An Explainer Post

There's an article in this month's Wired Magazine about Khan Academy. The headline speaks volumes -- "How Khan Academy Is Changing the Rules of Education" -- as do the responses I've seen to the article.  As usual, there's plenty of praise for Sal Khan and his one-man-educational-video-making machine. But there's also push-back from some quarters, particularly from educators who are highly skeptical of what Khan Academy delivers and what it stands for.

Author Clive Thompson does offer some critiques of Khan Academy in his article, citing Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez, for example. But then he waters down Constructivism, the learning theory supported by these two Khan-objectors, to the "idea that students won't really understand math unless they discover each principle on their own." For commentary on this, Thompson turns to Bill Gates who dismisses the notion as "bullshit."

That dichotomy says it all, right? Educators on one side, Bill Gates on the other. And maybe that's all I need to say about why Sal Khan has become such a lightning rod within education circles. But it's a bit more nuanced than that. So I thought I'd try to write an "explainer post," making some of the objections to Khan Academy a little clearer.

Technology Replacing Teachers

If one person can create 2400 educational videos and these videos can in turn be viewed by anyone with an Internet connection then why do we need teachers? Fire 'em all! Okay, that's me being a little flippant and more than a little dramatic. I suck at explainer journalism, huh.

While "technology will replace teachers" seems like a silly argument to make, one need only look at the state of most school budgets and know that something's got to give. And lately, that something looks like teachers' jobs, particularly to those on the receiving end of pink slips. Granted, we haven't implemented a robot army of teachers to replace those expensive human salaries yet (South Korea is working on the robot teacher technology. I'll keep you posted.). But we are laying off teachers in mass numbers. Teachers know their jobs are on the line, something that's incredibly demoralizing for a profession already struggles mightily to retain qualified people.

The Bill Gates Connection

"Retain qualified people." That idea of "qualified people" is important in this debate too, as Bill Gates has been a vocal proponent of schools ending teachers' pay increases for Master's Degrees (among other things). Gates argues that educational training is unrelated to teacher performance (and "teacher performance" here means "student achievement" which means "test scores." I'll get to that in a minute.)

Since retiring as the CEO of Microsoft, Gates has used his wealth to support a number of charitable causes, particularly around education. But even under the guise of philanthropy, it's hard not to see that wealth as having political not just economic impact. Indeed, the same week that Bill Gates spoke to the Council of Chief State School Officers about ending pay increases for graduate degrees in teaching, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued almost the very same statement.

What does all of this have to do with Sal Khan? Well, nothing... and everything.

Khan fits the model educator that Gates talks about: someone with extensive training in math and science (Khan holds 3 degrees from MIT and one from Harvard) but no formal background in educational theory or pedagogy. He's a former hedge fund manager, with certainly no MA in Education. And in the narrative of Khan's rise to fame, it's his discovery by Bill Gates that is the turning point, launching Khan beyond tutoring family members and those that had discovered his YouTube videos -- those YouTube viewers have grown from the thousands to the millions, thanks in no small part to the praise and funding from Gates.

Being known as "Bill Gates's favorite teacher" is both a blessing and a curse, I suppose. Nevertheless Khan Academy doesn't shy away from the association from one of its first and most important donors and Bill Gates is featured prominently on the site's homepage.

Old Wine, New Bottles, Bad Pedagogy

One of education historian Diane Ravitch's oft-uttered complaints is that we now have a bunch of billionaires like Gates dictating education policy and education reform, without ever having been classroom teachers themselves (or without having attended public school). But the skepticism about Khan Academy isn't just a matter of wealth or credentials of Khan or his backers. It's a matter of pedagogy.

No doubt, Khan has done something incredible by creating thousands of videos, distributing them online for free, and now designing an analytics dashboard for people to monitor and guide students' movements through the Khan Academy material. And no doubt, lots of people say they've learned a lot by watching the videos. The ability pause, rewind, and replay is often cited as the difference between "getting" the subject matter through classroom instruction and "getting it" via Khan Academy's lecture-demonstrations.

But that's the crux of the problem right there: lecture-demonstrations. Although there's a tech component here that makes this appear innovative, that's really a matter of form, not content, that's new. There's actually very little in the videos that distinguishes Khan from "traditional" teaching. A teacher talks. Students listen. And that's "learning." Repeat over and over again (Pause, rewind, replay in this case). And that's "drilling."

And while Khan Academy and his students may tout mastery, some educators aren't so sure. They point to studies that find while students receive these sorts of videos positively, they are actually learning very little or learning very superficially. Physics teacher Frank Noschese, for example, contrasts the video of Khan's explanation of force with a video documenting his students' exploration of force through hands-on experimentation. Noschese is one of the many educators have discussed at length the problems with Khan's approach to teaching. Below I've linked a few posts:

Sylvia Martinez, Generation Yes:
Khan Academy and the mythical math cure
Khan Academy: Algorithms and Autonomy
"Don't we need balance?" and other questions about Khan Academy
Monday... Someday

Frank Noschese, John Jay High School:
Khan Academy is an Indictment of Education
Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos
Khan Academy: My Final Remarks

Learning or Leveling Up?

Khan Academy has expanded from just creating videos to include a whole platform through which students can move through the content, including analytics for teachers and parents to track them. And to motivate students to do more, Khan Academy has included what's become quite a common feature of most Web 2.0 apps: badges. There's a Meteorite Badge, Moon Badge, Earth Badge, and Sun Badge, for example.

Now Khan Academy can hardly be chastised for giving students rewards like this. The whole letter grading system is "gamification of learning" to some extent. But as some people have found, this sort of reward system on Khan Academy may encourage completion of material for the sake of badges, rather than for the sake of learning itself. At the Los Altos USD, one of the places where Khan Academy is being piloted in the classroom, teachers note, "The problem here is that sometimes people rush through the exercise without learning it just to get a badge. The creators of Khan Academy added badges to make it more interesting and motivating, not to make you ignore everything else and just aim for the badges."

Khan Academy: Part of a Larger Trend...

Khan Academy has stirred up a lot of passion -- both positive and negative -- in part because it's at the center of so many major trends: the "gamification of everything"; the potential for widespread distribution of educational materials online; YouTube-created stars bypassing the sanctioning of older institutions (Rebecca Black, Justin Bieber, Salman Khan); an anti-teacher climate (Waiting for Superman, Wisconsin, etc); a reliance on standardized testing to gauge students' learning; and various education reform movements.

Some of these reformers do see Khan Academy as "revolutionizing" education, while others, including lots of educators, contend that Khan Academy is actually far from that. As the title of Clive Thompson's Wired article observes correctly: the rules of education are changing. But is Khan Academy the cause? Or the symptom?

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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