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Tech Trek II: The Wrath(?) of Khan Academy

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Never before have I had two of my favorite things share a name even though they are diametrically opposed. This is, however the case with the Star Trek villain Khan and the Khan academy. Both entities are incredibly intelligent, tech savvy, innovative, revolutionary forces – except one is focused on universal domination and the destruction of anything that stands in his way, and the other is focused on universal education, supporting learning through technology, and personal advancement. I guess when it comes down to it though they both have the same goal – to reshape human society.

 
Khan Academy, begun in 2006 by Salman Khan to tutor his cousins, now has over 2,800 videos available, more than 1 million visitors each month, and 1-2 hundred thousand video views each day. It was recently adopted as part of a new math curriculum for two classes in the Los Altos school district (TED.org, 2009). It is, quite simply, the fastest growing innovation in education right now. But is it really that innovative and worthy of all the hype?

What is The Khan Academy?
The Khan Academy is an adaptive learning platform that incorporates video-based mini lessons on concepts followed by a progression of practice problems designed to build mastery of the concept in question. In non-education speak, it is a website on which you watch videos which explain how to do something (mainly solve math problems) and then practice until the system thinks you understand how to do it completely. Here is a video demonstrating how the exercises and teacher tools work.

If it sounds simple, it is – on the surface at least. Once you start to dig a bit deeper, particularly into the potential depth of the content and the tools available for teachers (coaches) to use in evaluating students, it becomes a powerful and elegant tool for classroom use.

Khan in the Classroom
You would absolutely be considered insane if you ever allowed any of the original Khans into a classroom (Genghis or the Star Trek villain), but allowing Salman and his Khan Academy into formal education settings seems like a very good idea. It has already been adopted by schools that wish to "flip the classroom," meaning that they want students to be responsible for viewing the lecture portion of learning outside of school so that class time can be devoted to helping those who are struggling and providing enrichment and advancement for those who already understand a lesson. What it provides is a ready vehicle for teachers to use to accomplish that "flip." However, where it leaves the average flipped classroom in the dust is in the tools available for teachers to track and evaluate student progress. Charts, graphs, and badges viewable for individuals, small groups (such as those struggling with a particular concept), or whole classes allow a teacher to see everything, from overall progress, to which problems a student got right and wrong, to at what point they accessed hints or instructional videos.

While this information may seem overwhelming, it is presented in a straightforward, user-friendly interface that allows a teacher to quickly assess student progress. For example the "Student Progress Report" provides a visual representation of each student’s progress, color coded for each concept to show if they have achieved mastery, are working towards it, or are struggling. This allows the teacher to intervene with targeted help only for those who need it, exactly when they need it.

A New Learning Paradigm?
When I took a graduate course on the systemic design of education, all of us in the class were blown away by one professor’s assertion that the overall concept of education was flawed. He told us that mastery should be the goal and that the time it takes to achieve that mastery should be largely irrelevant. Essentially, learning should be the constant and time should be the variable. This is what the Khan Academy aims to do by breaking students out of the direct, linear, one-size-fits-all model of education. It allows them to move at their own pace – some slower and some faster – towards ultimate mastery of the concepts being learned.

What Khan demonstrated through some of the longitudinal data (that the system automatically gathers) from his pilot studies in the Los Altos schools is that, given the support and ability to practice and review at their own pace, almost all of the students eventually reached the same level of mastery regardless of the pace at which they progressed. If every student can achieve total mastery of every concept taught in school, we will achieve remarkable educational success.

Who Can Benefit from Khan?
While the program is obviously good for K-12 learners in traditional U.S. classrooms, it also has wide applicability in many other settings – adult learners interested in attaining their GED, parents looking to enrich their children’s educational experience outside of the classroom, children in rural areas where advanced classes may not be available, children or adult learners around the world who may not have access to schools, college students who require remediation on basic concepts, professionals who need to refresh some of their skills, or college students in general if the content continues to grow for that demographic.

Almost everyone can benefit from this sort of free, open access platform with its great depth and ever-increasing variety of available content. It has recently branched into areas such as biology, chemistry, physics, finance, and history. With more sure to come as Gates Foundation and notoriety provide more resources and a pool of volunteers to draw from, there seems to be nothing that can stop this Khan from world domination.

Is Khan about to Embark on World Domination of Education?
The Khan Academy seems to have all the necessary components to become a game changer in education for years to come. It employs game mechanics and badges, is self-paced and on demand, it has the backing of the biggest technology company in the world (Microsoft), and has a genuinely likeable and visionary leader. Most importantly, it is free and is accessible globally so its reach can spread beyond almost any previous educational startup, eventually creating, as Khan himself called it, a “Global One World Classroom,” where students can learn collaboratively and assist others in learning regardless of any geographic and age/grade-level boundaries. The potential for this project to humanize education and learning is impressive.

In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Meyer, 1982), the villain’s first attack on the Enterprise and his nemesis Captain Kirk, happens by stealth. He has commandeered a Federation ship and uses the deception to strike a killing blow before the Enterprise crew realizes that they have allowed a wolf among the sheep. While I love the Khan Academy, I feel that, in one very important way, it too is playing the wolf.

The one concern I have is in terms of the methodology used in the Khan Academy lessons and exercises. Ultimately this is just a new technological cover on the age old traditional educational model. Yes, the self-paced, mastery concept is exciting and a new twist in terms of being actually implemented, but the entire endeavor relies on the traditional paradigm of linear progression through a set group of competencies. Where is the notion of teaching children to be innovative thinkers?

Learning all of the things that Khan can teach you is important, but learning how to apply that learning within and across various contexts is actually far more important than the basic knowledge itself. As soon as the Khan Academy figures out how to teach innovative thinking and creativity through their system, I will be all in on the idea. Maybe the model allows for teachers to focus on imparting the creative and imaginative tools in their students? Until education changes enough to allow teachers to shift their focus to innovative thinking, Khan fails in the most important measure of educational innovation by failing to teach the one skill that is essential for a 21st Century, literate existence – innovation itself.
Maybe the Star Trek Khan wasn’t so bad after all – at least he was looking to completely destroy the status quo, not reinforce it with a pretty new wrapper.