Khan Academy: What’s the Big Deal?

Oct 24, 2011 by

by Matt Amaral –

On Friday, Jeb Bush held a National Summit on Education Reform here in the Bay Area at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel. Fittingly, not a single teacher was in attendance—although quite a few were outside picketing the event with members of the Occupy movement. Among other keynotes, which included Melinda Gates and Rupert Murdoch, was up-and-coming educator Sal Khan of Khan Academy.

The Khan Academy is an international success boasting thousands upon thousands of viewers a day. Any article you read about Sal Khan will undoubtedly describe him as “amiable”, or “unassuming.” Oftentimes it is both. He began recording lectures with just over $200 in equipment in order to help his niece understand Algebra. Khan is now making over six-figures and has investors chomping at his more than 2,800 bits. He sounds swell, and his video lectures are supposedly revolutionizing education.

So last week I gathered my students and decided to show them this great resource. I projected Khan Academy onscreen and clicked on a couple of his lectures.

Underwhelming is a word that comes to mind.

Let me explain. For what it is, the Khan Academy is great. It is an online tutoring website that offers some good tutorials for people interested in delving deeper into a subject they are struggling in, or perhaps simply curious about. Khan speaks in a clear, simple-yet-sophisticated way, and uses some cool technology to enhance his lectures. For what it is, it is perfect.

Yet Jeb Bush’s National Summit on Education Reform, “Excellence in Action <> ”, is acting like all of a sudden the Khan Academy is the future of education. I find that idea laughable.

This continues the trend of trying to supplant teachers with anything that won’t cost money or need health benefits. They’ve tried textbooks with formulaic, dry curriculum; scripted curriculum that actually tells the teacher every word to say, clickers that let the students know when they are allowed to speak; and the dreaded pacing guide. Predictably, the discourse now focuses on replacing teachers with cheap video equipment, a floating cursor, and the voice of someone who sounds like your favorite uncle.

First just let me say that Khan is a good lecturer; he is funny, intelligent, witty, and yes, unassuming. He’s not bad. Although I will say I can name ten teachers at my school who are much better. The reason that number isn’t higher is because I don’t know every single teacher at my school. Not to take anything away from Khan- but his lectures sound exactly like what happens in our classrooms every day. He is an average, maybe above average lecturer. He also isn’t dealing with 37 kids trying to both flirt and fight with each other at the same time.

Lisa Kreiger of the Mercury News writes, “Valedictorian of his high school class with a perfect math SAT score, he always regretted the way educators failed to show the beauty of what they taught.” This makes a good point: as valedictorian with a perfect SAT score, Sal Khan must have had some pretty crappy teachers. Please. For every bad teacher there is a good one—or five. You want to know what isn’t very inspiring? Listening to Sal Khan lecture about the French Revolution.

Let’s think about this for a minute. Mr. Khan’s audience consists of people going online in their free time to look up math problems. Talk about preaching to the choir. These people also have a computer and an internet hookup, as well as a quiet place to study. That describes very few of the low-income students we have. If teenagers in this country came to school interested enough in math to put in extra time listening to a tutor, our schools would be working a lot better, trust me.

Plus, if we wanted 2,800 lectures on video, we could have given a few teachers the $200 for video equipment. But the idea of that happening is lunacy.

The problem we find in our schools is that we are dealing with humans, and they need more than an invisible voice talking to them, no matter how unassuming and amiable. Today, while I was about to engage a class in writing about their culture (sorry, it was more than just a lecture), my high school went into Lockdown. This could mean anything from an active shooter on campus, a gang fight, the riot police storming the grounds, or maybe a simple bomb-threat (it ended up being a combination of two of those). Either way, we had to lock our doors, the bells were turned off, and no one was allowed out of our classrooms until further notice. I went through the day’s agenda like I always do, because it really wasn’t anything new in my job. You didn’t hear anything on the news, did you?

Now let me go on record again as saying I think Khan’s lectures are a great resource. He provides solid tutoring on many subjects, and it’s free. I love it. I think he’s doing a great job. His lectures can be a good interactive lesson as part of a larger unit of differentiated instruction. They would probably work very well with Smartboards. Essentially he is creating visual lessons for lecturing—or as we call it here on the ground level, developing curriculum. He is doing what we do every day during our prep periods, only he isn’t doing any of the other stuff all studies show you need to do to teach real students in real classrooms.

Look, I don’t have a problem with Sal Khan, I have a problem with our educational “leaders” thinking he is doing anything we don’t already do everyday.

So to think the future of education lies in a disembodied voice that lectures squinting students on a blinking screen is ludicrous. Krieger reminds us of Sal Khan’s dream: “He dreams of a world free of dense text books, crowded lecture halls and bored students.” That’s just what my students are waiting for to be engaged in school—an onscreen lecture on trigonometry. Because in the real world, this is how my students responded to my unveiling of the Khan Academy in my classroom last week: “So…he’s teaching.” They said. “He’s kinda boring, ain’t he?”

But maybe Jeb Bush and Rupert Murdoch are right about Sal Khan. Maybe we will one day have glorious “lecture libraries”, where students will sit huddled and hunched over watching a television screen scribbling notes Hell, it will probably be channel 999 and a subsidiary of Fox News.

The only thing I can think of that would be better would be to have Sal himself in front of the kids lecturing in the flesh. Of course then you would just call him a teacher.

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