Coders Get Instant Gratification With Khan Academy Programming

August 22, 2012 by  
Filed under Every thing you Need to Know

Since 2006 the Khan Academy, named for its founder Salman Khan, has provided free video lectures on subjects such as mathematics, biology and history. As we’ve reported before Khan garnered praise from the likes of bill Gates (whose foundation invested $1.5 million in the site), but others have been more critical of the lecture-driven approach. Thus far the site has only included prerecorded lectures that offered no feedback or interaction.

That’s changing today with Khan Academy’s new computer science section.

The tutorials are interactive and live entirely in the browser. Instead of a video, each lesson contains a pane on the left side for students to enter code and a pane on the right that displays the output. The first lesson walks students through the process of writing code that will draw a face in the right pane. After learning to generate graphics, students work up to animation and eventually to games, such as a Pac-Man clone.

Rather than have students write code and then run it to see if it works, the results of changes are displayed in the right pane immediately, providing immediate feedback. The lessons also include tips for solving common beginner problems.

Khan has a master’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT and an MBA from Harvard Business School but has no formal background in teaching. He started out by filming lectures to tutor relatives, but since last year the non-profit organization he’s formed has been pushing the site’s content as a viable asset for traditional schools. That’s part of what the push back about Khan’s format is about. one particularly scathing critique came from Mathalicious founder Karim Kai Ani, who criticized not just Khan’s lecture-based approach, but the quality and clarity of the videos’ content as well. Although teachers told Wired last year that the Khan Academy materials helped improve test scores, many educators remain skeptical of the site’s content’s ability to provide a deep understanding of the material.

Perhaps the computer science will help in that regard. Many of Khan’s critics advocate the constructivist school of education, which promotes experiential learning over lectures and drilling. Although Khan (and Gates) were somewhat dismissive of critics in the past, the tutorials use Processing.js, which is based on the visual arts centric programming language Processing, but can run inside a modern web browser without the need for any plugins. Processing is part of a tradition of programming education that started with the programming language Logo, an educational programming language created in 1967 by constructivist educators.

It’s too early to tell how well the new tutorial will teach programming concepts, or whether it will win over critics. but it is a sign that the organization is listening to critics and moving beyond its roots.

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