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Khan Academy App – Saving the Universe from the Forces of Ignorance?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

In the battle with longtime nemesis Khan Noonien Singh, Captain James T. Kirk and several of his crew members find themselves marooned inside a distant asteroid. There is plenty to eat in the Genesis test chamber, so, much to the frustration of those with him, Kirk decides to sit down and learn some math with the other Khan, Salman, by firing up the new Khan Academy app on his Federation-issue iStarPad. The lack of connection to the Intergalacticnet is irrelevant, as Kirk has downloaded all of the content to his device prior to leaving Starport.

With more than 2,700 videos to watch (Huffington Post, March 12, 2012) and countless interactive exercises (coming soon), there is no danger of Kirk growing bored anytime in the near future. In fact, he might even take advantage of some of the learning opportunities available on the app to figure out how to get his crew out of the asteroid. A solution must be somewhere in the universe of information available through The Khan Academy.

The scenario is of course, fiction but the app is a reality. Released on March 11, 2012, the new Khan Academy app, brings the power of The Khan Academy to mobile devices. It is now possible to access Khans library of videos on all areas of mathematics, biology, chemistry, and physics, as well as some of the humanities wherever you may roam in the galaxy.  Could this mobile app be the final innovation that pushes The Khan Academy into the mainstream of education and bridges the digital divide once and for all?

Flipping Over Khan
In my February 9, 2012 post, Tech Trek II: The Wrath(?) of Khan Academy, I laud The Khan Academy as a worthy addition to the world of education in that it aims to bring valuable educational resources to a wide audience – for free. In addition, if used properly, The Khan Academy allows teachers to “flip the classroom” by helping students learn basic concepts on their own, thus freeing the teacher to focus on individuals, either for remediation or enrichment depending on their needs.

In the conclusion of the post, however, I raised several concerns about the model, most notably that it is not a platform that teaches students the valuable skills of creativity and innovative thinking. In addition to that problem (which is not a flaw in the design, but rather an intentional decision), the concept proposed by Khan in his TED talk has another serious flaw. If this model is to be widely implemented in K-12 education, what happens to students who do not have access to computers or the Internet in their homes? The core of the flipped classroom is that some of the basic content learning becomes homework – in this case, homework done online with The Khan Academy. But for children who have no home computer or no high speed Internet access, doing their homework becomes not only an impossibility, but also a scarlet letter.

What Does This Really Change?
The mobile app does have some potential to make the flipped classroom model more accessible for students who lack home computers. After all, they could check out a portable device from the school that is preloaded with the relevant Khan videos and exercises, and do their homework even without an Internet connection. There is just one problem with this scenario – the school has to have sufficient resources to have iPads that can be checked out. In schools serving the economically disadvantaged, namely the ones most likely to be able to benefit from the Khan app, those resources generally are not available.

I appreciate that The Khan Academy, the Khan Academy App, and all of the educational content being produced by Salman Khan and his staff are free, but there is a fundamental disconnect between the idea of providing something for free and having the people who need it most being unable to actually use it. This reminds me of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and the section where Barbara, living as a homeless person, receives a ham or a turkey from a shelter, but has no way of cooking it or utensils with which to eat it.

Don’t misunderstand; I really like The Khan Academy. I am encouraging my daughter to use it to prepare for an upcoming math competition; I have downloaded the app for my iDevice and will probably use it to brush up on my statistics; and I will introduce my youngest to it when he is ready to learn math. But like so many change initiatives in education, this one fails to recognize that there are poor people in this country and the world who cannot take advantage of this opportunity. I do not expect Sal Khan to provide a free iPad to every school-age child in this country, but I do expect an acknowledgement of the limitation I have outlined here and a call to action.

The Khan Academy has America’s attention. Use that power to demand a change in the unequal distribution of educational assets in this country so that every student has an opportunity to learn with The Khan Academy and the Khan app. Then and only then, will you be changing education in the way you hope.

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