Khan Academy reflection technology

Khan’s Place in Math Education

It seems that every educational blogger has voiced an opinion on the growing popularity of the Khan Academy. I am actually quite surprised that Musing Mathematically has largely avoided the topic during its meager 5 month existence. The movement of online lecture snippets has polarized those in the educational community; some teachers detest that Khan claims that sitting in front of his computer can even be close to “education” while others realize the efficiency of his method and subscribe wholeheartedly. I have been sitting passively over the last few months reading developments and arguments, and yesterday evening found an article that solidified my opinion of Khan. As an educator, I applaud his vision and initiative, but I feel like he is overestimating his project’s niche of influence. 

The article, which was discovered circulating Twitter several times in an hour, can be found below. It details a sizable grant for the furtherance of Khan Academy. Take the time, if you wish, to read, but I will highlight the telling parts of the article. The problem is not that Khan is going physical, it is that he is claiming to coin a methodology that has existed for years.
The bravado that angers teachers so much exists directly in the title; to claim that a database of online videos is a “reinvention” is very far from the truth. If we ignore this egregious overstepping of boundaries right off the hop, we get an interesting insight into how Sal Khan himself views his work. He has the voice of a reformer, but overestimates how “reformational” his ideas and methods really are. The following quotations are taken from the article:

“The school of the future will not resemble the school of today,” said Salman Khan. “In the past, the assembly-line, lecture-homework-exam model existed because that’s what was possible in the no-tech and low-tech classrooms of their day.”

The Khan Academy model allows teachers to discover which students are struggling with which concepts, and allows students to repeat sections of videos or online tests until they master the material. One of the goals is to re-engage students, some with significant gaps in their knowledge, who have previously felt lost and disengaged.

“We can now build a new reality, using today’s technologies, where learning is custom-tailored and collaborative, bite-sized and iterative,” said Salman Khan. “When students learn at their own pace, and become more self-directed, they remain engaged. This helps teachers build strong foundations, so that even students that are labeled as ‘slow or remedial’ become advanced in a matter of months.”

Read the three sections again; the messages are so paradoxical that it takes a while to digest. The text contains two direct quotations from Mr. Khan, and a paragraph of commentary on his invention. The revolutionary language comes through.

“The school of the future will not resemble the school of today”
I guess this statement is correct. Coming from the viewpoint of a mathematician, if we take a long enough look into the future, there may be no resemblance. This is a ridiculous way of looking at reform. Teachers mock statements like these because the method of educating has not been altered by the videos. There is still a single beacon of wisdom and it is transmitting the facts and procedures to those listening. The message is the same, but the medium has changed. 
Khan sets himself up for ridicule with statements like, “We can now build a new reality”, because those trained in education see the videos as electronic lectures–a method that seriously lacks revolutionary vibes. 
The part that troubles me is when the academy accredits the “assembly-line, lecture-homework-exam model” to the past. These methods are still used by the vast majority of mathematics teachers worldwide. They are not a phenomenon of the past, but a reality of the present. The irony ensues when Khan himself claims that his new reality is “custom-tailored and collaborative, bite-sized and iterative”. His model could not be more overestimated. To claim that ‘customization’ is as easy as choosing which lectures to hear and ‘collaboration’ is achieved through stopping and starting a set of instructional videos is ludicrous. He wants to rid the world of the archaic “assembly-line, lecture-homework-exam” model, but claims that his revolution will be built on the back of “bite-sized” and “iterative” pieces. That model sounds a lot like the old lecture-assessment model we have–only on a smaller scale. I find it baffling that a man–who apparently is leading the way–cannot find the contradiction in his thinking. Allowing students to work on topics until they attain concepts is a positive thing, but assessment methods have existed for years to focus on this. Mr. Kahn is right that technology can change education, but has failed to create a method for which that can be achieved. Breaking topics into iterative pieces is not a “reinvention” it is simply a “reorganization”.
Amidst these critiques that have been heard the world over, I think there are two large benefits that the Khan Academy can have on education. Each of these can have an effect on educational reform, but does not grab the limelight that Khan is billing in his keynotes. 
1) The Khan Academy can inspire the furtherance of true mathematical reform
I think teachers are insulted that Khan is insinuating that teaching only occurs in the classroom. Teachers hate the fact that a man who has never struggled with students’ complex needs is claiming to have the answers. The world of education is constantly changing, and the subsection of math education has had one of the most turbulent pasts. The Khan academy’s claims should inspire classroom teachers to break the model that Sal is proposing. Re-invent their practice in a way that cannot be captured in a series of lecture videos. The areas of Project Based Learning, Flipped Classroom, and Inquiry Mathematics are all examples of how teachers are working so the schools of the future do not resemble those of today. 
Numerous sources are developing tools that can effectively harness collaborative and individualistic learning. I have personally posted some of my favourites throughout this blog. Hundreds of teachers gather in the spirit of collaboration on a weekly basis for #mathchat. The Khan Academy should serve as a lightning rod for mathematical reform; teachers need to show Mr. Khan that the schools of tomorrow do integrate technology, but not as a series of iterative videos. 
2) The Khan Academy can serve as a support for the logistical problems of school
I cannot sit back and pretend that the work of Sal Khan is all bad; such generalizations make about as much sense as those made by him. The writer of the article in question captures the true value of the site; it can re-engage students who have experienced large gaps in the past. The idea was initially set up as a way to tutor Sal’s cousin over the internet, and it does tutor very well. I have no problem sending students and parents to the site to get caught up. Parents find it empowering to be able to help their children with math that they have forgotten over the years. I do not think that there is any denying the fact that the site is effective as a diagnostic tool for teachers. All teachers attempt to “discover which students are struggling with which concepts”, and this a tremendous tool to do so. The only problem is that Khan has over stepped his realm of effectiveness and, in the process, stepped on many teachers’ and policy makers’ toes. The Khan Academy is a great support resource for teachers. The technology is convenient, but not revolutionary. 
My attempt is to be as transparent as possible. I think that the initiative has a definite place in math education–as a support resource. Maybe the physical centre that is in the works will effectively combine realms of math reform and push the online lectures to the support role they fulfill. The academy should spurn educators forward and provide excellent support for learners across the globe. It is not a “reinvention”. In short, Sal has simply misdiagnosed a valuable tool

One reply on “Khan’s Place in Math Education”


This post reminds me of a post I made today. When students choose the school instead of feel mandated to attend, motivation does not seem to hold the same importance.

Many older teaching techniques continue to work extremely well in settings where the students are driven by a motivation to not lose their place in a selective school of choice.

When I travel to China I find that students are more motivated to learn because they fear the consequences of not passing high stakes tests. Khan definitely has a place, and makes the point that math is relevant to the real world. I also believe that any educator who truly cares about his students and knows his content will get through to students who are motivated to learn. They can be motivated both internally and externally effectively.


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