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