty much make sure that that doesn't happen regardless of how well supported you are from your school.” Try using three, 20-minute blocks a day focused on age appropriate core skills.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast.

Sal Khan never could have imagined a time when so many children would rely on the internet for their classroom. He's the founder of Khan Academy, a free online education platform that 100 million people use each year. Since starting the Academy in 2005, he's learned a lot about what does and doesn't work online. What he's come to know is helpful considering so many children across the country have returned to the classroom via their computers. I was surprised when he told me that online learning isn't necessarily even the most optimal choice for educating.

Sal Khan: There's a distinction between online and using technology versus distance learning. Obviously when Khan Academy started in pre-COVID, many tens of millions of folks, over 100 million folks are registered users of Khan Academy, so there's always been a dream and an aspiration that for hopefully, eventually all kids to some degree, online learning can be a component of their learning. It's a great place where learning doesn't have to be bound by time or space, they can get as much practice feedback, it can adapt to their individual needs. But the optimal has never been online by itself. It's always been online in conjunction with a great in-person experience with great teachers. If I had to pick between the two, I would always pick the in-person experience with an amazing teacher for my own children and everyone else's children.

The ideal has always been when great technology, great tools are in service to that human experience, to that in-person experience. Now, to your question, no, I could've never imagined the COVID school closure situation. To be clear, this is a very suboptimal situation. But Khan Academy has the things that we've been building in service to supporting teachers in classrooms and in places where unfortunately they don't have access to great teachers or classrooms, that has been very well-suited for the world we're in. We'll just see how this evolves.

Jill Anderson: So you have said that remote learning isn't for everybody, and that there's a lot of room for improvement. So how can educators work to improve remote learning in a relatively quick time?

Sal Khan: First of all, everyone from last March until now, they've been confusing hope and a plan. I remember when the schools first closed what seems like a lifetime ago, back in March, a lot of folks were saying, "Maybe this is just through spring break." And then once it started to become clear it wasn't this, "Maybe this is just through the end of the school year." Frankly, most schools and school districts have spent most of this past summer just trying to figure out if they could open up physically or not. It was a little bit being hopeful about it, and they hadn't given a lot of thought to what the actual instruction would look like if they had to do some form of distance learning.

You're exactly right, those early phases of distance learning, parents were frustrated because some schools weren't able to do anything out the gate. They were trying to figure out all of the social services, school lunch programs. These are incredibly complex issues. Then when it was implemented, it felt very inconsistent or a little bit scattershot that one teacher would be doing something very well thought out, but literally even within the same school in another course, it might not be quite as well thought out. Much less if you go into a different neighborhood, there started to be massive disparities, and parents were just trying to process it all.

I think what we're seeing now, unfortunately, people haven't been able to put a lot of thought into what the learning looks like. A lot of the school districts that are doing some form of distance learning, they're essentially trying to completely map their physical experience into the virtual world. So if kids had five or six one-hour classes a day in person, they're now trying to essentially put those same classes on video conference at the same time. I think, and depending where you are, we're either about to start school or we're a week or two into school, that's going to burn everyone out. That's going to burn out the teachers. It's going to burn out the students. It's going to burn out the families. It's not going to be helpful for everyone. What we're telling educators in districts is, start small. Don't try to boil the ocean. Six hours of Zoom sessions is not going to be good for anybody.

Be very open-minded about what this could look like. I know scheduling in schools is a very complex thing. I don't want to suggest upending the schedule where one teacher's doing a 15-minute session, another one's doing a 30-minute session. That'll be too complicated, hard to implement in the timeframe we have. But what we are telling educators and schools to give permission to educators is, if I'm a math teacher and right now I teach a certain cohort every day at 2:00 PM for an hour, I should have the agency to, instead of doing an hour at 2:00 PM with all 30 students, I should have the agency to be able to do say six 10-minute sessions, each of them with five kids. Because what that gives you is a chance to really zero in on and be somewhat thoughtful about which five kids at which time.

They can do Khan Academy at their own time and pace. You can monitor and see where they're progressing, what they're not. And then for those five, you can say, okay, these five kids have trouble with negative numbers, or these are the five kids that aren't engaging for some reason. Then I can dig a little bit deeper. For a lot of kids in a traditional school system, to have a one to five ratio would be incredible. It would be a game changer for them. And that the teacher, even in that 10 minutes can make a point to make sure that all five of those kids in that 10 or 15 minutes has a chance to talk and has a chance to kind of understand where they are.

That does two things. It's going to become a lot more interactive, a lot more personal, and then teachers are going to be able to zero in a lot more on what the kids need. I'd argue that, that actually is probably a best practice even during normal times. But for sure during COVID times. Also, teachers should feel the freedom to not always be heads down on the curricular standards. There's a reality that right now school is kids' main social line to community, to friendships. Whatever time you have with your kids, yes, it might be at the sacrifice of not being able to cover all of the standards over 180 school days, but make sure there's five minutes in the class, so to speak, where kids can talk to each other. You can talk about what's going on in COVID. People can talk about are they feeling stressed or just talk about something funny, even if it's unrelated to the subject at hand.

That's the type of things that are going to keep kids connected, give them that outlet because they don't have recess in the traditional sense. They don't have time before and after school to hang out with their friends or between changing classes. Teachers are going to have to play a little bit more, and they've always played double duty or triple duty, but even a little bit more of that to make sure that they have those connections.

Jill Anderson: So use those breakout rooms. Really get in there.

Sal Khan: And encourage conversation. I'll tell the adults, if the adult is talking for more than three or four minutes, should probably be a video. Even that I would debate whether you need it. This is a time and I would argue this is probably always the case, but especially right now, kids need interaction. They need the back and forth. The more that the teacher's just asking questions, asking the students to actively problem solve, put them into the breakout sessions, the virtual breakout sessions, have them collaborate with each other. If every now and then they get a little bit of off task, that's okay. Let them have those conversations. Ideally, it's a little bit more structured. There's times where they're collaborating on task, but then you make sure there's an outlet where it's like, "Okay, you all did a great job. I'm now going to give you five minutes where I'm giving you this random brain teaser or this random thing where you all have to decide as a group." That just keeps everything interesting and fresh in time for interaction.

Jill Anderson: I wanted to circle back to something that you mentioned that I feel like is a huge burden for educators. The standards and the time requirements because I've actually heard that come up in my own community as how they're going about structuring their days remotely, modeling it after what they already have, what they would have done in a class in the school. How do we work around that?

Sal Khan: I think the school and district level can give high level guidance saying, "Hey teachers, you have permission to mix it up. And actually we encourage you." Obviously the first step is yeah, whatever you were doing, just transplant it to Zoom, but that's step one. Step two should be breaking it up, finding more touchpoints. Teachers, as much interaction as you can have the better.

A lot of teachers feel a lot of pressure to have these perfectly planned lesson plans that go exactly as intended when you get into the classroom. In this environment, it's okay to not have the planning perfect. It's okay if things get a little bit extemporaneous, a little improvisational in the classroom. I would argue that a lot of that time that has traditionally gone into planning and grading papers and all of that ... Obviously you still have to do a lot of that ... But the more of that energy and that time that you can put into having face time with students, even in very small groups, it could be having a one-on-one or two kids, that's going to make all the difference for the kids right now.

Also, don't be worried if you're not able to cover all of the standards this year. This is a year ... No one's going to be writing about the COVID gain, that kids have learned 20% more this year magically. The catastrophe that we need to avoid is a large chunk of kids just falling off of their path, the system. A lot of it is just going to be a mental health issue, making sure they're engaged. I think if kids are engaged in mental health and they're having regular touchpoints with amazing teachers, things are going to be fine. The crisis is going to stay a crisis. It won't become a catastrophe.

Jill Anderson: So you think that's the most effective thing a teacher could do is just give that face time, that interaction, as much one-on-one as they could potentially get, or five on one?

Sal Khan: Yeah. If I'm a teacher looking at the pie of time and energy that I have in a given week, I would try to minimize the energy that I have to put into things where I'm not interacting with students ... Frankly, I don't think a lot of teachers enjoy those tasks either ... And maximize the energy that I can have where I am having interactive sessions with students. Sometimes we have our blinders on that, okay, school is five one-hour sessions for each class a week. It doesn't have to be that. You can really mix it up. It could be three minutes with these kids here, another seven minutes with those kids, maybe a 30-minute conversation with those kids. Allow people to have breaks. Frankly, everything I'm suggesting to some degree, I think is a best practice in general, but I think it's especially important when everything's happening virtually.

Jill Anderson: What about recorded videos? I see some communities relying on that just to kind of make their hybrid schedules work.

Sal Khan: I also have seen a lot of this. Teachers putting a lot of time and energy getting a setup like I have with a microphone and a pen tablet and all of that. That takes a lot of work, a lot of energy, and it's energy that once again gets taken away from time that they could be interacting with students. Depending on the subject, a lot of the stuff has already been created. It's already online, and I'm speaking as someone who's made thousands of videos. I think that's almost the least important part of the education process. The most important part is when a human is connecting with another human, having a conversation, doing real problem solving. So if it's a math class, obviously it'd be different depending on the course, index heavily on a Khan Academy to get the practice of feedback. If kids need extra explanations, obviously we have videos for that, but then make yourself as a teacher available to the students.

You might have to reexplain it in an office hours, in a group tutoring session or in a class, but make sure that the kids are pulling it from you and make sure that they've built the muscle looking at the resources that already exist. A lot of kids, even when there's already something on the internet that could help them, they want the teacher to spoon feed the knowledge to them. It's actually doing a disservice to the student. If my kid says, "Hey dad, can you explain this to me?" I was like, "Why don't you look it up first? And then if you're still having trouble, then I'm happy to help." But that's going to build their agency because I'm not always going to be around whenever they need it. It's an important muscle for the kids to build, and it frees up time for the teacher to focus on more of those interactive sessions over video conference.

Jill Anderson: So there's a lot of families with younger children beginning their school careers. They're having a very hard time imagining their child participating in full school days at a computer. What are your thoughts about using remote learning effectively for our younger students?

Sal Khan: As I was saying before, it's not good for anybody to be on a video conference for six hours a day, especially young kids. I would say obviously screen time is the only line that they have to some of the learning right now. But I would say maximum of two, three hours, little a day, and that's still pushing it. If you are getting to the high end of that, making sure that the kids have no more than 20 or 30 minutes at a stretch online or in a video conference. Even if they are, if it is a 30-minute or 40-minute stretch, that there's moments where they have to do jumping jacks, that there's interaction. They're getting to laugh and do some fun stuff with their virtual class.

But as a parent to really make sure those kids aren't just doing the Zoom PE. I just saw my child in the foyer doing it with ... It was fun, but also making sure they're getting outside, running around. Ideally if there's a couple of other families you're close to in a socially distanced way, meet up with them in a backyard or a park would make all the difference.

Jill Anderson: How do you think parents can support educators and even their children as they go through this?

Sal Khan: There's two things I tell everyone. First of all, this is a global pandemic. It's a suboptimal situation. You might be reading about families that seem to have it all figured out. No one has it all figured out right now. So don't feel insecure and don't feel stressed because honestly that's just going to bite away at you, and your kids are going to feel it, which is going to make it that much harder. Also, your kids' teachers are feeling the same things. They're also been thrown in the deep end of the pool trying to figure it out. So this is a time for maximum empathy for everyone.

I think the most constructive thing for families and for teachers is to have just a really constructive conversation. I'm really underlining constructive because I have met families, they're like, "Oh, I can't believe I heard this family is getting that from their teacher. Mind you, I'm going to call my teacher." I'm like, "Hey, chill out before you call your teacher because that teacher is doing their very best, and is probably doing a heroic job."

Make sure when you talk to them, it's with a constructive tone. I'm sure that they would love feedback on how things are going. In some ways, a lot of your feedback might be very welcome. I've seen families that are saying, "We've been given too much work to do." At the same time, the teachers are feeling pressure to give that work because they would actually also like to turn down the volume a little bit. That's where constructive conversation when parents say, "Hey, it's just hard to keep my kid for four hours on Zoom and it's squeezing out this or that." I think most teachers are like, "Oh yeah. Well, I agree with you. I thought I had to do this type of thing."

I think constructive. But don't point fingers right now because I think all the teachers that I've seen are doing heroic jobs keeping everyone learning. So time for maximum empathy.

I would also say keep it simple. If a school is offering a lot, great. Have a conversation with the school or with the teacher saying, "Hey, look, I think right now, given our family circumstances, I know you want us to do these five things. What are the three most important things? I think we can pull that off." I think you'll find the school to be very understanding.

Jill Anderson: Well, I hope so. I am a parent of a kindergartner.

Sal Khan: So am I.

Jill Anderson: Oh, okay. So this is just how it's beginning. I think it will be interesting to see how it plays out. Are there any other important pieces of advice that you might have for either parents or kids or educators?

Sal Khan: The number one thing is to make sure kids don't atrophy in their core skills. All subjects are important. I don't want to make it sound like X, Y, or Z isn't as important as A, B, or C. But the reality is if kids' skills atrophy in math, reading, or writing, it's going to be very hard for them to reengage in any other subject, whether it's in the sciences or the humanities. As a parent, you can pretty much make sure that that doesn't happen regardless of how well supported you are from your school.

Math. 20 minutes a day. It's not a lot. Get your kids on the appropriate grade level on Khan Academy. If you think they have a lot of gaps, they can do the Get Ready for Grade Level course. It'll identify where they need more help and they can build that strong foundation. But if they do 20 minutes at their own time and pace, ideally with you there to kind of give them some motivation to help them navigate, to help them stay engaged, I feel very confident those math skills are not only not going to atrophy, but they're going to accelerate.

For the reading, there's a lot of great tools out there. Khan Academy has materials. Lexia, Newsela, Raz-Kids, great for younger kids. We have Khan Academy Kids for the pre-K to first grade crowd. You can do 20 minutes there, but also just for very young kids read with them, make sure you get that 20 minutes, discuss the books. For slightly older kids, ask them to read a newspaper article, read a magazine, read a book, but be sure to talk to them about it. The kids will get more engaged if they feel like this is going to be part of the conversation at home.

On the writing, same thing. Give them little writing projects to work on. "Hey, this week, why don't you write whether schools should open up." Or, "Do a research project on exponential growth or the difference between RNA and DNA," or something completely separate from COVID. Like write an alternative history of whatever, whatever. We're going to put it on a blog and share it with our family, our grandparents, our uncles and aunts this Friday. Once again, it's not a lot. I'm saying 20 minutes of reading, writing and math each. So an hour total, which I think is doable for a lot of families. Everything I just described as essentially free. I think kids are going to be just fine.

Jill Anderson: Great. Well, this has been a really positive conversation. I thank you so much.

Sal Khan: Thank you.

Jill Anderson: Sal Khan is the founder and CEO of Khan Academy, a nonprofit and online education platform with a mission to provide a world class education to anyone, anywhere. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.

About the Harvard EdCast

In the complex world of education, we keep the focus simple: what makes a difference for learners, educators, parents, and our communities.

The Harvard EdCast is a weekly podcast about the ideas that shape education, from early learning through college and career. We talk to teachers, researchers, policymakers, and leaders of schools and systems in the US and around the world — looking for positive approaches to the challenges and inequties in education. One of the driving questions we explore: How can the transformative power of education reach every learner? Through authentic conversation, we work to lower the barriers of education’s complexities so that everyone can understand.


An education podcast that keeps the focus simple: what makes a difference for learners, educators, parents, and communities

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