Khan Academy — A World-Class Education for No One

Alex Lochoff
6 min readNov 13, 2019

While this piece is going to be quite critical of Khan Academy, there are also many things that Khan Academy does quite well. Khan Academy’s sheer breadth of topics, problem generation, data-tracking, and much more is highly commendable. While I do not think they have achieved their mission of providing “a free, world class education” yet, they have certainly made many steps in the right direction. I hope this piece serves not to denigrate the work that has been done, but rather challenge the company to continue improving.

Khan Academy: A World-Class Education for No One

Over the last 10–20 years, there has been an explosion of companies offering video lessons and online learning to students, particularly in the field of math. Yet, no company has received as much attention as Khan Academy, who promises a “world-class education, for anyone, anywhere”. Unfortunately, while Khan’s video-lesson approach is exciting to read about, it is far from providing anything near a world-class education. Glaring shortcomings and pedagogical inefficiencies are baked into every corner of Khan Academy, and despite massive funding and resources, there seems to have been little progress made in addressing them since Khan Academy began over a decade ago¹. If Khan Academy wants to meaningfully contribute to the educational landscape, it must hold itself to more rigorous standards.

Now, let me clarify that I am not expecting Khan Academy to achieve miracles. Video-learning in general has severe limitations that Khan Academy cannot be expected to tackle. Computers can’t respond to students’ questions, observe students’ work, or listen to students’ explanations. These limitations, among many more, are real, and will require technology, software, and hardware that does not yet exist to overcome. I do not fault Khan Academy for not tackling these issues. Rather, I fault Khan Academy for promoting content that fails to meet basic thresholds of accuracy or coherence and for employing pedagogically weak methods of instruction. I am not asking for miracles, but expect Khan Academy to meet a higher bar of professionalism and quality in their teaching.

First, we must address the reality that Khan Academy lessons are nothing more than glorified lectures. The only differences being that instead of writing on a chalkboard, Khan writes on a black screen, and instead of lecturing a room of students, he lectures into a microphone. No questions are asked during the video, and no work is expected from the students until after the video has concluded. Unfortunately for Khan Academy, lecturing like this is a demonstrably weak way of teaching that results in low knowledge retention, and poor outcomes.² The issue is that lectures try to help students acquire new knowledge and skills, but their passive style of teaching never actually engages students in the learning process, and never asks students to think critically or exert mental effort. Lectures falsely reduce the act of learning to one that involves nothing more than sitting, watching, and listening. While lectures and other forms of direct instruction from a teacher have their place in education, the fact that lecture is the only teaching approach employed by Khan Academy should immediately disqualify it from claiming that it provides a ‘world-class education’.

Furthermore, Khan Academy’s structure of lecture followed immediately by independent practice flies in the face of conventional wisdom about preparing students for success. Khan expects you to instantly pivot from watching a passive video to solving problems without any support or assistance. It’s like making a kid watch a video about how to swim, then tossing them in the deep end of the pool and saying ‘go’ — sink or swim. This ‘Watch me do it, then you do it completely on your own’ approach ignores the prevailing knowledge in teaching that students need to have the responsibility of solving problems gradually released from teacher to the student.³ This gradual-release framework ensures that students are given the chance to adapt to solving problems with less and less support, before eventually reaching full independence. Ignoring this gradual-release framework is likely to leave students unprepared and unable to be successful during the practice problems.

Now I would be able to ignore all of the structural shortcomings of Khan Academy videos if at least they did a good job explaining content. Unfortunately, this might be the most infuriating shortcoming of Khan Academy. While Khan claims to have a network of hundreds of content specialists, it doesn’t take much searching to find lots of content that is objectively bad.⁴ I encourage you to watch the sole video that Khan Academy provides in their ‘Intro to Decimal Place Value’ topic. The video revolves around naming the place value of the 3 in the number 654.213 (thousandths). This is something that students learn during their upper elementary years (likely 5th grade). However, Khan decides that the best way to explain said decimal place values is through negative exponents by explaining that tenths are just 10^-1, hundredths are 10^-2, and thousandths are 10^-3 (See figure 1).

Figure 1: Screenshot from Khan’s video titled “Decimal Place Value” — the sole video in the ‘Decimal place value intro’ topic.

Not only should this register subjectively a terrible way at getting kids to understand the concept of decimals, but it also is objectively flawed as the concept of negative numbers isn’t even introduced to students until 6th grade, and negative exponents are not discussed at length until 8th grade! After explaining the problem, as if recognizing the absurdity of his explanation, Khan proceeds to ramble for a little bit about how you could also think of the number in expanded form (600 + 50 + 4 + 2/10 + 1/100 + 3/1000), as though this tangentially related explanation will be sufficient to shore up any possible confusion that might linger in student’s minds. It baffles me who came up with this lesson, and I’m not sure in what world this would be considered a world-class ‘Intro to decimal place value’.

In addition to bad content explanations, the practice problem Khan provides are often only loosely correlated to what he actually teaches in each video. Take for example the topic of ‘Multi-digit division (no remainders)’ on his website. Students watch 2 videos that explain the procedure of long division for 2-digit, and then 3-digit numbers (See figure 2.).

Figure 2: Screenshot of Khan Academy video Titles “Long division: 280÷5”, part of the ‘Multi-digit division (no remainders)’ topic in Khan Academy.

Immediately afterward, students are sent to complete practice problems covering the only loosely related topic of how to use area models to write division equations (See figure 3). One can only imagine the frustration when a student can’t pass the practice problems because quite frankly, this wasn’t what they just learned about!

Figure 3: Problem set that follows immediately after the video in Figure 2. There is no mention of Area Models in any of that topic’s videos.

I recognize that a certain number of mistakes are inevitable when creating a massive platform of more than 5,500 videos. However, it is contrast between how low-level the mistakes being made are and the massive funding and resources that Khan Academy commands that I view as indicative of a deeper problem. Khan Academy has a staff of almost 180 and a budget of almost $50 million annually, $800,000 of which is earmarked for Sal Khan’s annual salary.⁵,⁶ This is enormous for an education company. There is no reality where they should lack the resources or know how to address these issues.

But perhaps they don’t need to address these issues. Khan Academy has almost monopolistic control over the ‘available-on-Youtube-online-learning-program category’. Other online programs are often geared towards schools or teachers and are difficult if even possible for a learner to navigate on their own. Khan is one of the only prominent places where a learner can search on their own and find videos and practice problems related to exactly what they are learning. However, if Khan wants to live up to its mission of providing a world-class education for anyone, anywhere, it must be willing to improve and grow it’s approach.