Khan Academy Internship, Summer ‘11

Want to be handed a major portion of Khan Academy ownership, ridiculously high expectations, and a bunch of mentorship from our full-time devs? Sign up now. We believe anybody can help the world get a great education, and we accept interns year-round.

I can’t remember a time in my history of small company software development that hasn’t felt like sitting in a rickety donkey kong cart with jet afterburners attached and blazing, and everybody inside is just trying to keep the staples (why did they use staples?) to hold long enough for us to make it around the next bend in the tracks.

That being said, at least in my limited donkey kong cart experience, summer internship seasons always stand out in my mind as new high watermarks for shipping speed and dev intensity.

Just like Sal’s videos, our practice exercises are at the very heart of Khan Academy.

This summer’s class of Khan Academy interns has been no different. Our interns come in with promises of being handed ownership and control over major, user-facing features, and in return we demand excellence; it’s pretty similar, actually, to Khan Academy’s educational belief of encouraging experimentation but expecting mastery. They were shipping features on day one.

Any dev team out there not acknowledging the fact that high school and college students are capable of showing up on your doorstep and almost immediately redefining major portions of your product for the better is either failing to recruit well or is plain old missing out. Big time.

If that’s you, I hope to change your mind with this post.

Each of the following improvements to Khan Academy was contributed either largely or entirely by our interns this summer. Four of ‘em are in college, one just graduated high school, and one hasn’t even started applying to colleges yet.

An entirely new collection of practice exercises built on an entirely new exercise framework.

This is a major body of work.

We learned about all types of weaknesses in our old exercises after last year’s pilots, and we’ve tackled them head on by improving our hints, removing multiple choice answers, focusing on the user’s exercise experience, and building new ways of asking old questions.

Almost all multiple choice questions are gone.

We’ve focused on helping our developers and our community create new exercises quickly. We’ve written better documentation, shipped simpler dev tools, and built solid bug reporting workflows to maintain a healthy stream of new, quality exercises. Our interns are responsible for not only porting all existing exercises to our new tools but also developing brand new frameworks to help exercises draw graphs, randomize questions, generate procedural hints, and more.

The Summer 11 interns’ recently launched new exercises have already served up over 5,000,000 math problems to Khan Academy students.

We know that at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is whether or not Khan Academy students are really learning, and a large quantity of quality interactive exercise content is core to that mission. KA wouldn’t be what it is today without the large quantity of quality videos Sal has created. As a development team and community, we should consider ourselves challenged to match his videos with quality exercises. The team’s efforts this summer have given us the tools necessary to take a crack at this considerable challenge.

In fact, exercises are so important to us that we’re now hiring full-time exercise developers to come push these tools to their limits and redefine what it means to learn online. If you want to join some very passionate devs, either apply now or join our open source exercise community.

Full access for unregistered users

Followers of this blog (also: leprechauns, unicorns) may remember a post in which I struggled to decide if Khan Academy should follow Stack Overflow’s registration model by allowing non-logged-in users to participate in all of our content and automatically transferring their work to a permanent account after they log in.

The more we thought about it and read posts about unregistered users like Fred Wilson’s, the more we realized that making access to our educational content as easy as possible was the right thing to do.

We track users’ progress and encourage them to log in, but we never get in anyone’s way when they’re trying to learn.

Two interns completely owned the design and implementation of this feature. If you go to Khan Academy now, you can start earning points and badges for watching videos and working on exercises without ever logging in. We encourage users to login at various milestones in their progress, but we never stop them from continuing to use the site or force them to close a popup.

If you log in, you keep all your progress. This has significantly reduced our bounce rate by getting rid of painful login walls, and we’re continuing to watch other statistics to see the effects of this change.

Video progress tracking

I can’t count of the number of times I’ve heard users ask us to display individual video progress next to each one of the 2,500+ video links on our homepage. I’m not gonna get into the various technical challenges here (maybe a different blog post), but this is nontrivial for a brain like mine.

Luckily, we hire interns that are way smarter than me and are able to solve such problems. These days, whenever you watch a piece of a Khan Academy video, skip around it, pause it, play it, or whatever, we keep track of extremely precise video progress statistics and display useful progress indicators next to every video link.

Twitter and Facebook sharing

One of the earliest features launched during Summer ‘11 was the ability to share videos, exercises, and badges on Facebook and Twitter.

Facebook sharing has slowly gone up (even during the natural academic lull of summer), and we hope this trend will continue.

All that and more, powered by interns

…and those are just the bigger changes. Our interns continue to claw for inch after inch after inch of improvements like nicer internal statistics, faster deploy scripts, performance tweaks, and better user account management.

Summer’s not over yet. Omar Rizwan, Jeff Ruberg, Joel Burget, Igor Terzic, Parker Kuivila, and Ben Alpert continue to set the current bar for Khan Academy internship classes. As an organization, we aim to beat this mark in the future. But those six are pushing hard to make it a tough task, and is improving for the better, quickly.

Don’t doubt the inexperienced. Get your team’s recruiting, mentorship, and code reviews right (easier said than done), and a summer internship can be one of the best things that’s ever happened to your product. I already can’t wait to drop some major challenges in the laps of our two incoming Fall interns to see what they can build.

Join us

Want to be handed a major portion of Khan Academy ownership, ridiculously high expectations, and a bunch of mentorship from our full-time devs? Sign up now. We believe anybody can help the world get a great education, and we accept interns year-round.

Big shoes to fill.

8/12/11 — 9:47am Permalink
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