Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Khan Academy is the future of education, is it?

Before I write too much here, I want to preface this by saying that I am a HUGE fan of Sal Khan and the Khan Academy [link]. I believe it is an amazing resource and I send my students there all the time to get reminders and refreshers.

But lately I've seen a few articles and blog posts suggesting that Khan Academy is serving as a medium for "reforming" education and my jaw dropped at the suggestion that students would plug into Khan Academy, and then when the software detected there was a student who needed more help, that student would be referred to the teacher who served more as a tutor to get the kid back into the Khan Academy stream.

This is wrong in so many ways. But the first and most egregious error made in this model is asserting that that Khan Academy represents good or effective instruction. It does not. It is a series of lectures. They may be small, bite-sized, and repeatable, but they are necessarily mass-delivered lectures. In fact, the reason why so many people like it is because they can stop the instructor and rewind him easily and then watch it again. But does effective instruction need to be repeated ever and over again. If not, then what exactly do we need repeated over and over again? How about processes?

Sure, processes need to be repeated; over and over and over again. Self-admittedly, the Khan Academy teaches things the way Sal Khan was taught: that needs to be translated into memorization and algorithm; old school style.

But here's the problem, research [need to dig up this reference, sorry] has shown that under our old way of teaching mathematics (1950's to pre-contemporary era) was effective for only about 30% of students; that means it was ineffective for about 70% of students. The Khan Academy, for elementary years topics, represents the LAST step of learning the mathematics: the formalized abstract numerical representations of topics. Sal Khan, to his credit, elucidates the steps very carefully, but most kids have failed to learn that way historically.

So my reticence to Khan Academy being portrayed as the future of education is that I think it actually represents just an updated modernization of the past and past methods of instruction. I don't want my students -- or my own children -- to follow a bunch of "steps" for mathematical procedures and operations without talking about how the math makes sense to them first. I don't want these children to be flagged for mathematics tutoring by their "teacher" only after failing to master an algorithm. And most egregiously, I don't want any child to be led to believe that they understand mathematics -- or that they are good at it -- simply because they happen to be able to master the algorithms quickly and therefor are never flagged by the computer for failing to understand the mathematics conceptually.

By all means, I believe that the Khan Academy represents a huge leap forward in self-pacing and they are coming up with some amazing ways of helping students to track progress and growth. But I feel we should be wary of anything that has become popular because people can watch it over and over again.

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