Even though it’s the wee hours of morning, my son’s ready for school, and I’m happy to oblige. This year we’re trying out Khan Academy, and logging in is simple. “So cute!” he exclaims when an abstract illustration of smiling creatures welcomes him to his work. Soon, he’s happily dragging colorful squares across his Chromebook’s screen.
My family has never been normal, especially when it comes to learning. Now in 6th grade, my daughter has above-average comprehension skills and talent for digital art. She also lives with significant sensory processing differences and dyslexia. Meanwhile, my autistic son, now in 4th grade, remained non-verbal for many years and performs a few years behind his peers today.
In addition to working professionally as a writer, I’ve earned a Georgia teaching certificate and spent my twenties and early thirties working within public schools, private schools, virtual schools and non-traditional learning centers. After repeatedly witnessing these institutions fail to meet the unique needs of my own children, I began homeschooling them.
This year, my daughter started middle school and is attending in-person classes twice weekly at a hybrid learning center. This is a great solution for her now. Meanwhile, my son is learning 100 percent at home this year but has had tutors in the past. Even though I alter my approach based on my family’s changing needs, I’ve discovered that virtual programs are our most consistently valuable resource.
Guiding my children through the world of virtual learning has also opened me up to all the benefits it can offer any student. In the wake of COVID-19, I’m in good company. Record numbers of parents are exploring alternatives to traditional school systems. Khan Academy is a good place to start for parents new to remote learning platforms and homeschooling.
What is Khan Academy?
Khan Academy began in 2005, when Salman Khan developed a system for tutoring his cousins. A graduate of MIT and Harvard, he quickly grew his online learning platform to reach students of all ages throughout the world.
Today the Khan Academy offers a comprehensive curriculum to students in kindergarten through college. Its contents have been translated into over 36 languages, and it’s run by a team of over 150 people who continue to enhance the available course catalog. Nonetheless, it remains true to its mission “to provide a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere.”
Khan Academy is a 501(c)(3) non-profit and relies on donations. There is absolutely no charge for parents, teachers and students to set up a profile and gain full, unlimited access to the site.
How to use Khan Academy
Getting started with Khan Academy is easy. You simply visit the website and click the “sign up” link in the upper right corner. You can then choose to enter your email address or link your Khan Academy account to an existing Google or social media account. Parents and teachers can add individual student profiles. Adult learners can set up accounts themselves.
Clicking on individual student profiles unlocks a dashboard that tracks each student’s progress through Khan Academy’s courses. However, there’s a reporting delay, and I’ve found it more reliable to track progress within each course itself.
The courses are divided into units, which themselves are divided into sections. Each section contains links to instructional videos and to practice exercises. The practice exercises are engaging and designed to be completed online.
While students do not receive grades for completing the exercises, they are prompted to re-do the exercises until they gain proficiency. Then, they receive the message that they’ve “leveled up” and are cleared to complete additional work. The units also integrate quizzes and conclude with tests.
To see all the units Khan Academy offers, simply click the “courses” link in the upper left corner of the site. You can focus on the courses that best fit your student, and you can jump ahead and use quizzes and tests to check for understanding without completing all practice exercises. The instructional videos hold their own as teaching tools and can be integrated into traditional classroom settings.
For students under age 7, the Khan Academy offers Khan Kids, a free app that provides learning games. The app is separate from the main website but can be easily downloaded to both Android and iOS devices.
The pros and cons of Khan Academy
As a parent, I like that my children can independently complete the assignments I select. As a former classroom teacher, I appreciate the ease with which teachers can use Khan Academy to enhance their lessons and provide extra practice when needed. As an adult with an interest in lifelong learning, I’m also impressed that Khan Academy offers university-level curriculum, test-prep and life skills classes.
Additionally, I find the interface soothing, inviting and simple to use. I love the company’s driving philosophy that education is a human right, and I’m impressed by how the Khan Academy courses distill complex concepts down to the basics.
From what I’ve experienced while working with my children and perusing the site on my own, the lessons do not spark heated emotions or skew toward any type of ideology. Rather, they promote basic critical thinking and mastery of key academic skills while spreading the encouraging idea that anyone can learn anything.
Nonetheless, some subject areas are better developed than others. As a parent with elementary-aged children, I’m particularly impressed by the courses in mathematics. These begin with simple, interactive counting exercises and build organically to advanced calculus.
Meanwhile, the English Language Arts courses offer solid grammar instruction for every grade level. However, there is no support when it comes to helping students master the basics of reading itself. Likewise, courses focused on vocabulary, comprehension and writing are available only in the beta mode and extend only to grades 2-9 as of writing this review.
Finally, history and science courses are comprehensive for students in grades 9 – college. These can be adapted for use by advanced middle grades students. However, elementary options for science and history are lacking at this time.
Khan Academy is an essential resource for homeschooling families. It’s easy to use, relatively comprehensive, and free. It also allows for a level of customization that many traditional programs lack.
When it comes to special needs learners, the ability to advance at your own pace is a huge benefit. So is the ability to easily move between grade levels. Furthermore, the calming color palette and interactive elements of the program do a good job of stimulating my autistic son without overwhelming him. The only downside is that I need to supervise him when he’s working, and supplementing with additional programs is necessary for now.
Supplemental programs benefit special needs learners by providing targeted instruction, designed to specifically accommodate their unique needs. For example, Orton-Gillingham is a multisensory phonics technique that my daughter learned online to manage her dyslexia and learn to read. Khan Academy does not utilize methods like Orton-Gillingham at this time.
The science and history curriculum for students in grades 9 and above is dynamic and comprehensive. However, students in grades K – 8 must look elsewhere for science and history course materials.
Finally, it’s important for parents to understand that Khan Academy is not a school in the legal sense. Their courses match, and may sometimes exceed, the quality of what traditional schools offer. However, students cannot currently graduate or receive transcripts from Khan Academy. Homeschooling families must follow the legal guidelines for the areas in which they live and may consider contacting local hybrid schools when the time to create a transcript and apply to colleges comes.
When my son finished his most recent Khan Academy math lesson, I swiped his device and headed over to the National Geographic Kids site, where I read to him about mammals and the three branches of the United States government. After that, we cuddled up with a story, and he decided it would be best to take a nap before facing the rest of the day.
For now, I’m a happy homeschooling parent. I’m excited to see new innovations from Khan Academy, as well as to discover new resources. One of the things I like best about homeschooling my children is the way it encourages me to learn alongside them.