Monday, April 23, 2012

Khan Academy: Friend or Foe?

While attending the NSBA Annual Conference this past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend Sal Kahn’s keynote on Sunday.  Khan is the creator of Khan Academy.  He began his keynote by sharing a video montage of Khan Academy highlights and then presenting some impressive statistics on usage.  To date, these statistics are: 140 million+ lessons delivered, 500 million+ exercises done, and 6+ million unique visits per month. It is obvious from these statistics that many stakeholders, including students, are finding some form of value from the service that Khan Academy provides.
The catalyst for Khan Academy began some years ago with a Yahoo doodle Sal developed to help a family member with her struggles in math. In addition to using Yahoo doodle, he began writing quiz software in 2006.  Dismissive at first, he then began to create video tutorials that were uploaded to YouTube.  As Sal emphasized, his key finding during this exploratory process was that viewers could engage in the content when they were ready for, or needed, it and could learn at their own pace. Once on YouTube, the videos took on a life of their own and were widely watched and used by teachers, parents, and students. 

He officially started Khan Academy in 2009 knowing that quality videos would withstand test of time.  As the site increased in popularity it caught the eye of Bill Gates and Google with an end result being over 4 million in funding.  The Khan Academy site now contains over 3000 videos mapped to the Common Core and associated assessments that allow learners to practice and reinforce skills acquired through the videos. Detailed statistics are provided to learners and coaches (i.e. teachers) to provide a snapshot of what has been learned.  You can learn more details about other associated features here.

As students show mastery in one concept they move on to the next. Sal Khan says his system is out of sync with that of traditional education systems that have become indoctrinated over many years.  He feels that his service increases valuable time for teachers to connect with students in class.  As he stated, student teacher ratio isn't important - it is the student to valuable teacher time ratio that matters.  Khan Academy’s new features provide powerful data on growth and achievement that teachers can utilize to modify instruction.

I must say Sal Kahn is a riveting storyteller.  He had the audience laughing, cheering, and literally in awe with Khan Academy and it’s potential in schools.  All one had to do was read the Twitter stream to deduce this.  However, the Twitter back channel also revealed many skeptics in regards to the finances provided by certain champions for education reform,

Some tweets:

@mcpssuper: Why do I feel like I'm watching a really cool sales pitch for #khanacademy

@cascadingwaters: All of this #khanacademy bit works, right up until the kid gets stuck. And they do.

@MCSDrSpence: Implications of Khans work for closing achievement gap are enormous. Next challenge: we have to bridge the digital divide for kids

@irasocal: There are few bigger frauds in American than Sal Khan #NSBAconf

Khan Academy is not a silver bullet that will fix education and improve achievement as a stand-alone entity. It has its merits, as does the flipped learning approach that his videos are generally associate with, but more as an instructional supplement to enhance the teaching and learning process.  The video resources and associated services provided for free by Khan Academy are powerful learning tools, if they can be accessed by populations (rural and urban) that need them the most.  Khan Academy merely provides the content.  Great teachers are the key to developing authentic tasks for students to apply what they have learned and assessing to provide feedback.  As a tool Khan Academy will benefit educators, students, and parents in a quest for knowledge, practice, and reinforcement.  It will not, however, be a game-changing reform agent as the private sector sees it.

With this being said, what are your thoughts on Khan Academy and it's implications on education?


  1. Dylan Wiliam sums it up best: pedagogy trumps curriculum every time. The vids are one way of putting some of the curriculum out there... But this, in NO way, can be done without an effective teacher to take the curriculum to the next level.

    Khan Academy is a glaring example of exactlly how the education system is focused on the wrong thing.

  2. 1) Why do kids need this type of instruction?
    2) What is it that teachers are doing that cause kids to need this type of instruction?
    3) What is it that schools are doing that cause teachers to produce learners that need this type of instruction?
    4) What is it that federal and state initiatives are requiring that cause schools to create a climate where teachers produce learners that need this type of instruction?
    5) How is culture shifting that we see this method of instruction (not support) as desirable?

    Just wondering...

    1. common core is taking away the ability for teachers to help students develop critical thinking skills, common core undermines cognitive development, when students do not have the opportunity to think critically, they do lose out cognitively.

  3. You can't replace face-to-face teacher instruction with a digital simulacrum. Khan is a good auxillary resource, it is not a school.

    1. This is not true for everyone. In fact Khan explains his cousins preferred the videos over real-life instruction. I do too. It all depends on learner preference.

  4. The oddest statement from this "one-more-hedge-fund-business-success-now-profiting-from-education" is "says his system is out of sync with that of traditional education systems that have become indoctrinated over many years." In fact, it IS the system, which is why it is such an easy step for the anti-change-agents at the Gates Foundation, and obviously, a lot of school board members.

    Consider what Eric reports above: Students go home. On their own (if low SES), or with Mom and/or Dad (if high SES) they get a lesson "delivered" to them in a single format. Then they do exercises. Then, if they get a good grade on the exercises (which are scored without human intervention or understanding of what is understood and what isn't), they get the next lesson "delivered."

    Hmmm, where have we seen that before? Oh yeah. In every single mathematics homework assignment ever given. "Go home, read pages 317-321, do the problems on page 322-323." Gee. I bet that system has been accessed about 5 billion times... so it must work really well, right?

    In other words, Khan is sending home video textbooks, which has created for himself another fabulous wealth stream. Which is great for Salman Khan. And great for Bill and Melinda Gates, whose goal is to enrich their friends through public education funds diversion. But for kids?

    Change means choices. Change means kids get what they need when they need it. Change is not a video/math version of the old SRA reading box. Change is not homework.

    Change is schools which embrace the individual clocks of students. Change is not more efficient "content delivery," schools are not in the same business as FedEx. Change is "content collaboration" based in student-generated-context and student-generated-context.

    I'm sorry. I know Sal Khan can sell his Khan Academy as he - before the crash - sold his customers worthless financial derivatives while making himself very rich. This is no surprise given is background and training. What is sad is a group like the NSBA allowing another profiteering educational delivery corporation (Folette) to pay Sal Khan $25,000 to spread his sales pitch. That is beyond irresponsible. If Folette and Khan want to advertise to NSBA members, let them buy advertising.

    - Ira Socol

  5. I think I have the general Mathematics Educator concern that Khan Academy is all about procedure with very little conceptual understanding. The concern is that students are merely memorizing procedures/steps to solve a problem and not really learning the concepts behind the steps. Students can only memorize so much and they can't move on in mathematics if they lack conceptual understanding.

  6. Any free knowledge dissemination website has surely got to be a good thing which is why in language education I set up However, as a replacement for f-t-f that’s another question – some argue it creates a “flipped classroom” whereby input can take place outside class which then allows for more meaningful discussion in class. For me it’s more about free access to knowledge for those that can’t otherwise get it. Interesting on the funding question the KA is less than forthcoming at supporting other small-scale initiatives. I contacted them asking if they were interested in a small-scale sponsorship my initiative (important, I’d argue given that so much knowledge is in English) – I didn’t even get a reply to my email! What a shame!

  7. huwjarvis -

    Two questions (with answers)... "input"? As I noted above, "input" suggests (as Khan does) that teaching is largely the same as parcel delivery. If you believe in the "flipped classroom" (as Khan describes it) you leave the knowledge at the door, perhaps ring the bell, and hope someone is home. If the "meaningful discussion" in class is, in any way, dependent on that information you "left at the door" - about 1/3 of your students - on average - will benefit from your "meaningful discussion."

    but "free knowledge dissemination"? Surely that is good. But is Khan doing that? Wikipedia is free knowledge dissemination. So is Wolfram-Alpha. But Khan is, I would argue, doing something quite different. As pcincotta suggests, Khan is delivering "procedural lessons" - not knowledge - and, as Conrad Wolfram notes in his famous TED talk (included there), it is not even procedural lessons which have any value for the way most learn mathematics these days.

    - Ira Socol

  8. I have used some harsh words toward the Khan Academy - calling them Khan Artists and whatnot. I still think they are poorly constructed videos that are more dangerous than helpful. Math is not about a recipe, but a discovery. It's a chance to think through concepts and processes. This should not occur through video-based direct instruction.

    Is it well-intentioned? Perhaps. Is it helpful to some people? Definitely.

    However, the moment that Khan is hailed as a savior for education is the minute he deserves our criticism. I'm not opposed to the man. He seems like a great guy who wants to be helpful. My issue is with the ideas behind what he is doing. My issue is with the broader, dehumanizing movement.

  9. I learned yesterday, through Frank Noschese, of the Mathematics Emporium at Virginia Tech. See They've been doing the "flipped classroom" for far longer than it has been cool, and using videos & other interactive apps for instructions longer than Sal Khan.

    Their research shows that this technique is slightly more effective than the teaching they were doing before (when you measure effectiveness through a multiple choice test!!), but it is significantly cheaper. This is the key reform that some people are driving for, not an improvement in the quality of education, but a dramatic "improvement" in the cost of education. For only $8.5 an hour, you too can be an instructor in this system, where you do no instructing, and more babysitting.

    I have this belief that one does not throw out 2000 years of knowledge about effective pedagogy to reduce the cost of education by a few percentage points. Maybe it's a strange belief, but time will tell. As Joe Bower puts it, "Poor students will get a computer, rich students will get a computer and a teacher."

  10. I had tried to give KA the benefit of the doubt... but then I watched the videos. I analyzed his "average" lesson here :

    Even giving him all benefit of all doubt... much harm is done by people who don't mean to.
    Spring break, my dean sent an email saying 'hey, check this out over spring break!' -- yes, the khan academy. I figured I'd expand my sample size by one and went to see what ideas he had for learning the times tables.
    I didn't get far. When be drily told me that "two plus itself times one" was two, I just had to turn the thing off.
    Call me a hater... a "math purist..." my students deserve better. *They* are the ones with no confidence. They are *not* going to question what is being called the greatest thing... they're just going to be more convinced that *they* are the ones who can't learn. You know what? I am proud to hate on that.

  11. I think what Khan Academy does is force us to rethink the role of a teacher and a school.

    When we can get lecture anytime, anywhere, at any pace of learning how can that impact learning?
    If we no longer have to go some place at some time, how does that impact learning?
    Do we really need to group students by date of manufacture in a class anymore?
    Do we really need to have everyone hear the same thing at the same time?

    While I hear teachers say there's nothing like live teaching, I disagree. I was bored silly during 12 years of live K-12 instruction. I would much rather have had the opportunity to access learning as I wanted, when I wanted and have teachers play more of a facilitator/advisory role.

    When it comes to some of the other arguments, here are some thoughts.

    Problem: It's not constructivist.
    Response: Correct. Math is rarely taught in a constructivist way in schools. Kahn didn't create this problem.

    Problem: Digital divide
    Response: Khan didn't create this problem. Schools have a moral imperative to solve it. Determine times and ways for students to use resources at home, at school, in the community. Provide independent learning time during the day so students can have tech access.

    In short I'm bullish on providing free content. I think it will help some learners and it should transform teaching and learning so that students can more easily learn at their own pace and educators can have time freed up for more differentiated instruction and advisement.

  12. I don't think that Khan Academy or other video-based instructional methods will replace schools and teachers, but I don’t think that it should be unilaterally dismissed as an option. When this type of instruction is the only instruction available, it is better than nothing at all and will be a great benefit to those students who have this newfound access (Christensen’s disruptive forces).

    Some questions to consider-- What if KA instruction is better than the live teacher within a school? What if KA is a great supplement to what students see during the day with their teacher? Couldn’t KA actually be a helpful professional development resource for teachers themselves?

    Also, KA provides another option that might better fit the learning styles/modes of students within a particular classroom. I teach a grad class for teachers and a group of them recently modeled differentiation for the rest of the class. Their task was to help us all be successful in making an origami crane. They offered 3 simultaneous small-group learning opportunities for us: (1) teacher-modeled crane folding, (2) detailed written directions that students could follow at their own pace, and (3) YouTube video of how to fold a crane. We were able to choose the center in which to complete our task and also had the opportunity to move between groups to find what we needed to make our crane. This activity worked well for this task and was a good way to think about how to set up similar experiences in our own schools and classrooms.

    KA isn’t a direct replacement for good teaching and teachers, but it certainly can be a powerful supplement and option in an effort to meet the needs of all students.

  13. i like this site.. really entertaining, i learned a lot, thank you. .watch movie online. . .

  14. Khan Academy is a resource, not a system or a plan. Depending on students' needs either individually or collectively, Khan may prove a valuable resource to meet some of those needs. Certainly, the fact that it's free makes it accessible to struggling learners of all socio-economic groups. More of a dietary supplement rather than a miracle elixir.

  15. The fairly dismissive tone in many comments makes me wonder how these commenters feel about libraries. Do they think that making books freely available can't possibly work? Or perhaps that remote medical diagnostics over video can't possible work?

    There are a range of learning situations: reading a book, watching a video, watching a live lecture, being in the classroom, or getting one-on-one tutoring.

    When I see what's available on youtube for subjects such as cooking or playing musical instruments, I think that high school as we know it is toast. There's too much value in anytime/anywhere delivery of educational materials. Schools should get on board and create their own KA+school approach.

  16. Nice blog to reading thanks for sharing such useful information this is very helpful for person who needs Assignments Online Help and keep continue to sharing useful information.

  17. My son loves it. Public schools failed him all they way thru graduation. He didn't start learning math until college with a tutor. Why- because even with an IEP, PS don't go back to build on the math foundations. Additionally, some kids don't learn well in a crowded stressful classroom. He discovered it as an adult- and is now thinking of engineering.