Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Replacing school with the Khan Academy?

Have y'all heard of the Khan Academy? It seems to be one man, Salman Khan, trying to provide a basic math, science, and finance education to the world, for free, via video. (I learned about it from the video in this post by dy/dan, which I recommend.)

What I actually think is most interesting about it, from a pedagogical perspective, is how little Khan does with the technology. It seems like the lessons mostly consist of him talking on audio, and writing on a virtual chalkboard (with multiple colors of chalk!) in the video. From a casual survey of the videos, he occasionally pulls in a screenshot of a website, but given all the fascinating things you could do with pictures, video, and interactive content, that seems pretty limited. It is, in essence, a basic chalk-talk put on the internet. And the curriculum seems largely based on your average standard textbooks in each field. Heck, the video I've linked to below has him solving a textbook word problem from an Algebra I book. Khan is apparently experimenting with an open-source web-based "Exercise Application", used through a google login, that seems to basically be an automated workbook.

This raises so many questions: Is this effective? Could it be useful in a classroom? ("Here, Jimmy, I see you didn't get Solving Systems of Equations by Graphing when I explained it -- maybe this video will help? And then do these practice problems online.") Does it replace a classroom? (Does it depend on the classroom being replaced?) Is it an acceptable substitute when classrooms aren't available? (My physics students in Ghana didn't have a chemistry teacher -- would these videos have been better than just having the textbook?)

I have to admit that I'm having a knee-jerk reaction of, "of course you need a live teacher to explain in a way that accommodates the particular student sitting in front of you and their prior knowledge and speed of learning!", but I'm trying to acknowledge my own bias as a teacher-in-training and be open-minded here. I think at the end of the day, because of the approach and the non-interactivity of the videos they're basically another text -- another way of getting at the material that's presented in the textbook. Can you learn from them? Yes, just as you could learn from reading the a textbook. Do they have advantages over a textbook? Yes, in that they're free to replicate and deliver (as long as you have a working internet connection), and they may work better for those who learn more easily from watching and listening than reading. But they also have all the limitations of static textbook -- they're delivered to a single, generic audience and not customizable based on prior knowledge, areas of interest, speed of learner / need for elaboration and multiple explanations, context of the learner, or the community in which the learner is learning.

There's another interesting question here, which is does Mr. Khan need to be certified or authorized to teach this material? Is he qualified in terms of content knowledge, and pedagogical knowledge? The website doesn't list any of his qualifications. One of the linked video profiles of him and the project mentions that he used to work for a hedge fund before launching this project. In some ways, he's the uber-Teach for America kid, reaching out to the underserved of the (English-speaking) world, rather than just the underserved of the US, figuring that what he's learned along the way for content and the curriculum inherent in textbooks qualifies him to do this. (Wait a minute -- he is me, when I taught physics in Africa with the Peace Corps!) Nothing I saw in the few videos I watched seemed wrong, but there also doesn't seem to be any quality control on the content. Does that matter? Is he filling a gap that should have been filled by the formal educational community? Yes, MIT has it's OpenCourseWare, and I think other universities are also starting to jump on that bandwagon, but where's the K-12 version?

1 comment:

  1. I also looked up the Khan Academy. I plan to use it in a number of ways:
    -To supplement my education and refresh particulars on courses I took many years ago.
    -To get an idea if I want the students in my student teaching placement to reference them, and as you said, where is the quality control? But where is it when the Texas School Board does their ignorant slash and burn? Wikipedia has been shown to have errors, but Encyclopedias also have errors. So I have to check the content.
    -If the students are using it to study, whet are they getting?

    I thinks it's a fabulous idea for students where there is no infrastructure for schools or a wide range of subjects.
    As a teacher, it is our responsibility to push students to become autodidactic. They should never stop learning, but should understand how to vet sources, as they will always need to know more than school can possibly teach.