Sunday, May 29, 2011

Does Khan Academy Represent the Future of Education?

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog post about Khan Academy, a FREE online resource of math videos produced by Sal Khan, former hedge fund analyst turned educational visionary.  Khan has turned some math tutorials he produced for his nieces and posted on YouTube into a collection of 2,300 math (with a scattering of other topics) videos that are the foundation of his vision of producing an entire educational curriculum, available free of charge to anyone in the world with an Internet connection.

Khan (who comes across as a nice guy and not a big ego person) has been a rising star in the media looking for their next educational "Superman" (as in "Waiting for Superman"), now that Michele Rhee's aura has been tarnished with Erasergate and the fact that she and her mentor were kicked out by the voters.  CNN labeled him "Bill Gate's Favorite Teacher," Bloomberg Businessweek called him "a quasi-religions figure in a country desperate for a math Moses," and there is an active online campaign to have him nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

The latest on the Khan bandwagon is Steve Pearlstein, the Pulitzer-prize winning business and economics columnist for the Washington Post.  In an article entitled "Mark them tardy to the revolution," Pearlstein posits that Khan's offering will upend all of education, just as Napster disrupted the music industry and Craiglist and the Huffington Post threatened the old models of the newspaper business.

According to Pearlstein, Khan and his ilk--"master teachers"--will produce videos that will be used by thousands or millions of students, reducing the number of people who will need to be employed as teachers.  The video tutorial model, in his view, will also eliminate some of the current bedrocks of the educational system, such as age-specific school levels, school calendars, and grades (Pearlstein writes "As Khan loves to point out, grading will suddenly become simple:  Everyone gets an A in every course, with the only question being how long it takes each student to earn it.")  Given this approach, Pearlstein envisions that within a decade, educational quality will go up as costs go down, learning will become highly individualized, and "look for teaching to be transformed from an art to something much closer to a science."

My first reaction:  I can't wait to see what Valerie Strauss, Pearlstein's Washington Post colleague who writes The Answer Sheet education blog for the website, has to say about these predictions.

My second reaction is this sounds like another great prognostication by someone who doesn't know much about education.  Unfortunately, these days, those seem to be the ones who carry all the weight, since no one seems to care about what people who are actually trained for or work in education have to say.

Now, I'm not saying that some of these ideas might not be good ideas.  But does Mr. Pearlstein really think it will be that easy?  We've long ago abandoned the agrarian lifestyle that first set up our "summers off" educational calendar, but after about a century of resistance to changing that calendar, Pearlstein thinks we're going to talk families out of it within 10 years?  Good luck with that.  Pearlstein thinks we are going to do away with grades and just let everyone work at their own speed until they've mastered the content?  Did he read his own paper's story about the DC-area school that tried eliminating the use of F grades (read my blog post about it here), which lasted ONE WEEK due to vehement public opposition after the Post publicized the policy (read my follow-up post here)?  Again, personally, I agree with the concept--that is certainly what we do as homeschoolers--but I think Pearlstein is WAY underestimating the amount of conservatism there is about education, both among educators and among the public they serve.

My biggest issue, however, is that this is just another example of the "Superman" syndrome--the idea that some one new wonderful person or thing is going to come along and save education--and money as well!  The one thing we know about education is that it is complicated, and diverse, and challenging, and ever changing.  And it will always be those things, because it is a business about developing people, and people are complicated, and diverse, and challenging, and ever changing.

This is not, by any means, a dig at Mr. Khan or Khan Academy.  I like the guy, and I think what he is doing is great.  And it is wonderful that Bill Gates and his son get off on sitting down and watching dozens of Khan's math videos together.  But it is not like that at our house.  My son doesn't enjoy them and doesn't learn that well from them.  He is not a great fan of video instruction in general.  ESPECIALLY for math, videos don't have the interaction he needs to keep from zoning out.  So when we have been working on a math concept that I've been doing a bad job of explaining, and so he understands why he is watching and is interested in having something he is trying to understand made clearer, he might watch and learn from these videos.  But in general, this is not the solution for him.

I'm dubious of the argument that having everyone watch Khan Academy vidoes--but at their own pace--constitutes "highly individualized learning."  I do think technology does present an option for creating lots of individualized modules on all sorts of topics.  But for education to work for everyone, there have to be lots of different types of modules--videos, podcasts, computer programs, simulations, role playing games, virtual reality plays, I don't know, but tons of different types of approaches for the tons of different types of minds.  And who is going to match all these great resources with these diverse minds?  I don't think our computers are sophisticated enough for that yet.  It's still going to take people---people who are not only familiar with all these resources, but who understand education and understand minds and understand children and their needs and behaviors.

In short, I don't see education having fewer staff and lower operating costs anytime soon--certainly not within 10 years.  But, then, what do I know?  Since I have both a Masters in Education AND over 20 years experience working in education, obviously no one wants to listen to my opinion.


  1. My daughter likes Khan Academy for reference. Basically, she uses it as a dictionary of algorithms. She does not like badges, gold stars, or any of that (Alfie Kohn's poster child, lol) so she does not feel like trying the tracking system. Which is slightly bad, because it's not just rewards there, it's tracking too!

    Yesterday, I was commenting about Khan Academy at Alexandre Borovik's blog, after his post, and I really liked the way he put it: "compare KA with a microwave: not very convenient for serious cooking, but great for re-heating ready meals."

    It's also useful for "thawing" - many teachers now assign videos before starting a lesson on a topic, and ask kids to prepare questions about videos. This is called "flip lessons."

    I can't make a prediction about the future of education, mostly because I expect large overall social disruptions from environmental problems, and I have no idea how education will interact with those. What I can do reasonably well is track trends over the past decade.

    Educational change is accelerating. The number of educator commons online is increasing, and it looks exponential to me though I don't have particular numbers. Learning communities that form around creation of social objects grow huge. Khan Academy is one of them. Here's a recent story from Laurie, a parent at Living Math:

    "About 6 or so months ago, they [her two sons] began using KA for math after highly preferring it over Aleks. Then things just got out of control. My schedule put us into a situation of needing to put "schoolwork" in auto pilot and at the same time they were becoming increasingly enamored with Sal and the breadth of his knowledge in everything-more lol. They set up their own accounts (just gmail), defined and chose subjects of interest, set personal goals, etc. KA comes in along side and tracks, gives direction, etc.

    One day, I was looking over the shoulder of my 8yo (who just turned 9) and was surprised to see all the comments he was making on the site. After they watch a segment, they almost always comment about this or that diagram or explanation that made no sense to them or facilitated an epiphany or whatever. They love the interaction of it all. And oh, did I mention they love Sal.

    I can't tell you about the tracking or any quantifiable progress they've made b/c I honestly haven't even looked at it. I only know they like the point system and also receive guidance from it. As far as the learning goes...let's just say I feel like Sal is some kind of estranged, eccentric uncle whom my boys highly regard and value. We have been able to discuss historical, economic and current events in surprising detail. The math (other than the 9yo) is out of my range for discussion....still hoping and occasionally trying, though--for myself, that is."

  2. I love that analogy!

    What Khan has done is great, and it is really helpful in lots of different ways for lots of different people. But I don't see it "replacing" teachers and schools. I may write another post on this matter soon.

    And, as you say, who knows where schools will go, especially if there are ecological disasters. But I think Pearlman's assessment of a pending revolution is overly simplistic. Anyone who has lived through the past couple of years of intense debate over the Wake County schools, where they haven't even considered anything NEARLY as controversial as what Pearlman is proposing, could attest that parents are highly resistant to changes in the educational system, no matter how much experts tell them that innovations would be better and save money.

  3. Parents are resistant, but big companies and big money are now moving into online education big time. They will aggressively lobby for markets next. Actually, this has already started.

    The new corporate (ads, broadcast news) image of a progressive school, apparently, looks like a huge room of kids intently staring into their screens.

    One big thing Khan does is releasing everything under Creative Commons. This is hugely significant in diversifying education and in intellectual freedom overall, because of the scenario described above.

  4. First, absolutely, one thing that I love about Khan is that he is making everyone free for everyone. If you saw his TED talk, he is really thinking internationally, and trying to provide educational opportunities for all those children across the world who don't have the educational infrastructure we do in this country.

    Secondly, I may be jaundiced by my previous career in DC in an educational non-profit. But ever since the '80's (that I know of--that's when I started working in this field), businesses have been coming up with "revolutionary" approaches to education--often investing BIG money in them. But they haven't made much headway in actually selling primary/secondary schools and parents on them. They've done much better in the postsecondary/private college/corporate/personal growth adult market, where there is much more openness to different approaches.

    But, of course, who knows what the future will bring.