Cut Sal Khan and the Khan Academy Some Slack

Cut Sal Khan and the Khan Academy Some Slack
Tuesday, July 31, 2012

If you’ve followed ed tech chatter these past few weeks, then you know that the buzz around Khan Academy, the popular online repository of educational videos voiced by the charismatic Sal Khan, has taken a rather negative tone ever since two teachers at Grand Valley State University created "Mystery Teacher Theater 2000”—in the style of Mystery Science Theater 3000—a scathing response to a Khan video lesson about negative numbers.

Salman Khan, speaking at TED 2011. Photo by Steve Jurvetson.

For those of you without the nearly 12 minutes to watch the MTT2K video, which has more than 32k views, I’ll summarize: it is short on actual humor and long on math inside jokes and nitpicks about Khan’s methodologies. In fact, I had to watch the video three times to understand the gripes. My main impression is that makers of the video are calling out Khan for a technical flaw or two, and their commentary is tinged with more than a dash of disdain.

While I believe that even the most ardent fans, be they of Teach For America or Khan Academy, must be critically engaged, asking tough questions, and examining fundamental assumptions, there is an important distinction  between critical feedback and cynicism. Robert Talbert offers a measured and balanced view on what he loves and doesn’t about Khan Academy: “I believe online video is an idea whose time has really come in education. I’m not jealous of Khan Academy. But I’m not an uncritical fan, either, and we need to look at carefully at Khan Academy before we adopt it, whole-cloth, as the future of education.”

Now we’re talking. Talbert offers feedback rooted in improving, rather than undermining, an organization that cannot—and will not—improve without a little help from its friends. He isn’t trying to bring down Khan Academy (or soliciting negative fandom), but rather seeks to better an organization he values and wants to see push itself farther. Personally, this is a large part of why I’m blogging for Teach For America.

My question for Talbert is: who has deemed Khan Academy the “future of education”? Yes, online learning is challenging notions of the traditional classroom and changing some of the most sacred experiences from our K-12 memories, but ultimately these digital tools allow teachers to do more of what they do best: teach. Video lectures empower teachers to amplify their reach, but can never replace the magic of a teacher in their element.

Khan Academy was just gaining traction when I taught, but I found the videos helped with the most difficult aspect of teaching, differentiating for 30+ students, all with different levels of proficiency and learning modalities. I could point my most advanced students towards videos instructing them on multiple applications of a particular theory while I simultaneously walked students struggling with the same notion through a lesson explaining its fundamental premises. It helped me be a better teacher who reached more of my students more effectively.

Khan Academy is an imperfect, though key component of larger solutions. As Lauren Landry over at BostInno writes, “The ironic thing is, [Khan Academy] isn’t out to replace anything, but rather to enhance it. Khan’s not slapping a label on his platform and saying, ‘If you watch 50 of my videos, you’ll be a master mathematician.’ What he’s promoting is open education—a way for people around the world to access information they might not be receiving in a classroom.”

So, let’s keep the dialogue going without undermining our most promising new ideas. While there will— and should—be continued critical feedback for Khan Academy and its teaching methodologies, we can’t let perfect be the enemy of good. The future of education is sorting itself out as I type—Khan himself acknowledges his organization has a ways to go. In the end, face-to-face learning isn’t endangered by ideas like Khan Academy, it’s being enriched.



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