Friday, March 11, 2011

Khan Academy: Improving school by changing nothing

I came across Jonathon Martin's post that praised the Khan Academy:
I think Khan is a true transformer, a visionary, activist, architect and engineer of a new form for teaching and learning that will raise the educational prospects of millions, perhaps billions of students.
While Jonathon is entitled to his opinion, I whole heartedly disagree. And I was thrilled to find Will Richardson's comment:
Education will only truly be transformed when we stop trying to jam content into our kids’ heads and start allowing them to explore and learn in contexts that feed their desire to keep learning. To that end, I don’t think Khan Academy does or can change much at all.
There is nothing revolutionary or transformative about how the Khan Academy encourages educators to "shoehorn" technology in a way that merely supplements traditional, less-than-optimal teaching and learning practices which ultimately leads the classroom to revert to the way it was before.

At best, saying the Khan Academy is transformative is to admit that education reform is blind drunk on technology, and at worst, the Khan Academy is an instrument for the likes of Bill Gates implicitly and explicitly attack public education.

One might think it a stretch to accuse the Khan Academy as an attack on public education, and it is, but here's where I'm coming from:

In regards to Sal Khan, Gates has commented, "this guy is amazing" - leaving many to identify Khan as Bill Gates's favorite teacher.

At the same time, Gates has commented on the do's and dont's for policy makers faced with a financial crunch:
Gates spoke to the nation's governors mindful of the severe financial woes that many of them face as they try to bridge deficits totaling about $125 billion in the coming fiscal year. He said there are some clear do's and don'ts. Among the do's: Lift caps on class sizes and get more students in front of the very best teachers. Those teachers would get paid more with the savings generated from having fewer personnel overall.

While many educators have lost the capacity to be outraged by the outrageous, Gary Stager has not:
You would think that nothing else could surprise me, but now, Bill Gates has descended into the delusional world of Charlie Sheen. Gates told the nation's governors (they seem to speak with Bill more than their caddies) that the critical cuts to public schools could actually improve education if class sizes were increased so that we can "get more students in front of the very best teachers." That's right, Bill Gates is now advocating for larger class size! Since when do philanthropists call for the deprivation of children?
Gates' crazy plan to raise class sizes FOR THE CHILDREN is one thing, but his desire to get more students "in front of the very best teachers" reveals his ignorance on how learning occurs. Learning is an active process constructed by each learner. It is not simply the immediate result of being taught.
If Bill Gates's favorite teacher is Sal Khan, and he is encouraging policy makers to "save money" by "lifting cap sizes and get more students in front of the very best teachers", I can't help but see a disturbing connection.

Look, the Kahn Academy is not a direct threat to public education, but Sal Kahn, perhaps inadvertently, has become an accomplice to those like Bill Gates who very much are a threat.

Chris Lehmann puts it this way:

What concerns me when I listen to folks like Bill Gates wax rhapsodic about Khan Academy is that it seems to me to be one more moment when people who should know better are, essentially, saying, "See! We don't need teachers anymore!" As if every student could learn from a pre-packaged delivery model of content. 
It doesn't work that way. 
Khan Academy is great if you need a refresher... or if you need another look at an idea. But watching a video about a concept isn't the way you necessarily learn it... even when you have a somewhat drill-and-kill quiz system behind it. Khan Academy will work well for the kids whose teachers still spend 80% of the time lecturing at the front of the room. But it won't do that much anywhere where teachers have learned how to present ideas concisely and then spend their class time working with kids.
Sixty years of research tells us that we don't internalize knowledge by simply being told to do so. Real learning is constructed from the inside while interacting with others. While examining technology with a constructivist's lens, we must discriminate between the prolific and poor uses of technology.

Far from being transformative or revolutionary, the Khan Academy is an ingenious way of improving school without changing a thing.


  1. Thanks again Joe. I have watched nearly 100 of the videos (mostly math) and all the History section. As a history/social studies teacher I was not impressed. Too "formulaic" (no pun intended) in the presentations.

    However, the redeeming quality might serve as a crude model in the possibility of flipping the classroom for teachers wondering the technical approach to knowing how to do it.

  2. Our community college has been producing videos like those of the Khan academy for a couple of years. We have been using them as supplements to our regular instruction, but not as replacements.

    The Khan academy audience, if I remember correctly, is children who have access to the internet but not human teachers. It would work well for kids watching the videos over cell phones in third world countries. Of course, America is not a third world country, so we have better options.

    The coordinator for our video production has been teaching since 1968. He has a list of the technologies that have been trying to replace him, and each has failed.

    The Gates Foundation is really having its way with higher education. Many community colleges are adopting redesign models for their courses. The most common model, the emporium model, has all of its content delivery through videos. The model uses on-line homework which is entirely drill-and-kill.

    Our college is adopting a version of the emporium model, but we are only offering half of our math sections using it and we are still requiring hand written assignments. It is our attempt at a compromise version of the model.

  3. By chance I came across the Khan Academy last night and this morning I see your post.

    I was thoroughly disappointed with the positive view people were taking with the Khan Academy, as if they were doing something revolutionary. But videoing a lecture? For kicks I checked out a calculus lesson and promptly fell asleep.

    Well, I actually do see value in the Khan Academy as the videos could provide some extra help for students. But the way the website is setup, they seem to try and convince people that they are a better option than schools. That's just wrong.

  4. What is TRANSFORMATIVE is keeping my kids out of school so that they can choose to access Khan's fabulous content online, when they need it and as they need it, when they want it. As far as I am concerned, "need" in education comes from "want"..... If you want an iPad to use technology a certain way, then you need it. If you want to learn advanced algebra, then you need Khan to help you through it. If you want to get into Harvard, then you need advanced algebra and can access it through well done technology via Khan and your iPad......

    It's a new circle.

    One of my ideas that no one else likes is: if the parents weren't well educated, and they aren't parenting well, and they don't have jobs.... then what if we stopped pouring money into the failing schools and their infrastructure and instead funded these families' homeschooling? I learned more homeschooling my children than I ever learned in my own school experience. And my kids have learned enough between the ages of 9 and 12 in homeschool to pass any high school exit exam and many AP exams.

    Back in the Age of Enlightenment, the schools as they exist today were completely unimaginable. Those who did study often waited to age 9 to begin, and were often complete and moving into college level work by age 14. Apprenticed, capable, responsible and dynamically intelligent.

    It was a good idea to create factory schools to allow underprivileged children access to a basic education.... but the implementation proved the goal to be nearly unattainable. What we end up with is a multibillion dollar system that barely provides daycare through age 18, with still only the few privileged or especially bright children actually receiving something that barely resembles the dynamic intelligence of the Enlightenment era forefathers.

    Just my .02.

  5. Khan has allowed some traditional teachers at my school to spend more time asking kids to use the information in real ways. Instead of going over homework, teaching the new skill and asking kids to wrestle through homework alone, they come to class having been introduced to the concept on Khan and then can problem solve and apply concepts to real-world situations. I know that's not the value Gates sees, but it's still there.

  6. I don't think there is anything transformative about the Khan Academy, except perhaps in how content is able to be spread and used widely.

    But I will say I have a hard time putting something down that genuinely helps people. I don't see it as a threat at all. I see it as a supplement. I see it as a form of differentiation. There are absolutely people who can learn specialized content better in this way. The popularity of the site itself attests to this fact.

    I don't think we need to push either/or on this. As I've heard Doug Johnson say, we need to switch the either/or to AND.

    1. Bingo. The beauty of Joe's blog here is to look at new ways of learning. Change. Thinking outside the box. Kahn's videos are like a manual, a textbook, a reference. We shouldn't criticize aids. I also think the evil corporations and Bill Gates DEFINITELY have the kids' interests at heart. They're a backlash of the hopeless and truly evil government forces at work in the USA. But they're ignorant, as are all non-teachers, of how it works.

  7. I have grappled with these same thoughts you so eloquently put together.

    I teach in both an on-site f2f program and a completely virtual program. My most successful students from both programs--the students who use the technology to get the quick and dirty "factual" information, then come to me to help them create connections through the use of real world problems, primary sources, and experiments. Viewing the Khan videos exclusively to "learn" is not learning. It might result in having factual knowledge or skills to replicate, but there is little to no application of those skills in the videos themselves.

    A real teacher, who builds a relationship with students to encourage them to learn, fail, and learn from their mistakes is vital. Plunking kids in front of computers to "learn" is a travesty and does not result in learning. It does result in learning how to "go through the motions" of school and basically learn the info to pass the quizzes and tests, maybe write one or two written assignments, and then promptly forget it. I have seen it happen in my own experience and I am ashamed when my students have "earned" credit, but show no real learning being internalized.

  8. While I do not think that the Khan Academy will "revolutionize" education, as a classroom teacher I do think that it can be a very useful tool, especially for students that need remediation. Many times students need remediation (or just a refresher) on a concept. The videos are a great "reminder" of what to do. I also like the practice problems for basic concepts because it keeps track of student's progress. I plan on assigning students certain "concepts" to work on as needed. I can then look at each problem the student missed to see how they are progressing. This is something that I would not normally have the time to do. A great benefit of the videos is that the students can pause them, or even rewatch them. This is something they cannot do with their classroom teacher. I would love to make videos of every concept to help my students, but I do not have the time. I think this could can be a very helpful resource and best of all, it is free!

  9. I posted my comment on my blog: . I hope this is fine for you!

  10. Joe,

    thanks for your words on the Khan academy. You do a great job of gathering current thinkers' ideas/opinions on what appears to be a powerful site. I agree with you and Will Richardson that this is more of the same. So hard to convince others of the difference. Keep up the fight.

  11. I find aspects of the Khan Academy interesting. The videos are a great resource. However, in our middle school math program, students use inquiry-based learning to explore math concepts and then "discover formulas" in collaborative groups. I think the learning is richer and deeper this way.

  12. Khan Academy and its videos are really helpful. However, I think interactive sessions are also required by the students. Tutorvista, are some of those sites that offer highly personalized, customized, interactive and affordable tutoring service.

  13. What the Kahn academy represents for me is the idea that teachers are everywhere and sharing changes things. It's not about any single source of information but one of multiple opportunities and people from whom you can learn.

    The fact that this guy, with no intent to receive $$$ shares hundreds of videos is a concept worth exploring. It's unfortunate that people like Gates miss the point and begin to find simple answers to the complex challenges of learning.

    The other idea that this always leads me to is to challenge teachers to teach differently. If Kahn Academy like work is all you do with students, then you should be looking for employment elsewhere. What are you doing in your classroom that makes me want to, and need to attend? And that's where this conversation about change gets really interesting.

  14. I agree with Dean Shareski. Kahn Academy is a tool for students and teachers to use. Teachers need to show students how to employ the content on Khan Academy.

  15. Hi! I referenced your blog post on my blog:

    Hope you don't mind!

  16. On the plus side, it is cheaper than printing off worksheets!

  17. I think that the objectionable part of the Khan Academy model is that it turns education into a business. Unfortunately, teaching can't be just a series of steps - view vid, activity at school - learn stuff. indeed, KA seems to be "the same old thing".

    On the other hand, the concept of using technology to "flip the classroom" is one strategy that I think is reasonable. In the same way that we ask students to prepare for class by reading the text or by reading a handout... why not viewing a video or trying out an online game? Students return to class with a common experience on which we base the day's lesson.

    I wouldn't suggest that we use Khan Academy videos in all of our schools, but the concept is certainly adaptable in my view...

  18. We still need teachers, but their job isn't what it use to be. Kids can watch short lectures to learn content now, which is what they should be doing. Teachers can give up the talking head part of the gig to start mentoring students and helping advise and facilitate on individual and group projects. If you are going to watch a talking head, why not watch the best? Great post, keep up the good work.


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