Khan Academy and the Role of Online Video Instruction

Khan Academy

While the trending topics on Twitter over the past 48 hours have revolved around The Bachelor, March Madness, and NFL free agency, most of the people in my timeline, who tend to focus on education and technology, have been tweeting about Khan Academy and the recently announced TED-Ed video series. Last night I was caught up in a conversation among a few of my favorite math educators (Dan Meyer and Karl Fisch) and a supehero

Without doing the conversation justice, I’ll simply summarize it as a debate about the merits of online video lectures. Dan and the EdTech Hulk’s perceptions are that TED-Ed and Khan Academy are emphasizing lecturing as the fundamental purpose of educators. On the other hand, Karl was suggesting that it was a bit early to prejudge, especially in the case of Ted-Ed.

If you haven't had a chance to visit the blogs of Dan and Karl, I strongly suggest that you do. Over the past several years I have followed the work of both men as they relate their experiences in math education. Each time I read a post by Dan, I am in awe of the way in which he visualizes math education. He has a particular skill in being able to identify problems in real world context whose solutions involve a wide range of problem-solving strategies and mathematical concepts. While Dan had been a classroom teacher his recent endeavors have taken them away from the classroom as both a graduate student and an author and while this does not in any way diminish his ideas or his thoughts, it does provide a challenge for classroom teachers who are also being judged by external measures over which they have no control. In that case Karl's very open reflective blog sheds some light on the challenges that he has endured as he tries to transform curriculum in light of these very demanding external measures.  As a result, Karl is trying to strike a balance between these demands and creating a curriculum that is rewarding and authentic.

The emphasis on high-stakes tests and “individualized” education solutions such as Khan Academy’s adaptive assessment exercises limits most math education to the least common denominator of a skills-based curriculum.  However there is so much more to math education than that.  If we focus so much attention on these skills, when do we have time to develop students understanding of the fundamental and transferable concepts within mathematics?  How do we find a place in the curriculum for problem-solving, some of which is beautifully highlighted by Dan’s 3 Acts work?  Finally, with all these rote assessments, will we ever develop students with a passion FOR math not AGAINST it?

For me, this is the new challenge for classroom teachers.  The system will not allow teachers to opt out of the high-stakes apparatus, and thus they must still manage to support students in learning these skills.  Yet, we want them to also enable students to develop as thinkers.  In order to serve both purposes, teachers will need a wide assortment of tools to optimize the experience for their students.  For me PART of the solution involves online video and standards-based mastery tests.  However, to simply use these tools to increase class sizes, to teach to the test, and to differentiate the learning experience, will be a failure.  So like Dan and Hulk, I am concerned that some of these tools will be misused and worse that the language surrounding them will diminish the role of educators.  However, I am willing to support great leaders like Karl who are navigating their way through these choppy times and to allow them to highlight some of the benefits of these emerging technology applications.