It’s Not Khan’s Fault

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an excellent critique of Khan Academy by one of the people who inspired the #mtt2k* mini meme now getting its 15 minutes on YouTube.

If you're not a math ed geek, you probably haven't seen the video of two math professors watching one of the Khan videos and offering their comments a la the wonderful 90's cult classic Mystery Science Theater 3000 (look it up, kiddies). Although there are a few snarky remarks about the style, most of their criticism is directed to the pedagogy and mathematics. Dan Meyer has more details.

Anyway, the Chron article hits exactly my greatest problem with Khan Academy: not the quality of the videos, but the over-the-top reaction they get from some high profile education “experts”.

But let’s also be honest about what Khan Academy is not. Khan Academy is not a substitute for an actual course of study in mathematics. It is not a substitute for a live teacher. And it is not a coherent curriculum of study that engages students at all the cognitive levels at which they need to be engaged. It’s OK that it’s not these things. We don’t walk into a Mexican restaurant and fault it for not serving spaghetti. I don’t fault Khan Academy for not being a complete educational resource, because it wasn’t designed for that purpose. Again, Khan Academy is a great resource for the niche in which it was designed to work. But when you try to extend it out of that niche — as Bill Gates and others would very much like to do — all kinds of things go wrong.

One of those things going wrong is the reinforcement of the idea that learning math is all about mastering the process. That if a student just repeats a set of algorithms enough times, we can declared that they have “learned math”. Or whatever subject you like to substitute for “math”.

However, I think the best summary of this kind of video, lecture/tutorial, self-instruction approach to education is this:

Khan Academy is great for learning about lots of different subjects. But it’s not really adequate for learning those subjects on a level that really makes a difference in the world.

For that “makes a difference” kind of learning, students (of all ages) still need direct relationships with teachers, and others who don't necessarily carry that title, as well as an understanding of how to actually use the information.


* mtt2k = mystery teacher theater 2000

Missing the Revolution

In a post this morning Will pointed me to a USA Today article that claims Khan Academy is sparking a “global tech revolution in education”. This rant is probably only an amplification of one of the great points he makes but it’s worth repeating.

Actually, there is so much wrong in this breathless, fawning collection of misguided claims that it’s hard to know where to start.  But this statement (one that Will also quotes) is an excellent summation of everything the USA Today writer gets wrong.

“Technology is doing to education what it’s done to countless other industries: disrupting it,” Hu says. “Where education once was static, bound to a textbook, now it’s moving to a global, interdisciplinary model.”

The speaker is the head of head of education technology and services for Goldman Sachs so naturally he sees school as just another “industry”.

However, what Hu totally misses is that, while the education business is certainly working hard to automate the dispensing of knowledge (or at least academic credentials), understanding and using that knowledge is a much more difficult, more personal and hands-on process.

Having students watch a video explaining some bit of information or how to execute a specific process is still static and very much bound to a textbook. Except that instead of the book carrying only text and still pictures to be read and viewed, it now has audio and video. The effect is the same, a one-way transfer of material with no opportunity for a student to interact.

There’s absolutely nothing revolutionary about the Khan Academy materials. There’s nothing revolutionary in using technology to deliver the same old classroom lectures in “bite-size and conversational” pieces with no faces.

Finally, Hu goes on to say that Khan’s success is the “best thing that can happen to this space” (another business investment term) and that the space “needs more smart people who care”.

Will is also exactly correct to call that last part total BS.

TED-Ed: A Site Worth Watching

It’s not going to revolutionize education, flip the classroom, or replace teachers, but the new education site from TED looks like it could be a great resource.

TED-Ed (Lessons Worth Sharing), takes presentations from their collection and elsewhere, blends in some animation to give them more context and interest, groups the videos around nine subject areas, and adds some additional instructional resources.

Although many of the articles reporting on their opening this week compare this to the Khan Academy, TED-Ed is very different and much more substantial. For one thing, this new site is more about ideas and concepts rather than providing step-by-step instructions for rote processes.

Like Kahn, TED-Ed tracks your use of the materials. But instead of a self-assessment section based solely on multiple choice questions, the site asks users to do more in-depth thinking about the presentation they’ve just watched and offers additional resources to explore.

However, the more interesting, and potentially more powerful, part of TED-Ed is the ability for teachers to create their own lessons around the material (what they call Flip This Lesson) and share them with the larger community. Even better is the open invitation to submit ideas for lessons and to participate in the creation process. It opens some interesting tools for teachers to enhance and extend their instruction but also intriguing possibilities for student creative involvement as well.

No, it’s too soon to declare that TED-Ed is the catalyst that will forever alter public education (I suspect someone has already made a similar declaration), but it is an excellent start and something worth watching as it grows.

Watch the short tour of the site and see what you think.

Moving Backwards

Big news this week: Khan Academy releases an iPad app and the TED organization opens their education channel on YouTube.

The Washington Post asks if Khan is education’s future and calls both “the new leaders in education reform“.

Crap!*

If that really represents cutting edge in education reform these days, the whole process is moving backwards.

Let’s face it, Khan Academy is nothing more than a large collection of lecture/demos in the classic instructional sense, and the ones I’ve seen are just as boring as those given by too many teachers who simply present information without interacting with their students. Khan’s advantage is a good press agent and some deep pockets with little understand of instructional pedagogy.

While TED’s materials are much better produced – many of them inform, motivate and even inspire, all the things you want from a great teacher – they are still lectures.

Then there’s the idea of the “flipped” classroom, a concept that the media inextricably links to the Khan videos and too often declares to the next ultimate in education reform. So, where’s the change in having students watch Khan or TED lectures at home instead of at school?

Kids are still watching a lecture with no options to interact with the presenter or anyone else. At least watching it live in the classroom they might have the option to ask questions. The only major difference with making the lecture homework is the venue (and the pause button).

And showing Khan videos during class, taking valuable time that could be spent on more immediate activities (as I’ve watch a few teachers doing in recent weeks) is bordering on educational malpractice.

No, Khan Academy is not reform. Not even close. Sending kids home to watch boring lectures is worse than most of what passes for homework now.

To me, all this emphasis on Kahn represents the desire on the part of many political and business types to automate and standardize the learning process, minimize the impact of the teacher, and turn it into something that can be easily measured.

It can’t be done. Advocates of this approach completely ignore something any good teacher could tell you: there’s very little “standard” about any group of kids.


* That’s the PG version of the explicative I really use when reading stuff like this. :-)

500 People in 100 Seconds

I’m not entirely sure of the purpose for this video, but I’ve watched it several times today and it’s almost hypnotic.

This could be an interesting concept to give students for a project, especially if they incorporate a story into either the pictures or the people holding them.

Thanks to David for the link.