What does Khan Academy need?

July 23, 2012, 10:36 pm

Marshall Thompson writes in this blog post from a couple of weeks ago that he’s concerned over the tone of the recent and ongoing Khan Academy/#mtt2k debate and is worried about the cost it incurs. It’s a good post, and in the process of commenting on it I realized a few things. Marshall writes:

I get the impression that KA has a goal of pedagogical soundness. Is this the best way to help them achieve that goal?

Sal Khan is not a dummy. He is clearly working through some of the same pedagogical misconceptions we all worked through (and continue to work through). How can we best help him through his personal journey without alienating him or causing him to be defensive?

I have tremendous respect for Sal Khan, but I have to admit that I’m not really concerned about his personal journey or his working through pedagogical misconceptions. It would be fantastic if he began consistently to adopt the intentionality that is really necessary to create a high-quality video or activity. But frankly, the quality of KA videos and Sal Khan’s development as a teacher are not my problem — just as the quality of, say, the University of Michigan’s degree programs and the professional development of its faculty are not my problem.

In fact, it seems that the thing that has precipitated this whole issue is that an educational reform with tremendous potential — the notion of the inverted classroom — has become conflated with a single product and even a single person. We try to talk about improving screencasts and end up talking about Sal Khan’s personal journeys. Bill Gates sees what Khan Academy is doing and does not say, “Let’s try to develop the best screencasts possible using methods that are shown to work well,” but rather “Let’s use Khan Academy”. When did education reform along these lines become inextricable from a single person?

What is my problem — I mean that in a good way — is facilitating student learning. I believe strongly that the inverted classroom is an idea whose time has arrived.  The key component in the inverted classroom is having materials for students to study outside of class in order to maximize learning experiences in class through active engagement. Making these materials is very hard work, as I’ve tried to illustrate through my recent posts. What I am concerned with, far more than improving the quality of Khan Academy videos, is whether or not students have access to such materials. The problem is that for many teachers, KA is the only game in town — certainly the only resource available with that level of brand recognition.

So it seems to me that what Khan Academy needs is not necessarily a bunch of people from outside KA helping KA get better. I think what KA really needs is competition. I get as annoyed as anybody at the pro-KA argument of “If Khan Academy is so bad, let’s see you make your own videos”, primarily because I am making my own videos and so are scores of others. But there’s something to this complaint. If KA had even one or two comparable alternatives that did take a more intentional approach and did use sound, research-tested design principles in its design, then we could stop focusing on Khan Academy so much and get on to the work of improving student learning. It might even force KA to step up its game. But even if it didn’t, no worries — just don’t use KA. Use one of the other resources. Mathalicious is one resource that’s already out there; more would be better.

Once we can get the Bill Gateses of the world thinking about the inverted classroom and not automatically thinking about Khan Academy specifically but rather a whole variety of excellent resources from which instructors and school systems can choose, then we’re on to something. Until then, we’re stuck with Khan Academy, not the educational model it makes possible, being the future.


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