Khan Academy – Again

Once again, the media has fallen all over themselves to praise Khan Academy – the internet sensation I’ve written about before. There’s nothing new in the clip, really, except the praise is even more extreme than before, the promises more grand.

Their motto? “A free world class education for anyone, anywhere.” A while back, I was more starstruck that this experiment could yield results. But now I’m moving towards skepticism.

Done watching helpful mini-lessons online constitute and education? No. Are these going to change how schools are structured? I find it hard to believe.

Why? There are lots of reasons I’m skeptical. A few simple ones: the format is suitable for rule-following exercises (calculus, economics), but I think the format would invariably suffer when dealing with any material that requires judgment (literature, history, and actually much of what schools teach). Student motivation is often the most powerful impediment to success, and watching videos in isolation seems as likely to succeed with many kids as traditional homework. It downplays the importance of reading, independent thought, and (despite what Khan says) human interaction. As a general panacea, it seems very unlikely to succeed in the terms Khan and others imagine it will.

There’s no textbook! And no teachers lecturing at a blackboard!
Aside from the problem of students not reading as much when they watch Khan’s videos, it suffers from the exact problem textbooks do – it is one way, one-size-fits-all, static communication.

But Khan’s a revolutionary!
Except there have been very similar methods of presenting concepts – remember filmstrips? – for two generations.

But it lets teachers ‘flip’ the classroom!
Perhaps. But by providing readings, teachers in most fields – history, geography, English, etc. – have been flipping the classroom since school began by providing low-order material for future higher-order tasks.

But Khan’s videos are engaging!
Perhaps. But I think this is likely a classic example where adults think technology is more important than young people do.

But Khan has measurement on his side! His online modules provide feedback teachers can use!
I fail to see how this is (very) different than giving math worksheets. And academic studies in measurement (very legitimate, powerful studies), involving millions of students over decades, already exist.

But, while the Khan academy is currently mostly about math, the modules could easily be about history of English!
Again, perhaps. But most of the fascinating aspects of many fields involves an interpretation and expression (essay writing, for example) that surely defies computational assessment.

But Khan says it will allow teachers to be coaches and mentors, not just transmitters of facts through lectures!
Anyone who has casually strolled through schools, or glanced at pedagogical texts, knows Khan is no revolutionary on this front.

I want to know the effect size of Khan’s work. Just because it seems cool to thirty-and-forty-somethings who did incredibly well in school does not mean it will have the desired effect among the students we most worry about – are the low-income, disengaged students clamouring for YouTube videos about fractions? Where is the promised revolution? How is this not just a better version of what many teachers have been doing since the 1960s?

Not to be outdone, John Green of young adult fame created a video set similar to Khan’s – but it is more interesting to watch. And more humorous. But it suffers from the same problem – when it strays from math, it proposes a relatively static view of interpretation.

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