Commentary: Improving developmental math through technology

By Tim O’Connor and Katherine Hughes

The benefits and challenges of using Khan Academy in the classroom.

There is consensus in the field that major changes need to be made to how incoming community college students are assessed for college readiness, and how their knowledge and skills shortcomings are addressed. There’s been a great deal of experimentation and transformation on campuses across the country. One approach being tried, primarily in mathematics, is to add technology to the classroom.

This past December, dozens of math faculty and college administrators met for a day at Middlesex Community College in Massachusetts to share lessons learned from the Developmental Math Demonstration Project (DMDP). The project, funded by Lumina Foundation through the New England Board of Higher Education, supported the use of Khan Academy in various developmental education delivery models, as well as in placement test preparation boot camps.

Khan Academy is a non-profit educational organization with a mission “… to provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.” The core values of Khan Academy are that learning should be personalized, mastery-based, interactive, and data driven.

Recently, the College Board and Khan Academy partnered to offer free preparation resources for the PSAT and SAT tests that include practice tests and tailored practice plans for high school students. Many are hopeful that these resources will augment students’ classroom learning and be useful in placement exam preparation, and for developmental mathematics.

From 2013 to 2015, faculty from 12 New England community colleges explored the use of Khan Academy for those purposes. Participating DMDP colleges used Khan Academy’s math content (conceptual videos, practice exercises and adaptive assessments) as a supplement for students and faculty in various delivery models including self-paced, blended, modular and traditional developmental education classes.

One college incorporated Khan Academy into an adults-in-transition program to prepare students for the ACCUPLACER. Another ran successive ACCUPLACER prep boot camps. At the Community College of Vermont, instructors embedded Khan Academy in developmental math and foundations of algebra courses.

The colleges each, in their own way, discovered how to use Khan Academy to benefit students. Effective instructors made use of the “Four Essentials of a Successful Khan Academy Implementation.” The instructors started simply and evolved over time; showed students the benefits of mastery learning and how to best use the platform; used essential Khan Academy tools; and provided students with peer tutors and mentors.

Implementation training helped mitigate two challenges by providing help with technical set-up, best suggested use practices, and ways to personalize teaching with Khan Academy. Training also helped with guiding students through the transition from conventional classroom learning toward taking ownership for their own learning.

Khan Academy is not a silver bullet. It may not always replace a textbook. It cannot substitute for a good teacher or coach. It addresses multiple learning styles and reinforces good learning habits, but might not be for everyone. Still, the immediate feedback, granular real-time progress reports, targeted learning missions, coach-guided learning recommendations and emphasis on mastery learning are motivational for both students and instructors.

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Tim O’Connor

is a developmental math instructor at the Community College of Vermont, the implementation coach for the New England Board of Higher Education’s Developmental Math Demonstration Project and the instructor trainer for a U.S. Department of Education-funded WestEd project evaluating the efficacy of using Khan Academy in community college algebra classes across California.

Katherine Hughes

is executive director of community college and higher education initiatives at the College Board.

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