Dartmouth works with Khan Academy

by Erin Lee | 1/11/16 7:37pm

When Salman Khan, the founder of educational organization Khan Academy, came to the College to speak in April 2012, computer science professor Devin Balkcom was intrigued. After chatting with Khan over lunch, Balkcom volunteered his services to create content for the site and Dartmouth became the first and only undergraduate institution to partner with Khan Academy.

The partnership with Khan Academy entails helping create content for the website, which offers video-based courses in a variety of subject matters.

Balkcom and fellow computer science professor Thomas Cormen developed the content for a Khan Academy algorithms course based on Dartmouth’s “Computer Science 1” course. Balkcom said the Khan Academy course is similar to the last six weeks of the course’s curriculum, which he developed, and is not related to the college’s algorithms class, “Computer Science 31.”

“In terms of a course, algorithms can mean different things,” Balkcom said. “Algorithms are a particular way of solving certain types of problems.”

The website already had some introductory computer science content prior to his joining and an algorithms course was a “natural next step,” Balkcom said.

Cormen said he and Balkcom flew to Mountain View, Calif. to visit Khan Academy’s headquarters in March 2014. Developing the online modules took about eight months, Balkcom said.

Director of digital learning initiatives at Dartmouth Joshua Kim said the project was part of larger discussions with Khan Academy and well-aligned with Dartmouth’s interest in new tools and technologies.

As of a couple months ago, the course was receiving several thousand viewers per month, Balkcom said. He noted the initial introductory computer science material is the most popular part of the course and estimated that five to ten percent of those who finish it progress through the algorithms course.

Cormen said the primary audience of Khan Academy is the “pre-college crowd.” Modules include interactive coding challenges meant to capture students’ interest, such as implementing a sorting algorithm to organize data, he said.

The course incorporates visual elements, like graphics and animations, to illustrate concepts on the online platform, Balkcom said. Since students voluntarily choose to take Khan Academy classes and do not receive academic credit, the professors wanted to ensure the course was consistently interesting and exciting, he said.

“What’s exciting to college students and high schoolers is not all that different,” Balkcom said.

He said that they are starting to bring some of these new elements from the Khan Academy course back into “Computer Science 1.”

Kim said math professor Scott Pauls used Khan Academy to “flip” his “Math 3” class as part of the Gateway Initiative, a three-year program redesigning high-enrollment courses. Students in the course watched Khan Academy lectures before class and worked on problems with Pauls during class time.

Cormen added that the value of the Dartmouth experience is that students receive feedback from their professors and get to know them personally, whereas Khan Academy is a way to distribute information to those who may not have easy access to it otherwise.

Balkcom said the course is not finished, as there are modules they would like to add. These will cover topics such as artificial intelligence and robotics, but there is no set schedule for expanding, he said.

Partnering with Khan Academy fits well with Dartmouth’s commitment to undergraduate teaching, Balkcom said. Some of his own students have taught high school robotics camps and introductory coding and he said he would like undergraduate students to be involved with creating Khan Academy content.

Other institutions Khan Academy has partnered with include NASA, Stanford School of Medicine and the Metropolitan Musem of Art.

Kim said Dartmouth’s Center for the Advancement of Learning is currently in discussions with Khan Academy to see how to collaborate further.

College President Phil Hanlon knows Khan personally, and the people working at Khan Academy are in the same educational technology sphere as DCAL, Kim said. Other online courses Dartmouth hosts include massive open online courses on edX and the Master of Healthcare Delivery Science on Canvas.

“All this experimentation we’re doing with different learning technologies is to try to build on those models so every class at Dartmouth feels like a small class,” Kim said. “We think technology can be a bridge to do that, so when we talk to Khan, that’s really the goal.”