From the Chronicle of Higher Education: The Trouble with Khan Academy

By now, most of you have heard of the Khan Academy. It’s a website founded by one Salman Khan, and it features hundreds of instructional videos on a wide range of topics. Khan himself has been featured in a TED talk, and he has been lauded by many leaders (Bill Gates among them) as a revolutionary in education. In other words, it’s kind of a big deal.

As a person with a liberal arts education, I have been trained to be skeptical of almost everything, and I’m especially skeptical of things that purport to “reinvent” anything (the subtitle of the TED talk linked above is “Let’s use video to reinvent education”). I love all things digital, to be sure, but I’m puzzled. What does it say about the state of our educational system if one (admittedly very bright) person can put together a website full of (admittedly very good) instructional videos that that’s going to “reinvent” education? And what does it say about the state of our educational system that we’re still looking for a magic bullet–a shortcut!–to fix our educational system when we refuse to let students use shortcuts within that system?

I’ve watched several of the videos, and I’ve watched the TED talk. I’m inspired, to be sure. But I don’t think these videos stand alone as teaching tools nor do they replace teachers. And I know that that’s not necessarily what Mr. Khan is proposing. But I was excited this week to see this article and its accompanying video (embedded below) poking some holes in what Khan Academy purports to do best: offer solid, well-taught content that offers the best that the digital medium can possibly offer.

Check out the article, and then check out the video, which alludes to one of my favorite television shows from the early days of Comedy Central: Mystery Science Theater 3000. If you’re not familiar with Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K, to enthusiasts), it was a 1990s television show that featured a man and two robots (voiced by below-screen humans, Muppet-style) cracking jokes about terrible movies, usually from the 1950s and 1960s. The format of the show would feature the movie taking up most of the screen with the three main character shown in silhouette at the lower right, as if they were sitting in front of you in a movie theatre somewhere.

Two mathematics professors from Grand Valley State University in Michigan set up this same viewing format for a Khan Academy video on multiplying and dividing negative numbers. It’s worth a watch for a variety of reasons, not only because it’s funny, but also for the questions that these two professors ask. They’re eager for the video’s narrator to discuss the “why”–Why do we care? Why are we doing this? What’s the point?

These questions speak directly to what Ramsey Musallam emphasized in our recent SSH Flip Teaching workshop: great teaching involves building student interest and engagement (explore), providing tools (explain), then providing opportunities for practice (apply). This video seems to do a lot of the applying part (there are a ton of examples of multiplying negative numbers) and some of the explaining part (some rules are explained), but the exploration part is missing. I love learning math and I love teaching math when I sub for my colleagues (hello, Ms. Symonds’s Math 2 Honors class!), so I’ve already got buy-in to find this video interesting without needing to have my interest built. And yet: I got up and made a sandwich in the middle of this video. Indeed, I got more out of this video because of the two seasoned teachers who kept asking “why?”. That’s telling–and it’s suggestive of a larger issue with the principles that should be guiding online education.

Check out the video and see for yourself.

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