Khan Academy and the Missed Opportunity

Published: 2014-03-26 10:00 |

Category: Comment | Tags: teaching, edtech, Sal Khan, Khan Academy, CUE14

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.

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