One needs simply to turn on the news to realize that we are a world divided. But what if, instead of a battlefield, the world was a schoolhouse? This is Khan Academy founder Sal Khan’s vision, and his latest education endeavor seeks to “connect the world through learning.” When a high school student in Oklahoma can offer free tutoring to an adult from Guatemala in calculus, or a professor in India can tutor a middle school student in Alabama in statistics, an enduring bond is formed that pushes aside politics and forgoes fences. The universality and interrelatedness of collaborative learning transcend the myriad of issues that polarize us. It is what Khan describes as an “unambiguous good.” Oh, and an added bonus is that it just might help you get into college.
When the global pandemic forced people to retreat into their homes, learning was jettisoned from traditional classrooms, confined to online platforms that were often imperfect and inequitable. With years of experience offering learning support through Khan Academy’s free adaptive learning platform, Khan and the organization’s leaders recognized the opportunity they had to combat learning loss while connecting individuals everywhere. Schoolhouse.world was born and nearly a year later, it is growing and thriving.
How it works
Schoolhouse is a live, synchronous companion to Khan Academy, providing open access to tutoring by certified peers. No matter who you are or where you live, you can attend free, live, small-group sessions over Zoom. The model started with support in high school math and standardized test preparation, but there are plans to expand to other subjects. In the past year, thousands of students from over 100 countries have benefited from the platform and there are currently over 1,000 certified volunteer tutors hosting hundreds of sessions every week. Some of these tutors once received support from others in the peer-to-peer model and are now paying it forward.
To become certified as tutors, individuals must demonstrate mastery of a subject through assessments on Khan Academy. They (and their screen) are recorded on video as they complete the assessments for each unit and explain their answers out loud as verification. These videos are then shared with the community of tutors on the platform for peer review to determine certification. Once they complete this process, they are off to the races and can start to share their expertise with others in what Khan describes as a “learn, certify, serve” cycle.
Does it work?
In short, yes. As part of the experience, students are able to rate their tutors and share testimonials. Participants have overwhelmingly rated their tutoring sessions as “helpful” or “super helpful” (96% of the time). The community of tutors and collective effort is what makes it work so well as new tutors have access to mentors and other resources to grow in their role.
The growth of the platform and the wide network of learners it has served is further evidence of how impactful this model is. The stories shared by those in the community are inspiring. In fact, it works so well that an increasing number of state departments of education–from Alaska to New Hampshire–have partnered with Schoolhouse to raise awareness and bring this free tool into the homes of their citizens. They also have a diverse group of donors and always need more.
Applying credentials to college admission
Assessment in college admission is a frequently debated topic. Grade inflation, inequitable access to high-level courses, and imperfect standardized testing can complicate a sometimes high-stakes process of applying to college. Admission leaders are faced with limited quality tools for assessing what a student knows and how likely they are to succeed. The pandemic amplified this reality. If you have attended a college admission information session, you have likely heard that in application review they are most concerned with how prepared students are academically and how applicants will make positive contributions to campus life and those around them. Schoolhouse offers evidence of both–not only have tutors demonstrated mastery of the subjects they teach, but they are also signaling a commitment to others. As part of the College Pioneer program, they receive a detailed transcript of the skills they have mastered, as well as the impact they have had. Last year, the University of Chicago piloted this program with great success and has been joined by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Case Western Reserve University for the current admission cycle. And, as news spreads, more colleges are in the wings, eager for another tool with which to evaluate candidates.
James Nondorf is the dean of admissions and financial aid and vice president for enrollment and student advancement at the University of Chicago. He emphasizes that “each student is unique and deserves the opportunity to tell their story on their own terms.” Recognizing this, in 2018 the University adopted a standardized test-optional policy to provide students with greater flexibility. Nondorf says that “since this change, thousands of students have chosen to apply to UChicago without standardized testing, instead choosing to highlight their successes in other inspiring and distinctive ways.” When UChicago partnered with Schoolhouse, they wanted to “ensure that students can represent themselves on their own terms in the application process, regardless of their ability to access standardized testing.” Nondorf explains, “In our first year of the partnership with Schoolhouse.world, students from 15 different countries and 14 states submitted certifications to UChicago and UChicago enrolled an incredibly diverse group of 13 students with Schoolhouse.world transcripts in the Class of 2025.” He adds, “as a testament to the wide accessibility of Schoolhouse, five of these amazing students hailed from outside of the United States, and another two came from rural areas of the US. This wonderful first group of Schoolhouse students also included four students who will be the first in their family to go to college.”
Stuart Schmill is the dean of admissions and student financial services at MIT. He explains, “When we review an application, we are looking to understand the academic capability of the applicant and what kind of an impact they may make in our community,” adding, “the Schoolhouse certification offers us good information on both fronts: being able to successfully teach a subject requires a deep level mastery of that subject, and tutoring others shows an obvious interest in helping others.” Schmill says, “Schoolhouse is especially well aligned with MIT, as the primary way students learn the curriculum is from each other in groups. It is nice to see students that have experience talking through and explaining the material.” He describes college applications as “value statements” saying, “what we ask about and evaluate is what we care about – and students will pick up on those signals.” Therefore in admission, if colleges can encourage more students to tutor on Schoolhouse, he argues, “that is one small way we can make a positive difference in the world.” This intention was realized when applicants to MIT learned about the possibility when completing their application and Schoolhouse saw a significant increase in interest from potential tutors…the power of selective college admission.
Richard Weissbourd is the faculty director of Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and leader of the Turning the Tide campaign, a collaborative effort by college admission leaders to reduce achievement pressure, emphasize ethical engagement, and level the playing field in college admission. Weissbourd says, “Schoolhouse’s initiative has exciting potential. We must look for new, effective means of assessment in college admission that are equitable and highlight what a student truly knows.” He adds, “It is also imperative that colleges consider the messages they send to applicants and their supporters through their admission policies and practices. Encouraging the free support that volunteer tutors offer through Schoolhouse is a great way colleges can signal commitment to the common good.”
Khan asks, “What if applying to college was high-value, not high-stakes?” With Schoolhouse.world people can learn anywhere, anytime, all they need is a phone. He emphasizes, “It’s all free. Nobody is paying to validate.” As he and the Schoolhouse team look forward, he says the concept is “moving from evolutionary to revolutionary.” In a landscape that has great disparities, Khan argues that “a key lever for improving the education system is increasing the supply of well-trained tutors in the world,” adding, “and those could be the students themselves.” Schoolhouse.world is the kind of news we need right now and has powerful potential to connect and educate.