MET:Khan Academy as a PLE

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Authored by Ryan McKeown (March 2012)


The Khan Academy is a Personal Learning Environment (PLE) that is designed to augment the traditional classroom with online based lessons and interactive simulations that are tracked and recorded. While a large section of the website is dedicated to various video tutorials, users are able to witness their progression through the use of knowledge maps and vital statistics if they desire to be a member of the site when working through the mathematical practice section/modules.



The Khan Academy website went live in September of 2006. At that time, Salman Khan was taking his growing library of YouTube educational videos and mirroring them online at the now known Khan Academy website. This progression is shared by Jill Duffy of PC Magazine (2011)[1]. Jill tells her readers, "Khan Academy started when a former hedge fund analyst, Sal Khan, began tutoring his cousins, who lived in different cities, in mathematics using Yahoo Doodle and a telephone. Tight on time and with other scheduling concerns, the MIT-educated Khan began recording screencasts of his help sessions so he could post them to YouTube, where his cousin could watch them at their own pace. Before long, other YouTube viewers were watching the videos, too, praising the material for finally helping them understand a concept they had been struggling to learn." While the original concept of the Khan Academy was assist with mathematics, it has grown to include other areas of study.


The design of the Khan Academy website works to the logical understanding of the user. The use of tabs and alphabetical listing of lessons, allows for users to find buried information below the screen in a consistent manner. Of particular consideration is the knowledge map. Users need to pan the map to see exercises they have yet to complete. Since the map is designed in a inverted tree hierarchical manner, it serves that the easier tasks are located at the top and the more difficult ones below. This logical ordering, as Donald Norman (1999)[2] points out, "by making the fundamental design model visible, users can readily (logically) deduce what actions are required." These actions, in terms of the knowledge map, direct users to complete one exercise and know that the following exercise is directly below.

James Paul Gee (2003)[3] would appear to speak in support of the Khan Academy approach, more so, it's game like apprach. He states, "What we are dealing with here is talking and thinking about the (internal) design of the game, the game as a complex system of interrelated parts meant to engage and even manipulate the player in certain ways. This is meatalevel thinking, thinking about the game as a system and designed space." While the Khan Academy is not openly classified as game, it has game like appeal with its unlocking of badges and promotion-like modules. The knowledge map itself reflects a system that is designed for the benefit of the user. In listening to the founder of the Khan Academy, Salman Khan, you begin to see how Gee and him share similar view points on creating unique affinity groups. Khan (2011)[4] observes that, "... the more interesting thing is -- and this is the unintuitive thing when you talk about technology in the classroom -- by removing the one-size-fits-all lecture from the classroom and letting students have a self-paced lecture at home, and then when you go to the classroom, letting them do work, having the teacher walk around, having the peers actually be able to interact with each other, these teachers have used technology to humanize the classroom." To this statement, the classroom is not a classroom anymore, but a personalized learning environment.


Those planning to make use of the Khan Academy as a PLE have the choice to: (1) Watch, (2) Practice, (3) Coach and, (4) Volunteer.


Currently (as of February 21st 2012), there are 3228 videos, or lessons, that can be watched by the viewer via the Khan Academy. The videos are hosted on YouTube and can be downloaded by the viewer for future reference in the MP4 format. As a YouTube hosted video, it does not require that you watch any particular lesson via the Khan Academy website. Viewers can access these lessons directly through the YouTube website as well. This is advantageous because all operation systems or platforms may not be able to access flash based videos outside of a particular YouTube app. Viewers also have the ability to comment on each of the videos, either posting a question, an observation or a critique of the lesson itself.


The practice section of the Khan Academy requires that you either login with a Google or Facebook account. After either creating an account or using an existing account, users are first presented with a zoomable and pannable Knowledge Map that connects all the learnings that can be done in the field of mathematics. This is the first level in the gamification[5] of this learning site. The knowledge map is a clustering of exercises that you should not access until you have sufficiently mastered the level above it, and or, a connected exercise(s) that links to a more demanding subsequent skill set (ex. a user should complete Addition 1 and Subtraction 1, before being able to access Subtraction 2). Completed exercises are coloured either blue or orange. Blue represents that you are proficient at that exercise, where orange suggests you may want to review a completed exercise. Green coloured exercises are indicated on the knowledge map as your suggested next exercise. Finally, greyed out map icons indicate exercises you have yet to start. Each exercise is supported with an oiptional video tutorial of how to be successful with regards to that specific exercise.

The Vital Statistics tab on the Knowledge Map leads users to a section that shows their progress through time and accomplishments. It is broken down into six sections. The first section is Achievements. Here the user can see the Badges he/she has collected while working through the exercises. The second section is Goals. Goals allow the user to see simple accomplishments they have completed (ex. Having watched five videos). Users are also capable of creating their own goal sets. The last four sections, Activity, Focus, Exercise Progress and Progress Over Time, all provide the user with graphically displayed time based results based on your current involvement within the Knowledge Map. These four sections are a visual tracking tool for active, semi-active and occasional users.


The coaching section of the Khan Academy is specifically designed to be used in a supervisory role. It would allow an educator or parent to have students assign him/herself as a coach for that user/student. Students then could be grouped into classes whereby the coach can see how the class is doing as a whole through statistics or how individual students are progressing (again, via the use of colours). Coaches can see exactly what areas students are struggling with, right down to the question(s) the student could not complete with multiple tries. From a teacher's or parent's perspective, this would allow for real-time intervention by the educator with the student. Supporting this as well, coaches have access to all the Vital Statistics that each individual user would see.


Becoming a volunteer for Khan Academy means you would be willing to help out in one of two ways. Firstly, you can assist by creating subtitles for English based lessons that would be used in non-speaking English countries. Secondly, you can also volunteer to dub over the English based lesson with a foreign language. The dubbing process is slightly more complicated than the subtitles and requires that you apply to be apart of this process.

Current Areas of Study

The Khan Academy currently has 78 areas of study that deal mainly with mathematical concepts, but also the arts, social studies, economics and test preparation. The following is a list of those lessons (videos) available [as of February 22, 2012].

Algebra: Introduction to Algebra

Algebra: Solving linear equations

Algebra: Solving linear inequalities

Algebra: Graphing linear equations and inequalities

Algebra: Systems of equations and inequalities

Algebra: Ratios & proportions

Algebra: Absolute value

Algebra: Exponents and Radicals

Algebra: Logarithms

Algebra: Polynomials

Algebra: Quadratics

Algebra: Functions

Algebra: Conic sections

Algebra: Complex numbers

Algebra: Matrices

Algebra: Algebra 1 Examples

American Civics

Arithmetic and Pre-Algebra: Addition and subtraction

Arithmetic and Pre-Algebra: Multiplication and division

Arithmetic and Pre-Algebra: Negative numbers

Arithmetic and Pre-Algebra: Number properties

Arithmetic and Pre-Algebra: Order of operations

Arithmetic and Pre-Algebra: Factors and multiples

Arithmetic and Pre-Algebra: Fractions

Arithmetic and Pre-Algebra: Decimals

Arithmetic and Pre-Algebra: Percents

Arithmetic and Pre-Algebra: Ratios and proportions (basic)

Arithmetic and Pre-Algebra: Exponents (basic)

Art History: - 400 C.E. Ancient Cultures

Art History: 400-1300 Medieval Era

Art History: 1300-1400 Proto-Renaissance

Art History: 1400-1500 Renaissance in Italy and the North

Art History: 1500-1600 The Reformation

Art History: 1600-1700 The Baroque

Art History: 1700-1800 Age of Enlightenment

Art History: 1800-1848 Industrial Revolution I

Art History: 1848-1907 Industrial Revolution II

Art History: 1907-1960 Age of Global Conflict

Art History: 1960- Age of Post-Colonialism

Banking and Money


Brain Teasers

CAHSEE Example Problems


California Standards Test: Algebra I

California Standards Test: Algebra II

California Standards Test: Geometry


Competition Math

Computer Science

Cosmology and Astronomy

Credit Crisis


Current Economics

Differential Equations


GMAT Data Sufficiency

GMAT: Problem Solving

Geithner Plan


Healthcare and Medicine


IIT JEE Questions

Khan Academy-Related Talks and Interviews

Linear Algebra

Microeconomics and Macroeconomics

Organic Chemistry

Paulson Bailout




SAT Preparation

Singapore Math



Valuation and Investing

Venture Capital and Capital Markets

Vi Hart

The Constructivist Learner and Khan Academy

It would appear that the constructivist theory of learning and the Khan Academy's approach to learning happen to be similar in nature. While it may be difficult to ascertain what theory Salman Khan follows, his learning modules and videos speak to the user learning for him/herself to support further achievements. The following is a comparison of the two:

Constructivist Ideology
Khan Academy Ideology (as according to Salman Khan)
An excerpt from Concept to Classroom

In the classroom, the constructivist view of learning can point towards a number of different teaching practices. In the most general sense, it usually means encouraging students to use active techniques (experiments, real-world problem solving) to create more knowledge and then to reflect on and talk about what they are doing and how their understanding is changing. The teacher makes sure she understands the students' pre-existing conceptions, and guides the activity to address them and then build on them.

Constructivist teachers encourage students to constantly assess how the activity is helping them gain understanding. By questioning themselves and their strategies, students in the constructivist classroom ideally become "expert learners." This gives them ever-broadening tools to keep learning. With a well-planned classroom environment, the students learn HOW TO LEARN.[6]

An excerpt from Khan Academy FAQ

“The lectures are coming from me, an actual human being who is fascinated by the world around him. The concepts are conveyed as they are understood by me, not as they are written in a textbook developed by an educational bureaucracy

There would be connections in the subject matter that standard curricula would ignore despite the fact that they make the content easier to understand, enjoy, and RETAIN. I felt like fascinating and INTUITIVE concepts were almost intentionally being butchered into pages and pages of sleep-inducing text and monotonic, scripted lectures. I saw otherwise intelligent peers memorizing steps and formulas for the next exam without any sense of the intuition or big picture, only to forget everything within a matter of weeks. These videos are my expression of how the concepts should have been expressed in the first place, all while not compromising rigor or comprehensiveness.”[7]

If you simply focus on the PRACTICE section of the Khan Academy website, you can see how Salman has applied the rational of constructivist learning into his knowledge map and continued questioning of student knowledge. He promotes this aspect of learning so that the users/students would become "expert learners" based on what they already know, either from the world outside of Khan Academy or from the lessons embedded in the site itself.

Personal Learning Application for Lifelong Learning

The Khan Academy provides a very user directed learning experience. Users are able to choose the topic/lesson of interest or need. The practice section, while limited to mathematical concepts, gives the user the ability to select the exercises (module) they wish to follow. This particularly speaks to what Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter (1994)[8] were addressing regarding student centered learning. They note, "The challenge we see for educational technology is to preserve a central role for the students themselves, lest they be reduced to passivity by the overwhelming amounts of authoritative external information available." Khan Academy serves to meet this challenge, by putting the user in charge of his/her own learning and the speed of progress to which they also control. The growing number and variety of instructional videos and modules allows users to follow interest based learning rather than teacher directed learning.

Affordances and Limitations

The Khan Academy represents a unique niche in the Web 2.0 realm of online personal learning environments. The majority of the content on the site is simply distributed to the visitor/user. It acts very much like a repository of information, rather than a unique user manipulated venue for information distribution that one might expect of other web 2.0 websites. It succeeds at personalizing the learning experience by allowing the user to control his/her own progress with little to no input from other users (exception being coaches who would have to verbally communicate with the user). While being interactive (practice section) there is no actual way for users to generate content. The Khan Academy, and associated YouTube channel, does allow for questions and comments to be posted for each video lesson. While this does provide some community feedback, it may not meet the expectations of a constructivist learning environment (CLE) as proposed by David Joassen (1999)[9]. He writes, "Learning most naturally occurs not in isolation but by teams of people working together to solve problems. CLEs should provide access to shared information and shared knowledge-building tools to help learners to collaboratively construct socially shared knowledge." This is the restriction of the Khan Academy being a PLE.

The Khan Academy may be viewed as a more modern day teaching machine rather than a social community of personal learning. While it may achieve being assessment centered, knowledge centered and learner centered, as Anderson (2008) identified as key attributes of learning, it does not approach the community centered learning he also spoke to. Yet Anderson (2008)[10] does point out, "There is no single best media of online learning, nor is there a formulaic specification that dictates the type of interaction most conducive to learning in all domains and with all learners." Accepting this, the Khan Academy does provide many online learners with a venue that is very personal, yet isolated outside of the users' connection to Khan's voice in the videos.

Stop Motion Video

Stop Motion Video by Bryn Hammett


  1. Duffy, J. (2011). Khan Academy. Retrieved February 23, 2012, from,2817,2397123,00.asp
  2. Norman, D. (1999). Affordances, Conventions and Design. Interactions, 6 (3), 38-41.
  3. Gee, J. (2003). Semiotic domains: Is playing video games a “waste of time? Chapter in: What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave.
  4. Khan, S. (2011). Let's use video to reinvent education. Retrieved February 23, 2012 from
  5. Gamification, as described by Stacey Edmonds (2011), is, "the buzzword that has been developed to describe this action of using game mechanics to make non-game material more engaging in order to encourage engagement in activities that might otherwise seem routine and boring." Source: Edmonds, S. (2011). Gamification of Learning. Training and Development in Australia 38(6), 20.
  6. Liepolt, W. (2004). Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning. Retrieved February 28, 2012, from
  7. Khan, S. (2012). Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved February 23, 2012 from
  8. Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1994). Computer support for knowledge-building communities. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 3(3), 265-283.
  9. Jonassen, D. (1999). Designing constructivist learning environments. In C. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional design theories and models: Volume II. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  10. Anderson, T. (2008). “Towards and Theory of Online Learning.” In Anderson, T. & Elloumi, F. Theory and Practice of Online Learning. Athabasca University.

External Links

Khan Academy

Khan Academy YouTube Channel