Yet Another Look at Khan Academy (YALAKA)

There has been, of late, much discussion of Khan Academy in the news, blogosphere, and twitterverse. I have written on the topic before, and I feel it is time I chimed in again.

Some of the criticisms of KA are:

  • The videos use older, less effective methods that rely on mechanics rather than understanding the underlying process
  • There are inaccuracies in the videos
  • The assessments are just drill, not rich tasks or authentic
  • KA is over-hyped
  • The system of scores and badges sets the badges as the end goal, not the learning,
  • KA is just lecture
  • KA is no better than a textbook

Before I address these, I would like to address another issue. There has been quite a bit of ad-hominem name calling – having a bit of fun at Sal Khan’s expense. While it is easy to make jokes at Khan’s expense, and even easier to jump on the bandwagon, it serves no constructive purpose. If our goal is to expand the repertoire of effective teaching and learning methods, creating animosity towards KA – which is much in the spotlight – does not help. Please, let’s keep the discussion to constructive criticism, and perhaps we can help establish the kind of resource we would like to see. If you participated in ad-hominem attacks, consider yourselves admonished.

Now on to my analysis:

  • The videos use older, less effective methods that rely on mechanics rather than understanding the underlying process

This is quite true, but perhaps less significant than some make it out to be. The original purpose of KA was homework help – little, bite-sized tutorials to help students (initially Sal’s nieces) to see how particular problems could be tackled. The original intent was not for KA to replace teaching, but to act as a supplement – one more thing students could use to help them grasp difficult concepts. The role of providing that deeper understanding of process and underlying principles should fall to the classroom teacher. And if the classroom teacher is NOT doing that, then they require as much or more criticism  than Khan.

  • The assessments are just drill, not rich tasks or authentic problems

True. And as soon as you figure out how rich tasks can be assessed quickly and effectively by an automated system, be sure to let KA know so they can implement it. In the meantime, as with the above, rich authentic tasks are the classroom teacher’s job.

  • There are inaccuracies in the videos

A valid point. These should be identified, KA should be informed, and they should fix them. KA should also have the decency to recognize all those who have helped improve the content by such corrections.

  • KA is over-hyped

This is a case of bandwagon jumping, and one-upmanship. Certainly producing thousands of tutorial videos and making them available for free to all is a praiseworthy accomplishment, and Sal Khan deserves kudos for that. The over-hype comes as sources try to out-do each other promoting KA as the future of education, and Sal as the Greatest Educator in America. But KA is not making those claims directly – others (such as Bill Gates) are making those proclamations. And as others have said before, that is not so much a praise of KA as it is an indictment of public education in the United States.

  • The system of scores and badges sets the badges as the end goal, not the learning,

I too am of the opinion that any end goal other than learning itself detracts from the focus of learning as a goal. However, numerical grades – which most of us are required to produce – also detract from the focus on learning. Badges at least are merit recognition that is not grades-based, so perhaps a step in the right direction. In addition, many teachers have reported that badges work as a motivator. One can heap on theory based criticism ‘til the cows come home, but if it works, the criticism loses legitimacy.

  • KA is just lecture

I would argue that Khan’s videos are NOT lecture. They are tutorials, and there is a subtle but significant difference. I have written before that I can deliver a lesson to an entire class – using chalkboard or Smart board – and the identical lesson to a small group of students (1-4) using a portable whiteboard and it will be far more effective in the small group setting. Why? Because of the more personal arrangement, in the smaller group it is both harder for students to hide and less conducive to doing so. I think that when students watch videos of this nature – be they Khan’s or anyone else’s – students tend to be more in the mindset of a small-group interaction, rather than large-group lecture. Certainly the attention rate is higher in my observation. So while the information is presented in a one-way delivery format, it is not lecture.

  • KA is no better than a textbook

The irony is that this directly contradicts the previous claim. If lecture is no better than a textbook, why have teachers at all, as everything could be learned from the textbook? For many people – even most – a stepwise explanation is easier to absorb and understand than a page from a textbook. Perhaps it seems like less work, or perhaps it is less daunting when a process starts from nothing and expands to a solution, or perhaps it is more comforting when you can see how it is done, so you get a feel for what to look for to be on the right track. In any event, I know my students certainly use – and get more out of – YouTube “how to” videos than similar information in text form. So no, KA is not like a textbook in that regard.

Khan Academy is not perfect. But we do a disservice to them, to us, and to our students, if we begin to criticize for the sake of criticizing, rather than critiquing in order to help it improve. Because if we can provide constructive feedback, Khan Academy could grow into something more in tune with current (and future) best practices. And that would be something to see.

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “Yet Another Look at Khan Academy (YALAKA)

  1. Pat Hallquist

    I appreciated the thoughtful analysis. With regards to the point about inaccuracies, Khan Academy does have a link for posting comments about mistakes in the videos and exercises (contribute – report a problem). When I have done this, I sometimes get a response from someone who is not clearly identified in terms of their relationship with the Khan Academy, since people not associated with Khan Academy can respond to comments. In addition, videos I have commented on will disappear from the playlist without any explanation.

    The Khan Academy could be useful as a tutorial resource if the videos were reviewed and fixed. Maybe the Khan Academy is doing this behind the scenes, but it’s hard to tell. While I haven’t checked, and really don’t have the expertise to check all the areas on which Salman Khan has produced videos, I suspect that there are more mistakes in the videos that are farther from Salman Khan’s own education. For example, chemistry videos probably have more problems than the math videos. Due to the huge number of videos in a variety of subjects and all the publicity surrounding the Khan Academy, Khan Academy may have trouble acknowledging that all the videos should be reviewed and fixed as needed.

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  2. Brenton Burchmore

    Whilst I would agree with much of the detailed analysis and response to the specifics of KA and what it delivers I would argue that this is like discussing the poor condition of the truck that is about to run you over.

    For me the key point is not the debate on the minutiae of pedagogic weaknesses, it is understanding why so many millions of students have voluntarily accessed them to improve their own learning outcomes. Unravelling these ideas requires a step away from perfectionism that academic debate seems to retreat to when confronted with something radical that obviously brings results.

    I believe that the most powerful lesson that KA has to teach us is that according to students – we are doing it wrong. Our challenge as educators is to once again become students, to embrace our ignorance and our humility and open our hearts and minds to the voices of the masses. For eons teachers have asked students to listen, but now it is our turn.

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  3. paul jordan

    This is the only Kahn analysis I’ve seen that acknowledges (in part) the unique advantages of the KA form factor vis a vis lecturing and textbooks. Its seems a lot of the resentment of KA derives from its supplanting “rich content” and/or “modeling” as the “Next Big Thing”, while teachers–mostly middle and high school– regard it as the “Same Old Thing”. KA is the tip of the spear of internet technologies remaking the educational system . Cramster is as revolutonary as KA, Students spend exorbitant amounts for textbooks with no detailed solutions sets. Textbooks will follow the dvd into oblivian. Although most of the anti Kahn animus comes from educators at the middle and high school level, KA and similar solutions will initially be for more transformative at the undergraduate level where they will compete with the 100 seat lecture hall and disinterested graduate TA’s.

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  4. Jason Buell

    I think most of us that have a problem with KA can agree with what you’re saying, the problem is the shift on what KA started out as and what its become. A kid going home and getting HW help is great. However KA has shifted to something that’s being used to replace initial classroom instruction. The summer school program at my school mandates 2 hours of KA a day in place of classroom teaching and there’s an elementary school nearby that’s using it, again, in place of initial classroom instruction. Both of these programs are supported by the KA, this was not a decision by the school itself (other than to accept funding).

    Up until a couple of months ago I would have agreed with you that Khan himself isn’t making any of the claims about revolutionizing teaching but, at least on a local level, that’s changed. While I haven’t heard anything more than subtext from Khan himself, he has at the very least allowed people who work for him make those claims.

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  5. Vlad

    There are too many major and conceptual mistakes in the videos which probably relate to insufficient education of Mr. Khan in several areas of science. I would not recommend these incorrect and misleading videos to my students. Science should be learned from the certified teachers and tutors.

    Reply

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