Not Just Math Quizzes: Khan Academy’s Tutoring Bot Offers Playful Features

The new, A.I.-assisted Khanmigo allows students to chat with simulated historical figures or co-write stories with the software.

Khan Academy, the popular online learning nonprofit, recently developed an experimental A.I.-assisted tutoring bot for schools called Khanmigo. Students can use it to take math quizzes, practice vocabulary words or prepare for Advanced Placement tests in subjects like statistics and art history.

The tutoring bot also offers more playful, free-form features. Students can chat with a simulated fictional characters like Lady Macbeth or Winnie-the-Pooh. They can collaborate on writing a story with Khanmigo. Or debate the tutorbot on topics like: Should students be allowed to use calculators in math class?

Khan Academy is pilot-testing Khanmigo with school districts. I recently tried it out with several members of my family, one of whom is in elementary school.

Khanmigo’s answers have been edited for brevity.

We Chat With ‘Benjamin Franklin’

The Khanmigo tutoring bot has a feature that lets students chat with simulated historical figures. The choices included Abigail Adams, Harriet Tubman, Plato and Rembrandt.

We chose Benjamin Franklin, and opened by asking a personal question: What is your favorite food?

We were delighted when the Franklin simulation mentioned scrapple, fried slices made of leftover pork parts that early German settlers introduced in America. After all, the real Franklin believed that frugality, such as not wasting food, was a virtue.

How frequently the inventor actually ate scrapple, however, is unclear. In his autobiography, Franklin describes how, at the age of 16, he read a book about vegetable diets and began “refusing to eat flesh.” The real Franklin periodically adhered to a vegetarian diet throughout his life.

After we asked “Franklin” to tell us about the famous kite experiment, the chatbot asked us about our scientific interests. So we asked it for “the latest scientific discoveries” about quasi-stars, also known as black holes.

That was when we ran into the system’s limitations. The chatbot told us that it could offer information only “up to September, 2021” — which meant that many of the details it provided on black holes seemed like old news.

We Co-Write an Adventure Story With the Tutorbot

Another feature invites students to “write an awesome story together” with the tutoring bot. We had a choice of genres, including science fiction, romance and mystery. Students may also suggest their own ideas.

We proposed to co-write an adventure story with Khanmigo featuring Stickman, an imaginary stick-figure character.

Khanmigo was an encouraging, enthusiastic collaborator. “This will be a whimsical and imaginative tale!” the tutoring bot said, adding a party-popper emoji.

Nudged by the tutoring bot’s recommendations on possible plot developments, we teed up the arrival of an unnamed second protagonist. Khanmigo responded by creating that second character: a “friendly-looking ladybug” named Lila. Perhaps a children’s book called “Lila the Ladybug” was part of Khanmigo’s training material.

We Debate the Tutoring Bot Over Big Tech

Khanmigo allows students to practice their debating skills. It offers different debate topics for elementary, middle and high school students.

These include: Is homework necessary or should it be banned? Are video games good or bad for kids? Should college be free?

I opted for: “Should large tech companies be broken up?”

Along the way, I asked the tutoring bot to tone down its overwrought metaphors (“a splendid point, like a shooting star in the night sky!”).

“I’m just trying to make our debate fun and engaging,” Khanmigo responded, “like a colorful carnival of ideas.” 🤣🤦‍♀️