Education Reform: Insert your favorite “Wrath of Khan” joke blog title here

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For any agent of change, there’s no measurement of success so sure as the steady accumulation of vocal critics — and Sal Khan is finding all kinds of critics as he continues to press forward.

What’s most notable is that he’s finding many of his most vocal critics among professional educators who are eager to point out that he’s Doing It Wrong, and that their own methods are clearly superior.

They’re absolutely right, too — but they are right about points that no reasonable person disputes.

Of course a motivated, talented teacher with a strong pedagogical background, years of experience, and an excellent relationship with his or her students is going to provide a superior learning experience to a website on the internet.

But here’s the thing, Highly Effective Teacher: not every kid has access to the Wonder That Is You.  Right?  So what can we offer to those kids?

Something is always better than Nothing, and there are still way too many kids in this world (and adults, for that matter) who are closer to that Nothing side of the continuum.  Khan Academy, and the projects that came before it like One Laptop Per Child and Sugar Labs, and the many projects that will surely come after, are all trying to solve that Nothing problem.  Why are so many teachers threatened by that?

Working with ISKME and OER Commons over the past year has been eye-opening for me, in a lot of ways.  Full of a-ha moments.  One of the critical a-ha moments: doing reverse DNS lookups for server logs for OER Commons, and seeing how many of those hits come from India and Pakistan, where the Nothing problem is acute.  And many of those users who search for open educational resources, and find them at our site, describe themselves in their online profiles as Learners.

Learners exist outside of the classroom.  All over the world.  And those learners are finding the internet, and searching it desperately for knowledge that can improve their lives.  Sal Khan is trying to serve their needs, and near as I can tell, he’s doing a better job in his particular problem space than anyone before him ever has.  Of course he’s not doing it exactly right.  He’s making mistakes, just like every innovator does.  That’s how it works.

So you mind your students, Highly Effective Teachers of the world, and let Sal mind his.


This article was originally posted on Digital Commoners.

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Mary Ann's picture
Open Source Evangelist

I'm interested in how teachers can use Kahn Academy for the traditional classroom (K-12). I think there is something huge there and in some ways turns the traditional model on its head. For homework, students review a section in Kahn Academy & during class they are working on solutions -- together as a class , separate, in groups -- building projects and applying what they learned and getting feedback real-time vs. taking in instructions during class and leaving a decent amount of exploration for homework.

Thoughts from those in the classrooms?

joeythibault's picture
Open Minded

isn't Khan Academy about empowering students to learn as they see fit (part of the larger goal of OER, providing tools directly to the student). If that's the case why are some removing any responsibility for learning from the student? If the student believes there's a benefit from Khan...I say let them learn!


johneblamo's picture

I've been hearing about this khan academy and they said that it is widely used for a larger goal. And after reading this posting, I've gained a very good knowledge about the question that has bothered me for quite some time.

linuxdeveloper's picture
Community Member


My only wish is that the Khan Academy existed while I was in school.

Medbob's picture
Community Member

If they are "Doing It Wrong", then the criticizing teacher is then morally bound to create a new video, do the "teaching" right, and submit it to Kahn for evaluation as a replacement.


The disruptive environment of the internet makes all of this poppycock transparent. The controllers and monitors and control freaks of this world want the status quo. This is both on the data level and the metadata level.
IMHO, most of the official "learning research" has produced a mass of official curricula that fail to achieve the desired goal. That goal is individual, so it's refreshing to see a bunch of ad-hoc videos that have a clear educational goal, and cut straight to the chase.
There are many elements of education that this type of medium cannot achieve. MOST of them, it can. That is what is scaring the stuffings out of establishment types. What kind of a world would it be where hard knowledge and ability is learned thru such a medium?
A better one.

vgold's picture
Community Member

I am very interested in what Khan Academy is doing, but I see one big problem. This problem is the video. I don't see how assigning homework to read a chapter in a textbook and to solve a certain number of problems differs in concept from watching a video. The fear is we will have an illiterate society with the attention span of 15 minutes. Actually this is not a fear it is a reality. I assign a chapter to read with exercises and during class review the exercises as if it was a tutoring session. I look at the answers and without statistics I know who is falling behind. I make my students retake a test until they get 100.
So I am not saying I am a great teacher. I am a computer programming teacher and feel passionately that a programming literacy program in school should be taught at a young age. Using technology is great but we must be careful that we don’t produce a world of blind computer users. I see school districts stagnating in some former world, and I see the entrepreneurs barreling ahead by digitizing school curriculum. I know we desperately need change but no matter how good intentioned by giving into the you-tube generation we run the risk of short sited non-readers and this scares me.

Unidentified's picture

I agree with all you say.

However, on the basis that those near the nothing side of the spectrum find it a success, those with the fiscal interests of the economy at heart - the various governments invariably then shift (remove) resource from the traditional model (not to the replacement, I might add) on the basis that "it works, so let's all do it". So your premise is flawed, i.e. that the status quo will remain, irrespective of the new order.

Medbob's picture
Community Member

The status quo will remain due to inertia. The assumptions upon which the status quo are built, are being challenged.
Folks are already asking the question if a formal education is worthwhile and appropriate for their goals. Employers are starting to notice the lack of correlation between a particular degree and the ability to hit the ground running. Experience counts a lot more than education. That is a change from the status quo.
Being fair, a well rounded education involves both hard skills and soft skills. IMHO the formal structures that we have built miss the mark on both of these scores. Often hard skills given to students are either inapplicable to the real world, outmoded, or require retooling to match reality. Soft skills involving teamwork and leadership miss the mark as well. Place an applicant from college before me against an applicant with a military training background, and I can tell right off what the odds of finding the leader are.
I would venture to guess that the soft skills can never be conveyed by a web site, as they are active engagement training issues. I would argue that the hard skills CAN be mastered thru web training. That is happening every day with college grads who get into their jobs and begin to understand how much they have yet to learn.

Paul Hempenstall's picture

Khan did a note at TED which explains how what he does actually compliments even the best teachers. My partner had missed some foundation maths back in her schooling, switching schools and languages it was in, and she caught up in an evening on the khan website. It's not just for kids, but it does work for them.

vgold's picture
Community Member

I am sure it is extremely helpful for an self-directed adult user. I plan to use it for my more advanced students in an independent study to teach Python. My complaint is one size does not fit all. I don't see the difference between flipping and giving homework. Where students come in prepared to discuss and work on a topic that they had previously studied. The homework should be based on a plethora of materials such as books, newspapers,TED interviews, Wikipedia, communications with people from around the world, and then you-tube video's. Let's not fall into that terrible hole and limit ourselves and say this is the education of the future. There are lots of ways to go but unfortunately so far we statistically decline worldwide.