Great Title, Flawed Post – Khan Academy Enables Out-of-the-Box Approaches

There was a very interesting article at Huffington Post today that I suspect is rapidly making the rounds through the blogosphere. Given the author and title of the post, “What Silicon Valley Executives Keep Getting Wrong About Education” by Dr. Keith Devlin of Stanford, I had high hopes for an insightful explanation of mistakes by ed tech executives. While the investment exemplified by Silicon Valley has great potential to improve education, there clearly is a lack of understanding by much of the investment and technology industries about how education works.

The summation of Dr. Devlin’s argument is that Silicon Valley is not listening to the right people to understand K-12 education.

When it comes to making important business decisions, they will regularly seek the advice of domain experts, often at considerable cost in consulting fees, but they fail to recognize the equal importance of domain expertise in education.

The rest of the post is an argument that in a TechCrunch post Vinod Khosla showed his ignorance of education expertise by citing Khan Academy as an example of many “out-of-the-box approaches”. I have no problem with the use of anecdotes to illustrate a point, but I do have a problem with the logic of this argument.

The always interesting and provocative reflections of the legendary Silicon Valley investor (and Sun Microsystems co-founder) Vinod Khosla provided the latest example of this when, in his Feb. 19 blog-post in TechCrunch, he wrote:

“Education 2.0 […] we have not experimented enough with […] out-of-the-box approaches but have instead tried to force-fit […] traditional (often broken) ideas into the ‘computerized’ model.”

Which might sound fine if this statement were not preceded by his explicit mention of Khan Academy as one of the new experiments. For KA is precisely a traditional approach transported onto the Web, namely one-to-one instruction, sitting side-by-side with the teacher. Is KA valuable? Sure it is? But “all” Sal Khan has done is take the traditional textbook instruction and put it up on YouTube.

The Power of Technology is What it Enables

With all due respect, Dr. Devlin’s argument itself is flawed – while Khan Academy videos are based on instruction models (traditional), the platform actually enables out-of-the-box approaches that could and are transforming education. To claim that Khan Academy merely computerizes traditional approaches misses the real role that Khan Academy can play. Dr. Devlin himself hints in an aside how Khan Academy enables one of the most promising K-12 approaches – the flipped classroom (which is also applicable to higher education, but Dr. Devlin’s argument is on K-12).

(BTW, Khan himself recognizes the importance of the teacher, and advocates using his videos as part of a “flipped classroom” model of teaching, a concept that goes back well before YouTube was launched.)

The role of technology is to enable changes and effective academic and business models, not to be the change itself. The “technology” of Khan Academy takes the instructional part of math education (as well as others) and makes it available anytime, anywhere, at the discretion of the student. The student now controls when, where, how often they view the videos, and as Dr. Devlin describes:

It proved to be a significant leap forward, in large part because Khan is a good instructor — he explains well in a highly non-threatening, “I am your friend” way.

And did I mention that the instruction is provided free, without typical boundaries of classroom, institution or software / publishing license? Not only that, but Khan Academy encourages its usages as components of online or face-to-face courses, combined with the appropriate pedagogical model.

Did I mention that Khan Academy now frees up the instructor in a traditional course to focus their attention on interactive, bi-directional, very human interactions?

Khan Academy is technology – by itself it merely replicates instructional models. However, like all technology, it should not be viewed by itself. What is important is what the technology enables. Khan Academy enables the flipped classroom, it enables teaching-and-learning to break the course, institutional and software / publishing license barriers. In short, Khan Academy enables out-of-the-box approaches.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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3 Responses to Great Title, Flawed Post – Khan Academy Enables Out-of-the-Box Approaches

  1. Jim Luke says:

    Phil, with all due respect, you’ve missed what Devlin and Khosla are saying. As a long-time (10 yrs+) online and f-2-f instructor and also as a pioneer in my institution of new ways of doing it, I disagree with you.
    You say: “Did I mention that Khan Academy now frees up the instructor in a traditional course to focus their attention on interactive, bi-directional, very human interactions?”. No it doesn’t. Khan Academy doesn’t make the flipped classroom possible. Video capture, editing, and web technology make the flipped classroom practical. It was possible but less practical before. All Khan does is impose his idea of how to teach and how to connect with students. It’s more of the same publisher-knows-all model that dictates structure, technique, story, context, etc to the professor, only now the publisher is Khan instead McGrawPearsonCengageWorth. It’s assumes that Khan knows the students better than the professor herself and therefore knows how to connect to them. It’s built on the same “content moving along a conveyor belt of media to passive receptor student” model that traditional publishing is. I’ve tried it. Khan confuses my students more than it helps.

    If you really want to enable and encourage flipped classrooms, then enable and empower professors to create and share their own stuff. That’s why I’m working on projects like Malartu Inc. Focus on the tools, not the finished deliverables. There is no “great lecture”. There’s only great lectures as designed and delivered for particular students and classes. Education requires a dialog between professor and student. Khan’s never heard anything from the students. It’s all one way: Khan to student.

    This is what I think both Devlin and Khosla are saying. The VC’s are funding what they think is education without checking with the real educators about the real problems and challenges. It’s arrogance and not helping.

  2. Phil Hill says:

    Jim, in my opinion you actually present a more compelling argument than Devlin presented in Huff Post. You make a great point about the potential to empower teachers to create and share their stuff, based on their understanding of their own students. While this was not the topic of my post, I would argue that both methods have their place (KA / impersonal, teacher creation). KA has the benefit of scale and aggregated data to inform learning analytics. You have captured the benefit of the other method.

    I also agree that VCs do not have sufficient knowledge and input from educators.

    Where I am unconvinced, even from your comments, is the argument that KA is merely putting traditional instruction on the web (his argument, not yours) without benefiting out-of-the-box thinking that was the point of Khosla’s post. While your students might benefit from an alternate approach, KA does enable innovative out-of-the-box experiments and approaches that is not possible without the scale and license-free business model that KA has created.

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