Khan Academy: A Misstep Forward

Popular accounts of education reformation are both ubiquitous and indistinguishable: an enthusiastic young person with little teaching experience tries something new, documents an increase in some particular metric (although this is often statistically insignificant or unquantifiable), and concludes that the entire education system doesn’t adopt their particular new approach because of the momentum of the entrenched orthodoxy. Massive Open Online Courses [MOOCs] such as Coursera and Udacity are providing a large-scale example of such a hollow revolution, while smaller versions run the gamut from SCF in my previous post to my own over-broad conclusions about how inspiration can provide the key foothold for students in developing nations.

I was disappointed to discover, when reading through Salman Khan’s new book, The One World School House [OWSH], that Khan Academy is founded on precisely such a misapprehension.

A bit of background: in 2004, Salman Khan agreed to help his 12-year-old cousin study math. The videos (hosted on YouTube) and Khan’s math problem-generating web software became popular. Before long, Khan quit his job as a financial analyst and began working on the eponymous Khan Academy full-time.

Khan’s vision of contemporary education is not flattering. In OWSH, he argues that American schools perpetuate a Prussian model of education — not only in the sense that school is a public institution, but also in the sense that the nefarious goal of public education is to grind the creativity out of the populace while instilling the sort of half-baked enlightenment that leads to productive workers who have little interest in rebelling against the existing social order (taking without a hint of salt the arguments of John Taylor Gatto). Khan also claims that most students receive a “Swiss Cheese” education: their learning is so full of gaps and holes that attempts to build on earlier studies will be unsuccessful.

More  importantly, Khan demonstrates throughout OWSH that his understanding of both modern schooling and the practice of education is desks-in-rows classrooms with stern  teachers who lecture the entire class period and give no consideration to any skills outside the purview of their narrow content area.

On the positive side (from the viewpoint of a progressive educator) Khan has little use for summative assessments, opposes burdensome homework loads, and strongly advocates for mastery learning (although his understanding of this seems basic or naive).

As a teacher, he first two-third of OWSH felt like running a gauntlet. Are teachers really destroying creativity, quashing adolescence, and stagnating the talent pool? Certainly not. Khan’s education diet doesn’t include such staples as instructional differentiation (which only appears later in the text as a selling-point of his new paradigm), discipline, practicing social skills, or even the notion of classroom activities.

That brings us to Khan Academy, in its current form. The site is heavily gamified. There are points, badges, avatars, goals, and other elements. Sub-topics have a few videos and maybe an automatic exercise. The exercises are built (rather cleverly) with jQuery and basically allow for random numbers to be put into the same problem framework. Here’s an example:

Daniel starts counting at 28, and he counts by fives.
If 28 is the 1st number that Daniel counts. what is the 14th number that he counts?

The numbers 28, “fives”, and 14 are picked randomly. The criteria for mastery have evolved, from 10-in-a-row, to a Bayesian estimate of the likelihood of the next problem being correct, and now back to 5-in-a-row but with four levels of reiteration before the concept is presumed to be fully mastered.

I used Khan Academy as an instructional and assessment tool with an 11th-grade math class for two months this past spring. Here were the highlights:

  1. Most students rapidly grokked the concept, but less than a tenth really bought into the gamification aspect.
  2. Many students became frustrated because mastery was highly contingent on getting a long “streak” of correct answers.
  3. The videos are boring and slow. I limit my lecturing to less than a quarter of class-time (and usually much less), and even those lectures are Socratic in nature, so students who had to sit through Khan’s long, drawn-out examples rapidly switched off — especially because they were using a computer capable of so much more interesting stuff!
  4. The Khan Academy approach is time-consuming, as it focuses on deep mastery of skills. While I fully support deep mastery of core concepts, I was disappointed with the slow progress we made. A fairly-intuitive unit on probability that normally takes two weeks was stretched out to a month and a half.
  5. The exercises are still too few and far between to constitute real practice. Important concepts had no exercises. Developing exercises is a slow process, granted, but it must surely be seen as a core competency of the Khan Academy, where only one 1 full-timer (out of 45) and 3 interns (out of 33) are indicated as exercise developers.

The Khan Academy’s user-base is broad, and thousands have attributed various kinds of success to the web site. While I don’t think it is ready for prime-time use as a major instructional tool in most classrooms (flipped or otherwise), that doesn’t mean I’m not optimistic about Khan Academy’s future.

Which brings us to the real reason to read OWSH: Khan’s considered vision of how education could look in a world that fully embraced today’s technological competencies.

  1. Khan suggested amalgamating 4-5 classrooms into a single large area. The 4-5 teachers would represent different backgrounds and expertises. Students would be self-motivated to do their learning with computers (à la Khan Academy) and would spend the rest of their day — Khan believes that individualized instruction will be nearly an order of magnitude more efficient — working on group projects, creating things, and tutoring younger students. The discipline issues are too huge for this to work. Students come to school with too much baggage: even the most optimistic educator cannot believe that a fairy-tale workspace would keep kids from unpacking all their troubles, emotions, and needs.
  2. Although he writes frequently in OWSH about the “artificial separation of traditional academic subjects”, it’s not clear to me that either Khan Academy or Khan’s vision do much to blur the boundaries. The academic subjects are divided traditionally on the Khan Academy web page. The current approach of interdisciplinary projects, as in the Group 4 Project in the International Baccalaureate programme, seems the best way forward short of major curricular revision.
  3. Khan advocates for classes that consist of students of mixed ages, so the elders can model behaviour for the younger members. It’s a good idea, and inter-age communities should be cultivated in schools, but this isn’t a behavioural panacea.
  4. There is the debate about flipping the classroom. I’ll return to this in a later post.
  5. Khan suggests eliminating the summer break and allowing students to take vacation time, as do many adults. Once we can get to the point where instruction is fully differentiated, this is workable — although the idea is not new.
  6. Khan has failed to convince me that his approach will reach our poorest students: those without computer access. His suggestion that middle-class kids would allow the poor to use their technology during the night shows a poor understanding of class dynamics and social realities. Instead, we should perhaps target the next wave of “African cell phones” — those electronic devices that spread because they are sufficiently affordable and valuable that even the poor farmer couldn’t afford not to have one.
  7. Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of computer-based, individualized instruction is how it allows for meaningful credentials. Perhaps in conjunction with portfolios, this could finally replace leaving exams, entrance exams, and other ineffective measures of competence for schools, universities, and employers.

This brings us full circle, as credentialing is also likely to be the defining issue of MOOCs. Like MOOCs, computer-mediated, individualized instruction is a trick snake that cannot be stuffed back into the can. In one form or another, it will persist. Whether in the form of good education, or mirroring a cartoonish vision of school learning cultivated by non-educators, computer-based instruction is here to stay.

I’d suggest the following should happen before we shift to full differentiation in our classrooms:

  1. High-quality videos. I think John & Hank Green have the right idea (although perhaps too much of their trademark manic energy) with Crash Course.
  2. Videos should be interspersed with comprehension quizzes, as offered in Coursera and elsewhere. Ultimately, videos should branch depending on the quizzes: obviously-wrong answers lead to a more fundamental approach, small-misunderstanding answers should include rectifications of those errors, and so forth.
  3. Textbook publishers should recognize that their greatest asset is not the ideas contained in their textbooks but the volume of assessment materials they possess: I’m talking about licensing data banks of questions.
  4. Figure out how to deal with motivation. Face-to-face contact provides a very strong motivational tool that hasn’t yet been replicated online. This is why the drop-out rate in MOOCs is so high, and why the vast majority of Khan Academy users don’t stick with it until they master calculus.
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s