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Is Khan Academy and Online Learning a Threat to Formal Schooling?

July 25, 2012

School of Fish. Are they learning from one another?

When I think of “school” I think of a time, space or place for learning.  But I’m not sure my definition would be widely accepted as accurate.  The definition of school that turns up after a Google search is:

  1. An institution for educating children.
  2. A large group of fish or sea mammals.

It is hard for me to conceptualize school as an institution.  I know at some level the word applies well to what happens in most “traditional schools” but there is something about the word institution that doesn’t seem accurate.  The word institution has a harsh, inflexible quality to it.  I don’t see school that way.  I see it more as a place where learning occurs, but using place more broadly than a building with classrooms.

Would the following places or experiences qualify as “school” or “schooling?”

  • a three-week summer camp experience
  • a trip to the art museum to tour their newest exhibition
  • a weekend backpacking trip with one’s parents
  • a play date with three friends that includes a trip to an art studio to make pottery
  • a quiet Sunday afternoon reading the Harry Potter for three hours
  • a conversation with grandpa about his experiences in the Vietnam War
  • a two-hour reflecting, writing, web-surfing experience at Starbucks

I am not trying to be pollyannish when list these as possible schooling experiences, but I think most folks would agree that these are certainly learning experiences.

I was wondering about this idea of what school means after reading an article in eSchool News about Khan Academy.  The article, Why Khan Academy is so popular with students, looks at the underlying reasons why Khan Academy has been so successful.  Here is their success is defined:

What started as an idea to tutor his 12-year-old cousin from a distance in 2004 has now surpassed 140 million lessons streamed online and is helping 10 times more students learn each month than the entire number of students who’ve graduated from Harvard University since 1636.  (page 23)

If you’re wondering how many students that would be, I can only guess that Harvard has graduated between 1.5-2.0 million students over its illustrious 376 year history.  This means Khan Academy has reached nearly 15-20 million students over its 8 year history.  So what does that mean?

From students’ points-of-view, Khan Academy works because the material can be accessed anytime, anywhere.  They can review a lesson multiple times in the privacy of their own learning space until they understand the concept.  The cycle of watching, listening, learning, reviewing and repeating this cycle multiple times works for many students who struggle in a typical classroom environment.  So if we measure success by the number of “hits” on the website, Khan is amazingly successful.  One might say that Khan Academy is an amazingly successful learning space for students, a school.

However, some educators and other folks express concern about Khan Academy’s delivery of school.  Tony Bates, the CEO of Tony Bates Ltd, a private company that consults on e-learning platforms, wrote a piece recently evaluating Khan’s methods.  He writes,

I have another criticism. As someone who struggles with math, the Khan Academy would seem perfect for me. My problem though is I don’t know where to begin. Just jumping at random into a video suddenly makes me aware that I need lots of prior knowledge before I can understand this video, but there’s no help on that. Also, where’s the feedback? If I still don’t understand after watching the video several times and doing the exercises, what do I do?  (Click here for the reference)

Bates may be right.  I’m not entirely sure.  But I do know that online learning through Khan Academy or other e-learning venues is considered by many students to be an effective, efficient and desirable space to learn.

Drawing on a previous post of mine, Promoting Collaboration to Improve Faculty Culture in Schools, I reference an article in the New York Times by Mark Edmundson entitled, The Trouble with Online Communication.  Mr. Edmundson makes the case that learning is a highly relational experience and that while online learning has its place, it cannot replicate the enormous advantages of learning in a time, space, or place that relies on collaboration with others.  Reflecting on my own personal experiences with learning, I have a rather broad view of what learning constitutes for me, but I know my most powerful learning experiences have been in the presence of other people.

I think the challenge facing many educators who might view Khan Academy with skepticism is to get beyond seeing Khan Academy as a threat to their profession.  For a student, Khan Academy can become a time, space, and place to learn.  It is different than learning in formal school, but it is a learning space.  Just like Starbucks is a learning space when I go there to work or end up helping an elderly woman who has her first MacBook Pro and needed help navigating the computer.  We have to get beyond our limited experience of what school represents.  School isn’t only a time, space and place where we learn English, history, math, science, a foreign language, some art and physical education.  In fact, this type of school is very tedious for many learners, even though it is compulsory.  It is rigid and inflexible for the most part.

I like the second definition of school.

A large group of fish or sea mammals

For me, this image allows for more creative expression of learning.  Many unanticipated things can happen in a large group of people working together, collaborating, flowing a leader, shifting the leadership, and being in synch with one another.  School is where the group takes one another, it’s happening in real-time, all the time.

People need all types of learning spaces.  We will seek out and define spaces where we learn best and learn the most.  In fact, formal school will have to become more flexible and adaptable to the changing circumstances of the 21st Century to avoid irrelevance.  Formal schools must find a way to understand how students learn effectively and efficiently, incorporating that understanding into a new way of envisioning school.  While there are enormous limitations to online learning, such that face-to-face learning in formal schools will always be desirable, online learning is here to stay.  Educators need to find ways to make both work in the service of student learning.

Schools in Mountain View, CA have entered into a relationship with Khan Academy to experiment with flipping the classroom.  Preliminary results have been positive and will no doubt continue.  It strikes me that their experience is somewhat analogous to the large group of fish finding their way through the sea as a group of learners.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 26, 2012 10:31 am

    Bob,
    I’d encourage you to read this post that appeared in today’s Washington Post. How well does Khan Academy teach?

    • July 27, 2012 2:08 pm

      John:

      Thanks for this article. It was extremely instructive to read, especially coming from some math educators who evaluated some of Khan’s videos in detail.

      I am not surprised. Sal Khan has admitted in public interviews that many of his instructional videos are prepared after brief preparations on his part, reading a book, etc. We all know that this type of preparation does not lead to deep PCK.

      I intend to read Sal Khan’s response as well. Hopefully, he reflects on what the authors have to say.

      Bob

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