Khan Academy and the Missed Opportunity


I went to CUE 2014 this year in Palm Springs, Cali. If you're not familiar with the conference, it's the largest regional education conference on the west coast with over 5,000 people in attendance. As I was preparing to go, I took a look at the keynotes.

Day 1: Dan Meyer. Solid. Day 2: Levar Burton. Advocate for literacy since the 80's. Plus, he was on Star Trek: TNG. Pretty cool. Day 3: Salman Khan. Oh boy.

I've tried to remain positive, giving the Khan Academy the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the journalism covering the Academy has been poor...perhaps it's all media spin that can be ignored for the most part. I resolved myself to go to the third keynote even though I had a pretty good idea of how it was going to go down.

Observation one: the first half of the keynote was a history of Khan Academy. Seriously. Watch the TED Talk if you want to see it. Khan is a gifted speaker. He's charming and endearing. His story is really remarkable. He didn't go looking for all the attention he's been given since 2011. The problem I had with this section is that it was all about him. You can tell a story about your life without sounding self-indulgent, and he wasn't able to do that effectively.

Observation two: World-class education is defined by...?. The stated mission of the Khan Academy is "providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere." But, repeatedly, Khan seems to define that education within the scope of the Khan Academy. Why didn't a room full of teachers get upset about the fact that he didn't compliment teachers in this section at all? The entire premise of the Academy is that schools aren't doing enough. As a teacher sitting in the audience, I was offended and really in disbelief that very few people had the same reaction.

Observation three: He's kind of short. And Dan Meyer is a giant. It surprised me, is all.

Observation four: Khan missed an opportunity when it came to the SAT. This is the kicker for me. The SAT is a test that promotes rote learning and regurgitation. Even the essay. I've written about the changes before. In 2011, Khan Academy reported $11.8 million in donations and other income. That's the latest information I could find, and considering corporations like Comcast and Bank of America, that number is surely much higher. They have clout.

So, if Khan Academy is for kids learning and exploring, why, why, would they team up with the College Board for some PR media about changes that mean nothing? Because Sal Khan is not an educator.

Sal Khan speaks for Khan Academy and for his own story, not for a free, "world class" education. Not for students. If he were for students, why hasn't he reached out to leaders in education? When he's criticized for poor content, why has he been so defensive? Why hasn't he answered a single, to-the-point question about education practice in any interview anywhere?

Khan has missed opportunities constantly since 2011. Teachers and education professionals have reached out over and over, offering to help, to make videos, to design lessons...all to be turned down. Khan had an opportunity - as the "leader in world class education" - to take a stand against bad education policy. But, because it's about the Academy and achieving it's own goals, that will never happen.

Now, where CUE missed the opportunity was in offering a Twitter question submission from the audience using the #cuekhan hashtag. As soon as it was announced, I went for it. You can see the archive of the entire hashtag.* CUE had an opportunity to ask some more pointed and meaningful questions, and they missed that chance. I understand the PR agreement and that they were probably bound by some kind of speaker's contract, but I still wish someone...anyone...had the gumption to finally get to the point.

*I removed RT's from the archive for clarity. You can see the entire thread - including RT's - here.


Is Khan Academy the Next Generation LMS?


Since 2011, the online resource of thousands of educational videos has been heralded as the "savior of education" and a model for flipped classrooms (I'm going to bite my tongue on this one), and now, the go-to place for "personalized learning." There's a whole lot of bad in here for a lot of different reasons. But, the newest piece, the idea of personalized learning delivered by Khan Academy, is dangerous.

How do you recognize an LMS? This is what I came up with:

  • An LMS reports data, people reflect.
  • An LMS flags poor performance, people grow through engaging members of the community
  • An LMS hosts and organizes learning content, people build their content as they learn
  • An LMS keeps track of grades, people couldn't care less about grades when they're engaged.

Remember, an LMS is a machine, nothing more, nothing less. It will only give what you put into it.

Now, back to my question. Khan Academy.

"Personalized learning" has popped up in KA promotional materials lately. (It is the phrase you use in a conference proposal to make sure it's picked up.) The problem is that the personalized learning offered by most third party groups isn't personalized at all. It's actually randomized degree of difficulty. In other words, it's a giant, adaptive test bank that feigns its way into schools under the guise of personalization. Students are still stuck in the system. They are still forced through the steps and procedures. They have no choice in how to demonstrate their learning other than the built in, old fashioned assessments. Personalization is being eroded because either companies are really good at sales and marketing, or we're all looking for the wrong things.

And this is why Khan Academy is nothing more than a big, fancy LMS. While powerful and extremely helpful, every LMS out there locks you into their system. If you have students, assignments, announcements, documents, and assessments poured into one place, it becomes very difficult to see any reason to step away from that construct. Sure, they make the teachers life easier, but once you're in, it's hard to get out (mostly because of time constraints, not necessarily procedures to switch platforms).

The big difference between "traditional" systems is that the teacher was in control of the content. Not so with Khan Academy, and this is why it's more dangerous than the others. Teachers and schools are diving into the system because of the helpful data and videos, but at the same time, they're unwittingly sacrificing any option for a student to choose to do something different.

We're asking the wrong questions when it comes to evaluating learning tools for our students.

While enticing, we should not be jumping toward anything that has content baked into the system. It becomes too easy to begin relying on that content as the backbone of your course, whether you "mean" to or not. Good intentions don't count when students' interests are sacrificed for the sake of simplicity.

What are you really using the LMS for? Too often, a LMS is a one-way communication tool with students simply uploading materials to turn in for grades. What limitations are place on them when it comes to choosing their learning opportunities? What options do students have to ask insightful questions and then find resources to report those out? What kind of content can be brought into the system to be used as a resource by anyone else in that system?

Ask yourself when you plan on allowing students to truly direct their own learning. If you can't come up with a reasonable answer, ask yourself "why not?"


Video is Not the Answer


The flipped class has been coming up more and more in discussions and blog posts recently. My guess is that it has something to do with Salman Khan's lucrative relationship with Bill Gates and the media's attention on their speaking tours. I feel like a broken record with this post, but it is something that needs to be written again.

The flipped class is not about the videos.

Popular media sees the flipped classroom as video being used in the classroom to teach children. I would like to state again that video can be used in the classroom to help differentiate for all learners. The flipped classroom started this way, but it has evolved into so much more than using videos in the class when implemented effectively.

Video itself will not help kids achieve more in your class. The flipped classroom is about making connections with learners and differentiating your instruction. If videos are a part of that multi-faceted plan, great. If they are not, still great. The flipped class is an ideology, not a methodology.

Personally, I use video because it is a tool that helps me meet remediation needs for learners that have missed class or for learners that just need more time with material. For chemistry, I am in my second year using a flipped class, and the video has taken a huge jump to the backseat as I have more time to work on engaging class activities and labs. Again, video is for remediation and review rather than content delivery.

There has been more positive news coming around about the flipped class being used in great ways across the country. For instance, Troy Cockrum was featured in an NPR article that looked at YouTube being used in the classroom. I'm glad Troy brought it around to the connections made with learners, because that is the true power of the model. Another talks about everything except the videos, again, because they are the least important part of the model. Earlier this month, Aaron Sams wrote a fantastic piece of theimplementation styles of a flipped class. Again, none of these methods rely solely on video or even use video at all. It is an idea, not a method.

The video isn't important. The relationships, the discussions, and the experiences matter. We know that already. Regardless of what methods or ideas you use in your room, let's continue to focus on what helps learners learn best.

This is mainly in response to the #edchat discussion on October 11, 2011 and David Wees' blog post about using Khan Academy as content delivery in his class. Both the chat and David are great and I appreciate the challenges and direction they've both contributed to my growth.