Friday, August 3, 2012

Ups and Downs with the Khan Academy

Here’s a clear and interesting summation of the rise and (relative) fall of the Khan Academy. Sal Khan, a very smart and caring guy with no teaching background at all, created thousands of simple videos explaining or demonstrating various school topics, from math concepts to history lessons, and put them online for free use by educators, or anyone else. One goal was to “flip” the classroom—get the lecture out of the way via video (which has the added advantage of naturally individualizing instruction, as students pause and rewatch or fast forward as needed) and save the in-class time for focusing on specific areas of challenge or interest and on collaborative work.
Another goal was also to improve educational access--to circumvent expensive textbooks and other  proprietary paid content and content management. If you register as a teacher, you also get access to  tools for tracking student progress. Schools around the nation have been using these videos as another tool for their teachers and an accessible way to work with changing up the use of class time.

I love the idea of flipping classrooms, for a number of reasons (genuine use of technology the way adults and children in  RealLife actually use it, for one, and making more efficient use of time together, for another). And I'm very interested in the improvements open content will bring to paid content, in pricing, flexibility, and responsiveness. But, while I appreciate his effort and passion, Khan's teaching leaves something to be desired. The videos I looked at are confusing and frankly a bit dull, and sound pitched for an adult ear.

Hey, it’s a wide range of materials, freely accessible and readily adaptable to any educator, child, or curious person, and, while Sal Khan is not a teacher, he does seem to know his stuff, contentwise. The Academy is a reasonable, and gigantic, source for raw materials a teacher could integrate into his or her lesson. But I was a bit perplexed about the effusive welcome and Hallelujah surrounding the Academy, and surprised that the Gates Foundation backed it up with tons and tons of money given its nature as a one-man show of raw material.

So I’m glad to see the critiques about his pedagogy and a slowing down of the celebration. That’s healthy. That said, I find roundly rejecting the videos, and making fun of the premise, completely and totally unhelpful. Khan broke ground on a concept, and the publicity, fanfare, and money behind it will put wings on the process of repetition and improvement—very quickly, others will take the idea and run with it. I’ve already seen other examples from teachers who flipped their own classrooms beautifully—they use similar software to record their own lectures and demos, but they also know their students and their pedagogy.

The videos and other tools have been helpful for some. Those who don't like them can skip them. And maybe--certainly, really--the Khan dream will spark even better ways to combine technology, learning, and limited class time.

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