I've taken on the task of learning about Khan Academy and exploring its advantages, disadvantages and potential, as a differentiated assignment that the instructor was kind enough to allow me to do. This is part one, reporting on my initial impressions.
For anyone reading this (if there is anyone other than the instructor!), here is a brief summary of what Khan Academy claims to do:
Video instruction: The site contains over 2700 short instructional videos with an emphasis on math and science. There is a small but growing collection of videos on humanities, including an already fairly extensive section on art thanks to a collaboration with another group that was working on similar strategies Students are able to watch any videos they chose, at no charge, and for subjects that have complete video sets, such as math, one could theoretically work through them and, for example, get a complete course in geometry.
Practice: What makes the videos particularly useful is the cleverly arranged set of practice exercises that are available to accompany each video (these seem to exist for math only). If you give an incorrect answer, you are prompted with an assist, and if you can't answer that question, you are given still another assist, until presumably you've been able to answer the question. You then move on to another similar exercise and continue until you demonstrate proficiency.
Tracking: For either the student, or, even better, the teacher, there is an extensive set of tools that enables one to track progress: how much time has been spent watching what videos, do practice exercises, level of success, where errors have been made, etc. A teacher would be able to analyze the needs of any individual student or of the whole class. This is potentially an enormously useful feature. This could be a fantastically useful set of tools.
Instructional style: Here I am going to quote Khan himself:
“A lot of my own educational experience was spent frustrated with how information was conveyed in textbooks and lecture….I felt like fascinating and INTUITIVE concepts were almost intentionally being butchered into pages and pages of sleep-inducing text and monotonic, scripted lectures. I saw otherwise intelligent peers memorizing steps and formulas for the next exam without any sense of the intuition or big picture, only to forget everything within a matter of weeks. These videos are my expression of how the concepts should have been expressed in the first place, all while not compromising rigor or comprehensiveness.”
All of this was thrilling to read. The multiple innovations of making learning available on demand, with graded and guided practice, all in a learning framework that builds on conceptual learning, if realized, would be tantamount to finding the holy grail.
The sample video on the home screen, about Ponzi schemes, does not do justice to the quality of the actual videos. It's excessively simple and taxing in its slowness. Khan doesn't seem to have put much advance thought into it because he forgets, until he's passed the point of no return, to mention how the perpetrator makes money, and by then he's created an example that doesn't make sense because the perpetrator profits so little. This is peculiar, because I did not find actual course videos plagued with similar problems (There is, however, a casualness and intentional lack of refinement that allows him to make little mistakes as he writes on the board and then correct himself. This is one of the endearing characteristics of the videos, which lack the off-putting slickness of commercial products. Compare, for example, the lectures from the Learning Company which, despite their superb intellectual quality, sometimes feel stilted, with their baroque musical introductions, canned applause and formal style of presentation).
I decided to go back to middle school and re-learn the Pythagoeran theorem, and this is when serious questions set in. The voice is pleasant, upbeat and, as promised, does not sound like traditional high academic lecture (Khan delivers all the lectures himself, except on art). But the fact is that it is a traditional presentation of the theorem: here's the formula, here's what it looks like in a triangle, and here's how to work the formula. Appropriate practice problems are provided. This is all fine--except that it is anything but conceptual or intuitive. In fact, this is precisely how I learned, and forgot, the Pythagorean in the 1960s. OK, it was really the 1950s.
On the other hand, if you need a quick injection of the Pythagorean theorem, there are worse ways to get it. His explanation is clear, and the graphics, while a bit shaky and imprecise are just natural and funky enough to hold your attention. And, of course, if you do miss something, you can always rewind as many times or as far back as you need.
Hoping for something more intuitive I tried the video titled "The Pythagorean by Similarity." I was sure that this is where he'd adopt an "intuitive" approach (I assume that when he uses the word "intuitive" in this context her really means "inductive"). Not at all. In fact, this explanation put me right back into junior or senior high school math, when explanations zoomed right by with too many minor points that I couldn't get fixed in my head fast enough to help me over the next hurdle of understanding. Or just maybe I was caught up in trying to figure out why we were being told to follow a particular procedure, and while my mind was chewing on understanding, the teacher had advanced quickly through the next few steps and I was lost. Just do what you're told, dummy! Here it was, happening again so many years later, but on my computer screen. Which leads to Khan's very distinct advantage over my junior high school: now I was able to go back, and back, and back.
Now maybe my inability to follow this video was due to my jumping right into the Pythagorean theorem, not working up to it as part of the geometry series--and I'll admit that my geometric knowledge is nicely rusted over. But no matter what skills the viewer brings to this lesson, he or she will have gained no understanding of why the theorem works as it does.
I watched a six minute video on Appomattox Court House and Lincoln's assassination. It was interesting, and I guess the purpose is to nail down the dates and sequence, but it covers precious little territory. A totally fascinating but profoundly insignificant factoid occupies a good minute or more of the heart of the video. Is that in the hope of capturing attention so the student will remember the important facts? There are no follow-up practice exercises (there seem to be few if any in the humanities) or other relevant videos, but history is obviously just now getting started.
I watched a number of other videos but the observations recorded above are characteristic of my observations of the other videos.
What to make of this?
Khan Academy has occasioned a good amount of debate, which seems to revolve around the strengths and weaknesses that I have tried to lay out above as objectively as I could. Is this the future of education? Should it be? If not the whole future, what role should this type of instruction play? Are there other models that have the strengths of Khan Academy but sidestep the weaknesses?
More to follow in part two.