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App of the Week – Khan Academy

By Matthew McDonnell

In the past 20 years, the number of hours that children spend on academic pursuits has risen by 7.5 hours per week, for a total of 32.5 hours.

Whether you think this is too much, too little, or just right, surely we can all agree that however much time is spent on schoolwork, we should vigorously pursue ways to make sure our students get the most out of their academic schedule.

The new iPad app from Khan Academy has been touted as an excellent educational tool but little has been made of its function as a productivity tool, and it’s this feature that I believe gives the app its true value.

The traditional approach to education in the United States and many other countries has followed a familiar process: learn your lessons in school, practice a bit in class, then do most of your work at home.

The trouble with this model is that the real experts, the teachers, aren’t around when it’s time to do the work and kids encounter problems. Often times, parents without content specific knowledge (do you remember how to solve differential equations?) are charged with helping students muddle their way through very challenging topics.

This can be a very ineffective use of time. Khan Academy solves this problem by allowing you to take the content expert with you wherever you go.

Khan Academy’s iPad app is a welcome tool for parents, students, and teachers. When the homework stretches a parent’s memory a bit too far, when an older student is working independently, or when a parent runs out of activities for a particularly inquisitive child, Khan Academy is a wonderful support. It’s also an incredibly powerful tool for teachers. Rather than delivering instruction in class, teachers can assign lessons for homework and then assist students in practicing new skills during the school day.

Users can also create profiles, and Khan Academy offers access to lots of data if the user chooses to share results. This data allows teachers to focus future lessons and offer targeted support for individual students. It’s a useful tool in traditional classrooms but has tremendous potential in a tutoring or enrichment context.

The profile feature also provides awards for various academic feats, which will keep students engaged over time. Some of these awards require tremendous effort and serve as evidence of very real intellectual accomplishments. This ability to capitalize on the intrinsic rewards provided by learning really distinguishes Khan Academy’s app from the pack.

The iPad app allows access to the more than 3,000 videos available on Khan Academy’s website. While you can stream these lessons at any time from the web, you can also download them for later use.

Khan Academy is heavy on math, finance, science, and standardized test prep. It’s building out its lesson selection in the humanities and has a large selection of educational lectures in the video menu. A complete library would be welcome, but in the meantime, Khan has focused on what are traditionally considered the most challenging subjects. There’s not much for the elementary age student, but new modules are constantly being made available.

Thankfully, Khan Academy goes to great lengths to present non-axiomatic disciplines in as objective a light as possible. The app’s tone is skeptically charitable and its fair and even-handed approach is most obvious in its treatment of the potentially sensitive “Reconstruction” and “Communism” modules. It’s heavy on facts and ideology-free.

The app itself is remarkably simple and free of clutter. Its navigation system is an excellent tool to help the user find exactly what she’s looking for in short order.  However, the lack of a browsing function might limit the breadth of one’s exploration.

The app isn’t without its failings, however. As the reviewer was exploring the app, it unexpectedly crashed on two separate occasions. The transcripts can be tough to follow and occasionally contain typos and spelling errors, but these are minor distractions from a great product that is being continuously improved.

As a final word of caution, Khan Academy is meant to be one of many educational tools used to teach children. The app only communicates content, so educators and parents will still have to do the hard work of helping students synthesize the content and think about it critically.

Khan Academy is recommended for Kids, Tweens, and Teens (Ages 5 to 18) for ease of use and broad level educational concepts. Find screenshots, reviews, and family-friendly ratings for Khan Academy and more of the best iPad apps at Famigo.com.

Developer: Khan Academy

Compatibility: iPad (iOS 4.0 or later)
App Category: Education

Price: Free

Famigo Family Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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