Friday, May 30, 2014

Michael5000 Enrolls in Khan Academy

So, you've probably been wondering: "Michael5000, have you just been wasting all of your free time playing 'Mini Metro'?"  And the answer is, certainly not!  I have only played Mini Metro a moderate amount, as it has continued to evolve through builds 10, 11, 12, and -- as of Wednesday evening -- build 13!

No, I've been wasting most of my free time with a computer entertainment (arguably) that is virtuous and improving (arguably)!  So improving, in fact, that many educational professionals around the world are, even as we speak, using threats and coercion to force children to play with it.  Which is to say, it's used in schools.  My friends, allow me to introduce: Khan Academy.

Khan Academy aspires to offer a free, complete package for self-paced or guided instruction across the traditional curriculum.  It is nowhere near that goal.  Stray away from math, and its content is really quite poor.  But oh, the math!  The math content is just... glorious.

If you were to boil it down to the very essentials, the two main features of the K.A. math emporium are (1) questions and problems, like the above, and (2) videos.  The questions and problems are, unlike in most free online educational tools, quite good and well thought out.  The nature of math is that you get better with practice, and there are a number of mechanisms built in to keep you chewing away at a skill until you get it right.  Of course it is also the nature of math that, if you don't know how to approach a problem, you're screwed.  That's where that orange "I'd like a hint" bar comes in very, very handy -- by ladling out hints, the interface will walk you step by step through how to work out your solution.

The most popular feature of K.A. might be the videos, in which avuncular Sal Khan -- literally avuncular, as the whole project apparently got started with him helping his nephews with their math homework -- walks you through the paces with a colorful electronic chalkboard.  There's nothing amazing about his delivery, but he is a confident and personable presence, and the young people of my acquaintance (who were the ones who hooked me up with K.A.) tell me that watching Uncle Sal (they don't call him that) do the math really helps them understand what their real-life teacher was going on about.

Aw man, math.  How come you said "entertainment"?

Because it's fun!  It's structured in a way that will be very familiar to online players of games, with lots of bells and whistles and little rewards.  There are points and badges!

And a jaunty cartoon character tips his hat to you when you "level up" on a skill!

But math is haaaaaaaaard......

Are you thinking that math is too tough a subject to ever revisit, now that you are more or less an adult?  Well, one of the marvels of K.A. is that it will meet you wherever you are.  If you find math really, really challenging, it will start you at the begining:

But it will scale up far enough to give most folks a substantial challenge:

There are a lot of specific skills make up a person's math ability, after all, and K.A. is constantly trying to figure out how to give you an appropriate level of challenge.  It maps out skills on a rectangular grid:

That's me.  After several weeks of messing around, it's figured out that I've got the really simple stuff under control, and so the top five or six rows are mostly blank -- it hasn't bothered to make me prove that I can do elementary arithmetic.  The dark blue boxes represent areas of advanced arithmetic, basic algebra, general geometry, and basic trigonometry.  That's what I've been working on to date.  The grey areas below correspond to probability and stats, advanced algebra and geometry, and the dreaded calculus.  I'll be moved on to those things when I've been proven worthy.

This still doesn't sound like fun

It's really kind of fun!  Ask Mrs.5000!  I signed her up to use as a test student, and she's nearly as hooked as I am!

You probably want some math homework

Which reminds me, I have been using K.A. not just as a dorky learning tool, but also as a dorky teaching tool.  Mostly, I use it with young people whose educational progress I am paid to encourage and enhance.  But if you want me to use it on YOU, gentle reader, just set up a K.A. account, go to your "Coaches" tab, and add this class code: "SC65SR."  And absolutely free, for no charge at all, simply because I like you -- I will assign you math homework.


Yankee in England said...

Well thank you for the kind offer but as many moons ago you assigned me geography homework I will pass.

Morgan said...

I think I'll settle for actual math homework, thanks. Khan academy does have pretty decent CS curricula, though! I have been using it to brush up on algorithms.

The power series evaluates to -1, by the way.

Ben said...

We have had our daughter use this tool from time to time, but we haven't been at all successful in getting her hooked. Let me know if you have any ideas on how to accomplish that--she would really benefit from the practice!

Maybe the problem is that we never actually signed her up for an account, so she doesn't see all of the motivators you mentioned...

Michael5000 said...

She probably just needs the joy of me assigning her homework!

mrs.5000 said...

Oh, you definitely want to have an account so can fill in the mosaic of little blue squares. That can be huge and somewhat random--The World of Math! or more focused. I have been learning about probability. So, for instance, if we chose who cooks dinner by shooting an elaborate series of free throws, having made a table of past performance under various conditions, now I could calculate if Michael had rigged the game or not, whereas before I would have only had nagging suspicions. So you see, it's really useful.