Sunday, May 29, 2011

Does Khan Academy Represent the Future of Education?

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog post about Khan Academy, a FREE online resource of math videos produced by Sal Khan, former hedge fund analyst turned educational visionary.  Khan has turned some math tutorials he produced for his nieces and posted on YouTube into a collection of 2,300 math (with a scattering of other topics) videos that are the foundation of his vision of producing an entire educational curriculum, available free of charge to anyone in the world with an Internet connection.

Khan (who comes across as a nice guy and not a big ego person) has been a rising star in the media looking for their next educational "Superman" (as in "Waiting for Superman"), now that Michele Rhee's aura has been tarnished with Erasergate and the fact that she and her mentor were kicked out by the voters.  CNN labeled him "Bill Gate's Favorite Teacher," Bloomberg Businessweek called him "a quasi-religions figure in a country desperate for a math Moses," and there is an active online campaign to have him nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

The latest on the Khan bandwagon is Steve Pearlstein, the Pulitzer-prize winning business and economics columnist for the Washington Post.  In an article entitled "Mark them tardy to the revolution," Pearlstein posits that Khan's offering will upend all of education, just as Napster disrupted the music industry and Craiglist and the Huffington Post threatened the old models of the newspaper business.

According to Pearlstein, Khan and his ilk--"master teachers"--will produce videos that will be used by thousands or millions of students, reducing the number of people who will need to be employed as teachers.  The video tutorial model, in his view, will also eliminate some of the current bedrocks of the educational system, such as age-specific school levels, school calendars, and grades (Pearlstein writes "As Khan loves to point out, grading will suddenly become simple:  Everyone gets an A in every course, with the only question being how long it takes each student to earn it.")  Given this approach, Pearlstein envisions that within a decade, educational quality will go up as costs go down, learning will become highly individualized, and "look for teaching to be transformed from an art to something much closer to a science."

My first reaction:  I can't wait to see what Valerie Strauss, Pearlstein's Washington Post colleague who writes The Answer Sheet education blog for the website, has to say about these predictions.

My second reaction is this sounds like another great prognostication by someone who doesn't know much about education.  Unfortunately, these days, those seem to be the ones who carry all the weight, since no one seems to care about what people who are actually trained for or work in education have to say.

Now, I'm not saying that some of these ideas might not be good ideas.  But does Mr. Pearlstein really think it will be that easy?  We've long ago abandoned the agrarian lifestyle that first set up our "summers off" educational calendar, but after about a century of resistance to changing that calendar, Pearlstein thinks we're going to talk families out of it within 10 years?  Good luck with that.  Pearlstein thinks we are going to do away with grades and just let everyone work at their own speed until they've mastered the content?  Did he read his own paper's story about the DC-area school that tried eliminating the use of F grades (read my blog post about it here), which lasted ONE WEEK due to vehement public opposition after the Post publicized the policy (read my follow-up post here)?  Again, personally, I agree with the concept--that is certainly what we do as homeschoolers--but I think Pearlstein is WAY underestimating the amount of conservatism there is about education, both among educators and among the public they serve.

My biggest issue, however, is that this is just another example of the "Superman" syndrome--the idea that some one new wonderful person or thing is going to come along and save education--and money as well!  The one thing we know about education is that it is complicated, and diverse, and challenging, and ever changing.  And it will always be those things, because it is a business about developing people, and people are complicated, and diverse, and challenging, and ever changing.

This is not, by any means, a dig at Mr. Khan or Khan Academy.  I like the guy, and I think what he is doing is great.  And it is wonderful that Bill Gates and his son get off on sitting down and watching dozens of Khan's math videos together.  But it is not like that at our house.  My son doesn't enjoy them and doesn't learn that well from them.  He is not a great fan of video instruction in general.  ESPECIALLY for math, videos don't have the interaction he needs to keep from zoning out.  So when we have been working on a math concept that I've been doing a bad job of explaining, and so he understands why he is watching and is interested in having something he is trying to understand made clearer, he might watch and learn from these videos.  But in general, this is not the solution for him.

I'm dubious of the argument that having everyone watch Khan Academy vidoes--but at their own pace--constitutes "highly individualized learning."  I do think technology does present an option for creating lots of individualized modules on all sorts of topics.  But for education to work for everyone, there have to be lots of different types of modules--videos, podcasts, computer programs, simulations, role playing games, virtual reality plays, I don't know, but tons of different types of approaches for the tons of different types of minds.  And who is going to match all these great resources with these diverse minds?  I don't think our computers are sophisticated enough for that yet.  It's still going to take people---people who are not only familiar with all these resources, but who understand education and understand minds and understand children and their needs and behaviors.  

In short, I don't see education having fewer staff and lower operating costs anytime soon--certainly not within 10 years.  But, then, what do I know?  Since I have both a Masters in Education AND over 20 years experience working in education, obviously no one wants to listen to my opinion.

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