“What Do You Think Of Khan Academy?”

When we meet people in a social setting and tell them what we do for a living, we often get the question, “What do you think about Khan Academy?”  In the last year or two particularly, Khan has gotten a fair amount of press, has been praised by Bill Gates as being “amazing,” and has been able to precipitate a limited experiment in classroom “flipping” within several school districts around the country.   Being directly involved with the education of students, people are keen to know whether we view resources like Khan as a “game changer” for modern education and whether we believe it obviates the need for what we do in our work with students.

We believe that Khan’s goal of making quality instruction available in a dizzying array of subjects to “everyone” is a noble and laudable goal.  The ideal of making quality instruction widely available, irrespective of locale, is certainly something that we support.  The free, online availability of Khan’s videos is definitely a step in that direction.  However, when it comes to affixing the label of “game-changing paradigm” to what Khan offers, we stop short.

There is sometimes a tendency to imbue technological solutions to problems with near panacean qualities because people want solutions that have the potential to reach as many people as possible.  A platform that facilitates access to high quality education is most certainly in that category.  That kind of solution appeals to our sense of what is fair and equal.  Additionally, solutions that can be deployed widely and inexpensively appeal to a sense of “efficiency.” There is however an important distinction to be made between “instruction” and “education.”  They are not the same thing.  Keith Devlin, a mathematician at Stanford University, summed this point up beautifully in a blog post for the Huffington Post in February of this year.  Dr. Devlin notes that while good quality instruction is certainly a component of a high quality education, it is not the only determining factor.  We agree.

Furthermore, the “flipped” classroom model that seems to be one of the chief products of utilizing videos like those available through Khan Academy  introduces additional dynamics that should be carefully considered when making the decision to shift instructional paradigms.  We speak from personal and professional experience when we claim that an important part of learning is allowing a student the opportunity for the “right” amount of struggle.  The flipped classroom model often means that students will now have immediate access to instructors who can “answer the question quickly,” when struggling for a reasonable time may be a more effective way to ensure long-term understanding.  Finding the right balance between efficacy and struggle is one of the things that we monitor closely in our work as tutors.  We take great care to make the tutoring experience meaningful and not one that simply facilitates a greater volume of subject familiarity at the cost of mastery.  We think that before a class gets ‘flipped,” it is important to have clear guidelines about how instructors should implement that model.

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