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“.


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.

Patching Up The Ritz

Another company steeped in the analog tradition is trying to figure out their place in the digital world.

Within weeks, Ritz said in an interview, the company, called Ritz Camera & Image, will reinvent itself in a new ad campaign aimed at drawing a hipper crowd into its stores, which now number around 375.


They plan to sell smart phones alongside a stock of digital cameras. Customers can supply their digital images and video clips and Ritz will package them onto a DVD, with chapter breaks and music. And if they want LCD HD televisions on which to view those images, they can buy those, too, from Ritz.

The retooled Ritz Camera & Image will “appeal to younger customers who were brought up in the computer-digital world who may not understand everything that photography means to them,” Ritz, 60, said in an interview in his oak-paneled office at the company’s headquarters in Beltsville.

I wonder if the people at Ritz have bothered to talk to this “hipper crowd” they’re trying to turn into customers.

Do they really want physical media like DVDs when it’s so easy to post pictures on the web (for free), create slide shows (for free), embed the show in a web page (for free or very close), and share the results through multiple channels (for free)?

As for video, many people in the demographic Ritz seems to be aiming for don’t care if the end result is all that polished. Normally the video is recorded and posted with little editing in between.

It will be interesting to see what the company does in their transformation, especially since photography is rapidly moving away from the formal process that was at the heart of Ritz’s success for so many years.

I haven’t been in a Ritz store in many years (probably not in their target group for the future anyway), at least since I purchased a DSLR (online, not in a physical store) three years ago.

And there’s nothing in this story about their plans for reorganization that will entice me to return.

Photo by BOSSoNe0013 and used under a Creative Commons License.

Educators Are Snobs

At least according to Dean we are.

Schools are text snobs. Most people reading this are text snobs. Our institutions are built around the written word. That in itself is not bad and we owe much of our culture, knowledge and understanding to the written word. It’s not our fault, we’ve been living in a world that up until a few years ago, only offered us to easily produce content via the written word. But like the revolution of the printing press, we are in the midst of a revolution of a digital nature that’s allowing us to easily create and consume context in many different forms, specifically audio, video and imagery.

And to exercise a little practice-what-you-preach, he includes some video and audio as part of the post.

I agree with Dean’s premise that we are not doing as much as we should in most schools to help students become better consumers of media, much less to enable them to become producers.

After all, we see kids wearing ear phones or sitting in front of some kind of screen (sometimes both) all the time. They don’t need any help in that area, do they?

Which, of course, is the same as saying that kids with their face always in comic books (or the Mad Magazine from my childhood) don’t need reading instruction.

Anyway, even when it comes to text, I’m not sure we do an especially good a job.

The way people in the real world create and use text has been changing drastically (along with everything else) yet much of our “language arts” curriculum is still focused on reading from the printed page and largely from works of fiction.

Writing in most schools continues to be centered around the classic essay and research paper, often on topics that are little changed from forty years ago, produced for an audience of one.

And, as Dean notes, traditional reading and writing is what gets tested, so that’s what get taught.

However, there are other reasons why audio and video are not used more in K12 classrooms.

For one thing, in the memory of most teachers, the process of recording and editing is still a cumbersome, expensive, technically difficult process. Sometimes even playing the files, especially video, used to be a cranky process.

It’s certainly not that way anymore, all of which ties into what I was ranting about a few days ago.

Too many teachers also reject having students create media because they believe the process must be time consuming and that the end project needs to be close to perfect.

With the inexpensive cameras (even still cameras do a decent job of video) and audio recording devices available, it becomes easy for kids to do first drafts on the spur of the moment and then refine by rerecording rather than spending hours in the editing software.

It’s also a simple process to capture and use the everyday classroom, not just special events.

One of my goals this year is to help more of our teachers to give cameras to their kids and to encourage them to create.

I also want to follow Dean’s lead to do more with video in my own professional life and become less of a text snob.

Just don’t expect to see me in front of the camera very often. (You’re welcome. :-)

Don’t Fear The Tube

I hear this from people all the time: “I can’t use YouTube.  It’s blocked in our school”.  Especially in high schools.

I wonder if the people who made the decision to add the video sharing site to their blacklist have actually looked closely at what is there.  At the ever expanding bits that could actually be used for learning.

Like the Periodic Table of Videos, wonderful examples of how to present chemistry concepts in ways that can’t be done in most classrooms that’s only one part of the growing collection of science materials.

The last election was played out in YouTube (now part of the historical record) as are current political debates, including the weekly addresses from President Obama and the Republican opposition.

youtubeAnd now more than 100 universities and other educational institutions are adding materials from their classes to the channels that make up YouTube EDU.

Plus the Library of Congress is preparing their own channel with hundreds of historical and cultural clips on YouTube (and iTunes, another resource increasingly being thrown behind the filter).

Of course there’s a lot of crap on YouTube.  You could say the same thing about television (which seems to be recyling the YT junk into an infinite feedback loop), movies, bookstores.

But isn’t that why we have teachers and librarians?  To help students find the good stuff out there in the world and teach them how to make the best instructional use of it?

It’s time for administrators (and many teachers) to get past the reflexive urge to block and ban anything on the web that’s popular with students, thinking that it must be educationally invalid.

We need to spend more time training teachers how to use these resources.

After all, live, intelligent filters are always more effective than the electronic ones.

Stream The Learning

At the end of the day, at the farthest point possible from the physical center of the conference, Will, Gary, Ewan, and Steve did a great tag team show-and-tell with Ustream.

More importantly they also talked about how this kind of communications tool could be used for teaching and connecting students.

That’s the piece that we still need organize and think through before putting these tools in front of our trainers and especially most teachers.

But from a techie standpoint, this was pretty cool. More than 100 viewers showed up for the live stream, at least half in the same room, which was probably stretching the wifi in the hotel to the limit.

And then there were the 80 or so in the chat room, with many sidebars, questions, and suggestions of their own.

The people at Ustream should be paying for this kind of publicity. Oh, that’s right… it’s free and they aren’t making any money from it.

Is web 2.0 built on a non-existent business model? I guess that’s a question for another day.

Anyway, if you’re interested in seeing what went on, the stream and chat room are archived on Will’s Ustream channel. [It’s in two parts because of the crash 3/4 of the way through the session.]

The TED Top 10

Celebrating the second year of sharing videos of talks from the annual TED conference (still waiting for my scholarship :-), the people running the site have posted a selection of the ten most popular.

I could quibble with a few of the choices but not with the fact that all are excellent, especially my favorites by Ken Robinson, Al Gore, Hans Rosling, and Tony Robbins.

While the highlight reel is fun, go watch all ten. It will be well worth your time.

BTW, you can also subscribe to the videos in iTunes and take them to go.

Testing Trumps Teaching Everytime

Our district subscribes to Discovery Education Streaming, an excellent collection of video and other resources for instruction at just about any level and for almost any topic.

We’ve made it available to teachers for a couple of years now and most of them love the materials and use the service constantly.

However, our IT department this week sent out a message asking that our middle and high schools not use the site from now until June 13th.

Because for the next month those students will be taking the state standardized tests (the SOL’s in our local vernacular) online and, when you have limited bandwidth, it must be reserved for high priority activities.

And nothing gets a higher priority in American education than testing.