Gamification Review: Khan Academy

You are probably familiar with Khan Academy. You may recognize and appreciate the gamification built into the math section. But did you know that Khan Academy is likely the best gamified program out there? It doesn’t look like a game; it doesn’t really even feel like a game. It just works like a game – and it works really, really well.

Khan Academy LogoKhan Academy began as a set of YouTube tutorials made by Sal Khan for his cousin, who was struggling in math. Today, it is a multimillion-dollar nonprofit with the stated mission of  “a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere”. It provides an impressive set of resources, too: over 5000 courses delivered in 65 languages. The former YouTube math channel is now a multimillion-dollar nonprofit backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Google, and many others.

In addition to mathematics, Khan Academy covers many areas of science, arts & humanities, computing, economics, and test prep. The site offers a well-organized and comprehensive set of resources for each subject, including video tutorials, text documents and discussion forums where students can both ask and answer questions.

The original section of Khan Academy – The World of Math – is the only part that is gamified and thus of immediate interest to us in the context of gamification.

The World of Math represents over 1200 individual math skills, each of which tracks at four levels of mastery. The programming behind the scenes is brilliant. Students can select skills to practice, but even after demonstrating mastery of a concept, the skill will be tested periodically for retention. Problems are presented in small sets, requiring a few seconds to a few minutes to complete. Students get immediate feedback for each question, with a video tutorial offered in the sidebar if needed. A variable number of problems must be correctly solved, on the first attempt and consecutively, before progressing to another practice set. Completion of a set activates an animation of points awarded, like a high-speed odometer. Watching it spin is strangely satisfying; there is no explanation apart from a basic neurochemical reaction. Two progress charts – a circular percentage graph and a grid display of all 1200+ individual math skills – show progress in mastery.

Any website with the sheer quantity of instructional and practice materials provided by Khan Academy would be a valuable resource. Sal’s natural talent for making abstract concepts understandable is unique. The leveling algorithms are as well-executed as anything out there. But the real genius of Khan Academy is the way everything works so well: no drama, minimal distraction in terms of animation and sound effects, simple, elegant graphic design all blend to produce an experience that makes math fun. When I was in school, I hated math. Math was difficult and frustrating, and my level of engagement ranged from compliant to apathetic. Many years later, as an educator and a parent of students, I appreciate the logical beauty of math, and understand it better than before – but it will never be on my list of favorite things. Yet somehow, when I am doing math in Khan Academy, it is difficult to stop. This is not fun in any normal sense of the word. There are no games here, nothing entertaining. The fun comes from an induced state of flow, an involuntary absorption in the process of learning concepts and solving problems. You have to experience this to understand, as it goes beneath the conscious mind deep down into the limbic system – the “reptile brain” – at the level of instinctual reflex. This is gamification at its best: game elements have been integrated into the instructional context so as to leverage brain neurochemistry, all for the purpose of effective math learning.

Best of all, Khan Academy is free. Anyone with access to Internet can profit from what is arguably the most effective educational program in the world: about half a billion lessons delivered at the time of this publication to over 32 million users in 190 countries. This is a gift. Thank you Sal!