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Fawning over Khan Academy: Wired Magazine Explains Why

By on August 4, 2011
Continuing Education, Friend, Fraud, or Fishy, K-12, Required, Technology

Salman Khan, extracted from a video about the ...

Is Salman Kahn and his Khan Academy the latest incarnation of the messiah? At least that’s how the tech press is treating the start-up. Bill Gates has anointed Khan as the chosen one. Khan’s lecture at the recent Ted conference was the darling of the dance.  This profile in the most recent Wired Magazine by Clive Thompson (“How Khan Academy is Changing the Rules of Education”) furthers the notion that Khan is the second coming of all things interesting in education. Thompson highlights some of the criticisms and the hype: 

Khan’s videos are anything but sophisticated. He recorded many of them in a closet at home, his voice sounding muffled on his $25 Logitech headset. But some of his fans believe that Khan has stumbled onto the secret to solving education’s middle-of-the-class mediocrity. Most notable among them is Bill Gates, whose foundation has invested $1.5 million in Khan’s site. “I’d been looking for something like this—it’s so important,” Gates says. Khan’s approach, he argues, shows that education can truly be customized, with each student getting individualized help when needed.

Not everyone agrees. Critics argue that Khan’s videos and software encourage uncreative, repetitive drilling—and leave kids staring at screens instead of interacting with real live teachers. Even Khan will acknowledge that he’s not an educational professional; he’s just a nerd who improvised a cool way to teach people things. And for better or worse, this means that he doesn’t have a consistent, comprehensive plan for overhauling school curricula.

 How does Khan Academy work?

Khan Academy is an educational website that, as its tagline puts it, aims to let anyone “learn almost anything—for free.” Students, or anyone interested enough to surf by, can watch some 2,400 videos in which the site’s founder, Salman Khan, chattily discusses principles of math, science, and economics (with a smattering of social science topics thrown in). The videos are decidedly lo-fi, even crude: Generally seven to 14 minutes long, they consist of a voice-over by Khan describing a mathematical concept or explaining how to solve a problem while his hand-scribbled formulas and diagrams appear onscreen. Like the Wizard of Oz, Khan never steps from behind the curtain to appear in a video himself; it’s just Khan’s voice and some scrawly equations. In addition to these videos, the website offers software that generates practice problems and rewards good performance with videogame-like badges—for answering a “streak” of questions correctly, say, or mastering a series of algebra levels. (Carpenter has acquired 52 Earth badges in math, which require hours of toil to attain and at which his classmates gaze with envy and awe.)

The article deftly shows how Khan and other open-source learning software have the potential to turn classroom teaching upside down. It shows how school districts may be wasting heaps of money to teach subjects in ways students just don’t learn these days.

For years, teachers like Thordarson have complained about the frustrations of teaching to the “middle” of the class. They stand at the whiteboard, trying to get 25 or more students to learn the same stuff at the same pace. And, of course, it never really works: Advanced kids get bored and tune out, lagging ones get lost and tune out, and pretty soon half the class isn’t paying attention. Since the rise of personal computers in the early ’80s, educators have hoped that technology could solve this problem by offering lessons tailored to each kid. Schools have blown millions, maybe billions, of dollars on sophisticated classroom technology, but the effort has been in vain.

The Wired article also explains in this summary paragraph the apparently growing field of open-source education; sites with how-to information that are most-often free for users: 

Whatever Khan’s limits, his site has become extremely popular. More than 2 million users watch his videos every month, and all told they answer about 15 questions per second. Khan is clearly helping students master difficult and vital subjects. And he’s not alone: From TED talks to iTunes U to Bill Hammack the Engineer Guy, new online educational tools are bringing the ethos of Silicon Valley to education. The role these sites can (or should) play in our nation’s schools is unclear. But classes like Thordarson’s are starting to find out.

And how did it start? It’s a strong narrative and informative into where learning may be going with the generations in school today and in coming days.

in 2004, Khan’s 13-year-old cousin Nadia, who lived across the country, asked him for help in math. Khan agreed to tutor her on the phone. To illustrate the mathematical concepts he was describing, they’d log into Yahoo Messenger and Khan would use the program’s drawing window to write equations while she watched remotely. When they couldn’t meet, he’d just record a lesson as a video, talking through the material while writing in Microsoft Paint.

One day Nadia told him she didn’t want to talk on the phone anymore; she wanted him to just record videos. Why? Because that way she could review the video as many times as she wanted, scrolling back several times over puzzling parts and fast-forwarding through the boring bits she already knew. “She basically said, ‘I like you better on the video than in person,’” Khan says.

A lightbulb went off: Khan realized that remediation—going over and over something that you really ought to already know—is less embarrassing when you can do it privately, with no one watching. Nadia learned faster when she had control over the pace of the lecture. “The worst time to learn something,” he says, “is when someone is standing over your shoulder going, ‘Do you get it?’”

He expanded the sessions to other cousins as word got out as family members heard about the free tutoring. He programmed Java modules that would ask them questions and challenge them to higher levels. “Though Khan didn’t know the academic terminology at the time, he was implementing classic “mastery-based learning”—requiring students to prove they’ve conquered material before advancing.”

 Word soon spread to the rest of the world. Khan discovered that thousands of people were watching his videos on YouTube. Some were students mystified by physics, others were adults brushing up on basics before relaunching a stalled college degree. Khan gradually became more and more absorbed in his site, staying up past midnight crafting new videos and software lessons. Email messages poured in from fans, startling him with their intensity.

In 2009, Khan decided to turn his hobby into a full-time job. He formed a nonprofit and got a small donation from Ann Doerr, wife of Silicon Valley investor John Doerr. Demand had taken off; now tens of thousands of people were watching his videos every month. Khan quickly got to work recording more clips in his closet.

Then, last summer, he received a text from Doerr, who was attending the Aspen Ideas Festival: “Bill Gates is talking about your stuff onstage.” Khan dialed up the online video from Aspen and watched Gates, whom he’d never met, singing his praises; indeed, Gates revealed that his own kids were using Khan Academy as a study aid. (“I shit a brick when I saw that,” Khan says.) He met with Gates soon after and received $1.5 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Google kicked in another $2 million.

A super fascinating part of the article explains how and why Bill Gates is such a huge fan of Kahn and why mathematics is a particular Achilles heel of Americans and our education system. It’s the reason, Gates says, why people are unable to become police men or nurses among other professions. Is open source learning the more affordable way for Americans (and non-Americans) to fill in educational gaps and beef up their career prospects… (college degrees be damned?)

“Math is the killer,” Gates told me recently. His foundation had researched unemployment and found math to be a significant stumbling block. “If you ask people, ‘Hey, there are these open nursing jobs, why don’t you go and get one?’ math is often the reason they give for not applying,” Gates says. “‘Why didn’t you pass the police exam?’ Math.”

In the new era of popular, YouTube-friendly education videos, Khan’s site is unique in that it’s ruthlessly practical: It’s aimed at helping people master the basics, the humble bread-and-butter equations they encounter in elementary and high school. Traditionally, these kinds of videos can be dry and difficult to slog through. But Khan manages to pull off his lessons with a casual air that keeps the viewer engaged. He says his relaxed approach isn’t faked—it’s a result of the way he prepares. He never writes a script. He simply researches a topic until he feels he can explain it off the cuff to “a motivated 7-year-old.” (Preparation can take anywhere from 10 minutes with a familiar subject like algebra to nearly a week in the case of organic chemistry.) Khan also never edits. Either he nails the lecture in a single take or he redoes the entire thing until it satisfies him.Several students I spoke to also pointed out that Khan is particularly good at explaining all the hidden, small steps in math problems—steps that teachers often gloss over. He has an uncanny ability to inhabit the mind of someone who doesn’t already understand something. “He explains things step by step, rather than assuming you already know how to get from A to B,” Brannan says.

Khan is now aiming for his online videos to be used in schools more often. He and his team are working on improving the user interface with students. They are adding video-game style features inside the course management dashboards, giving students badges, points and awards when they complete levels.

From our view, Kahn – for his ideas, teaching abilities and myriad degrees – is a rare bird, a genius perhaps, a Socrates of his day. We applaud his efforts and will continue to watch the developments with his firm. But, in the interest of providing an independent voice and a healthy dose of skepticism, let’s look at the criticisms of Kahn and his Academy. First in the Wired article:

Not all educators are enamored with Khan and his site. Gary Stager, a longtime educational consultant and advocate of laptops in classrooms, thinks Khan Academy isn’t innovative at all. The videos and software modules, he contends, are just a high tech version of that most hoary of teaching techniques—lecturing and drilling. Schools have become “joyless test-prep factories,” he says, and Khan Academy caters to this dismal trend. Khan’s approach “suffers from this sort of ’school über alles’ philosophy: They’re not going to question anything the schools do. They’re not going to challenge any of the content.” Stager admires the fact that Khan is trying to improve education, but he says research has shown that kids who are struggling at math won’t be helped by a “filmstrip.”

As Sylvia Martinez, president of Generation YES, a nonprofit focusing on technology in the classroom, puts it, “The things they’re doing are really just rote.” Flipping the classroom isn’t an entirely new idea, Martinez says, and she doubts that it would work for most kids: If they can’t understand the lecture in a classroom, they’re not going to grasp it better when it’s done through a video at home.

Kahn and other advocates of open-source learning say they are not promoting rote learning but, rather, the opposite. They say their model frees students up to have more time for creative projects and recess. He told Wired that his project is “liberating the classroom.” Another possible weakness Wired points out is the humanities:

Another limitation of Khan’s site is that the drilling software can handle only subjects where the answers are unambiguously right or wrong, like math or chemistry. And Khan has relatively few videos on messier, gray-area subjects like history.

And Khan and Gates both admit there’s no easy way to automate the teaching of writing—even though that subject is just as critical as math and students score equally poorly on it in national tests. Khan thinks one way to teach writing online is with peer review—have kids upload their writing so that the entire class can read and comment on it. (Many teachers, in fact, already do this.) In the next year or so, he wants to launch a community section of Khan Academy, where students can help each other with writing. He envisions students posting questions they can’t solve and getting guidance from other students or teachers around the world, any time of day; those who offered the best help would get voted upward.

What’s next for Kahn. The Wired article says his project is now taking him directly into the school reform debate. He functions as a Lando Calrissian, a benevolent and altruistic mercenary of the educational realm. But he wants to remain as a tech entrepreneur, changing education from Silicon Valley…. from the outside in. “Don’t call me an education reformer, all right?” he told Wired. “We’re not out to fight some political battle. We’re out to build stuff that’s useful.”

Khan doesn’t seem to care whether he changes the school system. Indeed, he’s leery of working too closely with school districts, because it would require him to adhere to their rules and expectations. Until now, he has followed his own instincts in building his library of videos and software—recording the subjects his cousins needed, then gradually adding those that he found interesting or that he thought students would benefit from. But schools have a firm curriculum they have to march through, and the Los Altos teachers often find they’re moving on to subjects that Khan hasn’t covered in detail.

Khan is gamely attempting to fill those holes. But he’s not breaking his back, because he doesn’t want the school system and its byzantine standards determining what he does with his site. Indeed, he argues, trying to serve taskmasters in different districts in 50 states is one of the reasons so many educational software companies produce such dull sludge: Much like teaching to the mythical “middle” of a class, the process strips teaching materials of any eccentricity and playfulness. “I don’t want to be a vendor,” he says with a shrug.

In essence, Khan doesn’t want to change the way institutions teach; he wants to change how people learn, whether they’re in a private school or a public school—or for that matter, whether they’re a student or an adult trying to self-educate in their kitchen in Ohio. Or Brazil or Russia or India: One member of Khan’s staff—now up to 13 people—is spearheading a drive to translate the videos into 10 major languages. It’s classic startup logic: Do something cool, do it quickly, and people who love it will find you.

The Wired story also includes this newsy bit about Kahn’s next steps, a possible private school to test his ideas…. and he’s got a few wild ideas in what that school would look like.

For his part, Khan says he’s now considering starting his own private school, as a way to see just how much you could wrap learning around Khan Academy. His ideas are intriguing: Among other things, his school wouldn’t divide kids by age; teenagers would mix in with kindergartners. “I have no research to back this up,” he says, “but younger kids act more mature around older kids, and older kids act more mature around younger kids.” If the classrooms were fully flipped, students could spend more of the school day doing creative activities. He’d use board games to teach negotiation, and he’d teach history backward. (“Why are the Israelis and Palestinians pissed at each other? Let’s go back a couple of years. Wait—they were pissed at each other even then! So you go back even further …”) He also thinks he’d teach kids subjects that have more real-world applicability—like “statistics, law, accounting, and finance. Why are you teaching people civics? Teach them law. That’s more relevant, and you learn civics at the same time.” He calculates that it would cost only $10,000 per child, “affordable for professional couples out here.”

If Khan does start such a school, he’ll have a powerful advantage. He’s been posting videos online for five years and students have answered more than 50 million questions in his software: Khan and his team are now sitting on a massive pile of data about how people learn and where they get stuck. He plans to mine the information to discover previously invisible patterns. How many times do students need to view the statistics video before they can answer questions about the subject? If you examine all the kids who stumble on, say, fractional division and basic algebra, can you predict what other subjects they’ll have trouble mastering? In the long run, Khan believes, such data mining could help him create customized lessons that are perfectly keyed to each kid’s learning style.

Would you send your kids to his school? What do you think of Kahn and Kahn Academy? Do you believe the hype? Do you think his model and ideas will revolutionize education? Has he invented the abacus? Or the 8 track? We’d like to hear from you.


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9 Comments

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Jeff Brew
Nov 13, 2011

So far, this has only been tested in wealthy districts where the students are already successful. In other words, I have no doubt that this is great test prep for highly motivated kids( i.e. the ones who will sit at home on any given night and review the key steps for calculating the area of a sphere). The real gaps this “innovation” spotlights are the technology gap and the “persistance” gap. These gaps will only be overcome by highly skilled, real-life instructors who motivate and educate from within a human relationship.

Wired Academic
Nov 13, 2011

That is a good point, Jeff. Still, in recent talks and presentations, Khan is moving toward more of a blended/flipped classroom model. We think best practices for lectures and first contact teaching can effectively be outsourced and supplied on-demand. Then classroom time can be dedicated to the human relationships that come from group activities and teacher interaction. What are your thoughts on flipped classrooms?

Balancing technology and pedagogy in learning music online « Jenny Connected
Jan 13, 2012

[...] Fawning over Khan Academy: Wired Magazine explains why [...]

Carolyn Johnston
Mar 14, 2012

I am not a math fan.., but found myself drawn in and interested as I watched his videos. I am 56 years old with an associates degree from a local community college that I recieved in 1976. I don’t care if Khan doesn’t have a comprehensive plan. I found his videos fresh and delightful! The lack of high tech expense added to the appeal. I did not feel as though I was being advertised to. I did not feel as though I was a studied market demographic. It was personal, easy to follow and fun. I sure hope he doesn’t lose that quality by attempting to become a stand alone institution of his own. This is a great tool. Let people use it or not. Same with teachers. It would be nice to put some individualism back into the education system.

Jamie Johnson
Apr 11, 2012

I am a programmer and over the last few months needed to learn some aspects of math I’d either forgotten or never learned. I looked into everything from textbooks to online pre calc classes from my local community college, to actually taking a class in person. When I found Khan all this went out the window. He is an incredible teacher. What some people seem to be missing is that this system of on demand allows for the the student to learn at their own speed, and to follow their curiosities, and to repeat any section they might not have fully understood. It is the opposite of rote – through the non linear mode of access, the student can repeat, wander ahead, behind, and investigate other forms of math, even other subjects, at will. The whole system feels like its under the student’s control. This fosters an enthusiasm, and encourages autonomy, which leads ultimately to creativity. I found myself delving into aspects of math I didn’t need to know, out of sheer curiosity. I have never been so interested in math in my life. If anyone is in doubt about the future of education or the real impact of Khan Academy, you only need to read the comments of any lesson to see legions of 13 year olds literally beside themselves with joy and appreciation for Sal having offered them a way to understand concepts that in many cases (in their words) their teachers had failed to clearly convey or explain to them.

Taiwo inman
Apr 26, 2012

I work with and Iam a founder of a small private school in Washington DC,prk- to- 12 grade in many of the urban areas we have a 50% drop out rate Iam for any Ideas that can keep children interested and learning,
Our class rooms are small max15 in a class. Most public schools have 25 to 35 kidds in a class room ,4 to five different levels in each class many no internet or computers at home I think we should try everything
on the front end instead of on the back end jail ,poverty etc

I will try to get in touch and see if we can adapt some of khans ideas good luck
Taiwo Inman

Caveat Emptor Computers in the Classroom - Geek Palaver
Aug 23, 2012

[...] you’re interested, you may read more about the Khan Academy and their connections to Bill Gates and Eli Broad as well.  Once again, Khan is a useful tool, but [...]

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