Anyone Can Learn Anything

This past summer, I had the incredible opportunity to work at Khan Academy as a software engineering intern. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Khan Academy, it is a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide a free world-class education for anyone, anywhere. The people at Khan Academy believe that you can learn anything, so I figured I would take this time to reflect on things I learned this summer.

Learning to work with remote coworkers

Khan Academy has a very remote-friendly work culture. This was my first time working at a company where only about 50% of the employees worked on-site. Thanks to Slack and Google Hangouts, communication about work went pretty smoothly; however, things like the time difference and missing out on “water cooler” talks made getting to know my remote coworkers a bit more challenging. One thing that I wish I had done as an intern was attend the remote tea-times. These bi-weekly meetings were designed for remote employees and on-site employees to gather and just chat about things that are not necessarily work-related. If I ever do find myself back at Khan Academy, one of the first things I would want to do is attend one of the remote tea-times 🙂

Learning about accessibility compliance

One of my projects this summer was to help the Learning Platform team rewrite the discussions feature. The old discussions feature had a lot of room for improvement with regards to accessibility. For instance, learners who navigate through the site exclusively with a screenreader might have had trouble interacting with different parts of the discussion tools. Working on the discussions rewrite definitely made me more conscious of how the tiniest details can make a huge difference in how easy or difficult it is for a user to engage with the interface. Simply adding a few ARIA attributes and updating the focus element already saves the user from having to tab through the entire document to see what changed after the click of a button. Although this probably was not the most technically challenging project I’ve ever tackled, I truly had a blast tag-teaming with my co-workers on a project that helps Khan Academy truly be a platform where anyone can learn anything.

Learning what to look for in a job

One of my favorite parts about working at Khan Academy this summer was being surrounded by people who are incredibly passionate about the mission of the company. The engineers at Khan Academy are incredibly bright, and I’m sure many of them could easily have chosen to work somewhere that pays them more than a non-profit organization. However, they choose to work at Khan Academy because they know their skills are being used for a really good cause. The office walls are filled with testimonials from students, teachers, and parents saying how Khan Academy has changed their lives for the better. Some of my favorites are from students who couldn’t afford fancy test prep courses or books, but because of Khan Academy’s free SAT prep, they scored high enough on the standardized tests to earn college scholarships. It’s quite remarkable if you think about it.

Everyone has different priorities when it comes to job searching, and I think this past summer has helped me narrow down my top priorities. First and foremost, I want a job where I genuinely enjoy working with my coworkers and where we all feel like we’re contributing to a worthy cause. As long as I’m in an environment where I feel comfortable asking other people for help and working with them to solve problems, I think I’ll learn a lot during my first few years in the workforce.

All in all, I very much enjoyed my internship at Khan Academy, and I hope that I’m just as happy wherever I end up full-time *fingers crossed* 🙂

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Personalized Learning Tools

My opinion of the education technology scene has changed quite a bit over the past few years. Whenever people hear that I’m interested in both computer science and education, their default response tends to be something along the lines of, “You should work for edX or Khan Academy!” When I was a freshman in college, I was totally on board with that idea. However, after realizing that my favorite part of teaching was getting to know my students on a deeper level and pushing them to achieve more, I became less interested in the idea of building technology that put curriculum online because I thought it seemed impersonal.

I was also somewhat influenced by Dan Meyer’s blog post “Problems with Personalized Learning” from March 2017. In the blog post, Dan highlights some of his concerns about an article written about personalized learning.

Personalized learning is only as good as its technology, and in 2017 that technology isn’t good enough. Its gravity pulls towards videos of adults talking about math, followed by multiple choice exercises for practice, all of which is leavened by occasional projects. It doesn’t matter that students can choose the pace or presentation of that learning. Taking your pick of impoverished options still leaves you with an impoverished option.

I’ll be honest—reading this blog post made me question the effectiveness of all the personalized learning tools I had heard about. However, after reading Sal Khan’s The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined, I realized that there was nothing wrong per se about the tools themselves. The problem was assuming that the simple act of incorporating “personalized learning” tools in the classroom would automatically make students learn better. The tool itself is not the solution. Rather the tool makes it possible for teachers and students to have more meaningful interactions in the classroom.

Sal explains that by having students watch lecture videos on their own time, teachers can invest classroom time in working one-on-one with students and personalize the explanations they give them. Student performance tracking on platforms like Khan Academy help teachers identify which students are struggling and on which concepts, which in turn allows teachers to address specific pain points for students.

Another way in which tools like Khan Academy pave the way for personalized learning is by making mastery learning possible. Students should not move onto more advanced topics until they have demonstrated mastery of the foundational concepts. Mastery learning is generally not feasible with the traditional school system because the entire class moves together from unit to unit regardless of whether or not the student has actually mastered the previous unit’s material. However, by letting students move at their own pace, Khan Academy opens the doors to mastery learning, which I would argue is a key to truly personalized learning.

Just having the right tools doesn’t mean that the problem will be solved. It’s equally important, if not more important, to use the tools properly. Funnily enough, this lesson helped me realize that tools that might seem impersonal on the surface can, in fact, open the doors to more personal interactions.

The final countdown

There’s a little more than a month left of school, which means nostalgia is beginning to set in. As I look back at my college years, I’m somewhat overwhelmed by how much I’ve learned and grown since I first stepped onto campus my freshman year.

I think I’ll wait until I’ve actually graduated before doing my whole “look back on college life” post, so in the meantime, I’m just going to reflect on a few things that have happened this past semester.

To drop or not to drop

I dropped a class around four or five weeks into the semester, which is the latest I have ever dropped a class. My team was having some team dynamic issues, which really stressed me out. Every time we had an assignment due, all I would ever talk about with my friends was how frustrated I was with how my team was working.

At some point, I decided we needed to have a team meeting to discuss how things were going. I voiced my concerns and asked for ways in which we could alleviate the situation. I actually left that meeting feeling quite optimistic about the rest of the semester. Long story short, things didn’t get much better, so I decided it wasn’t worth the continual stress to remain in that class.

Dropping that class was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make because I didn’t want to abandon my team, and I didn’t want to feel like I was just giving up when the going got tough. However, I realized that sometimes I have to choose my battles. I don’t have to fight the hardest battles every time just because they are the hardest. If what I’m fighting for is not worth the struggle, then it is okay not to go up for that fight.

Turns out that decision was probably one of the best decisions I have made this semester. I quickly went from being miserable all the time to feeling the happiest and least stressed I have felt during my four years in college. (Also, it just so happens that the class structure changed, and the teams were disbanded soon after I dropped the class. Fortunately, my team did not suffer the consequences of being short one member.)

Showing up

Back when I was a freshman, a professor once told my class that opportunities are everywhere, and all you have to do is show up to learn about them. Someone in my lab emailed out about a Science of Learning Journal Club meeting, and I decided to go. Even though I had to shift around some other commitments and skip lunch to read the journal paper, I’m really glad I did so because I had a blast at the journal discussion.

I’m proud of myself for going even though I didn’t know a single person who attended that discussion. I was the only student among a bunch of Open Learning staff members, so I definitely felt out of place at first. Fortunately, they were actually super excited to have a student’s voice join their discussion. I’ve never felt so special just to be a student.

During the span of one hour, I met some incredible people who all care deeply about education and participated in some thought-provoking discussions about learning science concepts. I can’t wait to see everyone again next month because even though we represent very different demographics, I still felt like I had found my people.

That’s All Folks!

Teaching STEM in Korea

It’s only been five days since our STEM camp ended and already I miss my students, my team, and Seoul. I’m proud of my team for putting together a successful workshop, and I’m proud of my students for working so hard during these past two weeks.

DSC02587.jpg Two of our students made us a thank you poster!

For my final blog post, I thought I would highlight some of the most memorable parts of this trip for me. Obviously, if you want more details, you should just read the rest of the blog 🙂

Projects

During the afternoons of Days 7 through 9, we had the students choose and work on their own final project. We wanted to give students the opportunity to explore their favorite workshop activity in greater depth.

There were some concerns with regard to how successful an open-ended project would be with this particular group of students…

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Internet, VR, Dry Ice, and More

Teaching STEM in Korea

During the next two mornings, we covered a variety of topics including the internet, virtual reality, and dry ice.

My first internet simulation activity (adapted from Code.org) was based on the game Battleship. However, rather than have multiple ships and only one opponent, this version allowed a single player to place one battleship for each of three opponents. Because this was an internet simulation, students had to communicate their intent to attack a particular board space by passing notes with To/From fields and the board coordinates. The message recipient would then indicate whether the chosen board coordinate was a hit or a miss. Once the students got the hang of the game, some actually got really into it.

IMG_5457.jpg Battleship internet simulation

Three students were absent, so Emily kindly stepped in and played as all three of them.

IMG_5458.jpg Emily playing three games of Battleship

For the second internet simulation, I put together…

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Biology Day

Teaching STEM in Korea

Week 2 started off with a morning dedicated to biology activities. Emily whipped out her signature microscope lab, which has been a hit for three consecutive years. The students had a blast competing against each other to locate specific objects on various bills and coins.

IMG_5392.jpg Students competing in the money-search competition

For the next activity, students learned about viruses and built their own models of the HIV and Zika viruses.

DSC02208.jpg Paper models of viruses

The students also tried their hand at performing surgery…on bananas. Practicing interrupted and continuous stitches on bananas was definitely a crowd-favorite. Some students loved the activity so much that they wanted to know exactly when they could suture bananas again.

DSC02224.jpg Interrupted stitches on a banana

In the afternoon, Emily taught the students how to use the Raspberry Pi camera. With just a few lines of code, the students were able to create their very own photo booth complete…

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Making things move

Teaching STEM in Korea

On Friday, Shine started off the day with mousetrap cars. The students seemed to enjoy putting all the pieces together, and we just so happened to have duct tape that matched the colors of each time (i.e. pink, yellow, green, and blue). Emily sacrificed a pen to show the students what would happen if someone’s finger got caught in the mousetrap. I think that demonstration sufficiently scared the students and made them work more cautiously.

Once everyone had a working mousetrap car, we raced them. I even drew a makeshift checkered flag, green flag, and a diagonally divided black-and-white flag. In case anyone is interested, a diagonally divided black-and-white flag is used to indicate a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, at least according to Wikipedia. I felt super cool waving around my flag, but I think Emu and Emily carried their flags just to appease me.

The next activity was nail…

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