Who needs me, anyway? Khan Academy and the re-imagining of education

Damn you, Salman Khan, for seeing what nobody else (apparently) could see.

It all seems so simple in retrospect — we have the internet, we have youtube, we have cheap videocameras.  Mini-lectures on focussed topics,  the screen just shows the work being done, like watching a blackboard without the distracting body in front of it, and the voice track keeps it human and accessible.  All you need is great explainer at the helm, and this is where Khan Academy shines.  Instant education.

As an experiment, last semester I helped create (with my colleague, Ezra Halleck — thanks Ezra!) an “online notes” page for each lecture of our introductory algebra class (here’s an example).  The notes consisted in large part of links to Khan Academy videos demonstrating the topics we went over in class.  Confused students, struggling with homework problems, were directed there first.  I received more positive feedback from students about this than any other single online project or resource I have employed.  They loved it!  Stuck on a problem? Take 10 minutes and watch someone work out a similar problem, step by step, with careful, clear explanations.  Unclear on the concept?  Let’s talk about the big picture for a little while.  Teacher covered the easy examples but ran out of time to do any “tricky” ones?  Salman Khan will take you through a whole range of them, AND he’s not afraid of fractions.

Of course, this opens up a whole host of troubling questions — for starters, “Who needs me, anyway?”  If Khan Academy is indeed succeeding in “changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education to anyone anywhere,” then where do the rest of us fit in?   I love this question.  Yes, it’s distressing, but it’s also freeing and little bit inspiring.

  • Maybe my students can watch Sal do some of those examples instead of me rushing my lecture to get them all in.  Why is this bad?  More freedom is great!
  • What can I do in the classroom that Khan Academy can’t?  Well, I can talk back for one — sympathize, provoke, respond, apologize, wax sarcastic, and so on…
  •  What else?  I don’t know.  Khan Academy is growing every day (“over 141,324,337 lesson delivered”).  What will it look like ten years from now?  Fifty?
  • And while we’re at it, Khan Academy is just the tip of the iceberg.  Lots of institutions are putting their “education” on the web for free, with MIT leading the way.  What will come of that?
  • That’s all well and good for undergraduate education, but what about “serious math”?  Check out this user-compiled list of great mathematical videos from the folks over at mathoverflow — beware, you can easily waste a month or two in the links you find here.

I’ll close with a non-mathematical video from Khan Academy — here is Salman Khan talking about Abstract-ness:




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7 Responses to Who needs me, anyway? Khan Academy and the re-imagining of education

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  6. Jonas Reitz says:

    Hi Sue — thanks for the comment! Yes, I think your criticisms of Khan are quite valid — and maybe (for me) the take-away is that they are NOT a replacement for good teaching, and they must be used carefully to be beneficial. Especially, previewing them and making sure they are talking at the right level for your students — I was lucky, most of the algebra/geometry videos I used last semester were pitched almost perfectly for the level of students in my classes. I still find him inspiring, and I’m very interested in ways that others can improve on his work — thanks for the links, I’m looking forward to checking them out. I’ve also found some great material on youtube (but, unfortunately, a lot of less-than-satisfactory stuff too — and sorting through it is time consuming).

  7. Sue Jones says:

    Students who aren’t good in math aren’t likely to say when something isn’t working, and an awful lot of students aren’t good in math (or think they aren’t, and before long it becomes true).
    I really wanted to like the Khan videos. It’s a great idea! His “teaching,” though? Procedural chalk and talk. I guess it’s like sight-word teaching in reading; instant gratification, especially because there are none of those confusing concepts involved. And you’d better not admit if you’re watching his “introduction to algebra” lesson that you don’t know how to solve X/5 = (83 x 4) + x, and when he says that 83 x 4 is a sum… well, you probably got that confused, right?
    OF course, in his multiplication lesson, he says — no, really, he does — that two plus itself times one is two.
    I have to give the man credit, though — he’s inspired me to try to make better. There are already many better videos out there at mathtv.com or http://mathvillage.info just to toss off two. But what do math teachers know? They don’t have Bill Gates pouring money at ’em…

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