In these two episodes of e-Literate TV, we shared how Arizona State University (ASU) started using Khan Academy as the software platform for a redesigned developmental math course1 (MAT 110). The program was designed in Summer 2014 and ran through Fall 2014 and Spring 2015 terms. Recognizing the public information shared through e-Literate TV, ASU officials recently informed us that they had made a programmatic change and will replace their use of Khan Academy software with McGraw-Hill’s LearnSmart software that is used in other sections of developmental math.
To put this news in context, here is the first episode’s mention of Khan Academy usage.
Phil Hill: The Khan Academy program that you’re doing, as I understand, it’s for general education math. Could you give just a quick summary of what the program is?
Adrian Sannier: Absolutely. So, for the last three-and-a-half years, maybe four, we have been using a variety of different computer tutor technologies to change the pedagogy that we use in first-year math. Now, first-year math begins with something we call “Math 110.” Math 110 is like if you don’t place into either college algebra, which has been the traditional first-year math course, or into a course we call “college math,” which is your non-STEM major math—if you don’t place into either of those, then that shows you need some remediation, some bolstering of some skills that you didn’t gain in high school.
So, we have a course for that. Our first-year math program encompasses getting you to either the ability to follow a STEM major or the ability to follow majors that don’t require as intense of a math education. What we’ve done is create an online mechanism to coach students. Each student is assigned a trained undergraduate coach under the direction of our instructor who then helps that student understand how to use the Khan Academy and other tools to work on the skills that they show deficit in and work toward being able to satisfy the very same standards and tests that we’ve always used to ascertain whether a student is prepared for the rest of their college work.
Luckily, the episode on MAT 110 focused mostly on the changing roles of faculty members and TAs when using an adaptive software approach, rather than focusing on Khan Academy itself. After reviewing the episode again, I believe that it stands on its own and is relevant even with the change in software platform. Nevertheless, I appreciate that ASU officials were proactive to let me know about this change, so that we can document the change here and in e-Literate TV transmedia.
Since the change has not been shared outside of this notification (limiting my ability to do research and analysis), I felt the best approach would be to again interview Adrian Sannier, Chief Academic Technology Officer at ASU Online. Below is the result of an email interview, followed by short commentary [emphasis added].
Phil Hill: Thanks for agreeing to this interview to update plans on the MAT 110 course featured in the recent e-Literate TV episode. Could you describe the learning platforms used by ASU in the new math programs (MAT 110 and MAT 117 in particular) as well as describe any changes that have occurred this year?
Adrian Sannier: Over the past four years, ASU has worked with a variety of different commercially available personalized math tutors from Knewton, Pearson, McGraw Hill and the Khan Academy applied to 3 different courses in Freshman Math at ASU – College Algebra, College Math and Developmental Math. Each of these platforms has strengths and weaknesses in practice, and the ASU team has worked closely with the providers to identify ways to drive continuous improvement in their use at ASU.
This past year ASU used a customized version of Pearson’s MyMathLab as the instructional platform for College Algebra and College Math. In Developmental Math, we taught some sections using the Khan Academy Learning Dashboard and others using McGraw Hill’s LearnSmart environment.
This Fall, ASU will be using the McGraw Hill platform for Developmental Math and Pearson’s MyMathLab for College Algebra and College Math. While we also achieved good results with the Khan Academy this past year, we weren’t comfortable with our current ability to integrate the Khan product at the institutional level.
ASU is committed to the personalized adaptive approach to Freshman mathematics instruction, and we are continuously evaluating the product space to identify the tools that we feel will work best for our students.
Phil Hill: I presume this means that ASU’s usage of McGraw Hill’s LearnSmart for Developmental Math will continue and also expand to essentially replace the usage of Khan Academy. Is this correct? If so, what do you see as the impact on faculty and students involved in the course sections that previously used Khan Academy?
Adrian Sannier: That’s right Phil. Based on our experience with the McGraw Hill product we don’t expect any adverse effects.
Phil Hill: Could you further explain the comment “we weren’t comfortable with our current ability to integrate the Khan product at the institutional level”? I believe that Khan Academy’s API approach is more targeted to B2C [business-to-consumer] applications, allowing individual users to access information rather than B2B [business-to-business] enterprise usage, whereas McGraw Hill LearnSmart and others are set up for B2B usage from an API perspective. Is this the general issue you have in mind?
Adrian Sannier: That’s right Phil. We’ve found that the less cognitive load an online environment places on students the better results we see. Clean, tight integrations into the rest of the student experience result in earlier and more significant student engagement, and better student success overall.
Keep in mind that ASU is quite protective of its relationship with multiple software vendors and that they go out of their way to not publicly complain or put their partners in a bad light, even if a change is required as in MAT 110. Adrian does make it clear, however, that the key issue is the ability to integrate reliably between multiple systems. As noted in the interview, I think a related issue here is a mismatch of business models. ASU wants enterprise software applications where they can deeply integrate with a reliable API to allow a student experience without undue “cognitive load” of navigating between applications. Khan Academy’s core business model relies on people navigating to their portal on their website, and this does not fit the enterprise software model. I have not interviewed Khan Academy, but this is how it looks from the outside.
There is another point to consider here. While I can see Adrian’s argument that “we don’t expect any adverse effects” in the long run, I do think there are switching costs in the short term. As Sue McClure told me via email, as an instructor she spent significantly more time than usual on this course due to course design and ramping up the new model. In addition, ASU added 11 TAs for the course sections using Khan Academy. These people have likely learned important lessons about supporting students in an adaptive learning setting, but a great deal of their Khan-specific time is now gone. Plus, they will need to spend time learning LearnSmart before getting fully comfortable in that environment.
Unfortunately, with the quick change, we might not see hard data to determine if the changes were working. I believe ASU’s plans were to analyze and publish the results from this new program after the third term which will not happen.
If I find out more information, I’ll share it here.
By Phil Hill
- The terms remedial math and developmental math are interchangeable in this context. [↩]