What I Learned from Khan Academy

When Salman Khan took the stage at TED beside Bill Gates, the education industry sat up and took note. Here was a young, intelligent, self-made entrepreneur who might just have the cure for what ails our public school system.

The idea is remarkably simple: using only a Wacom tablet and his own voice, Salman Khan has produced a library of over 3,000 instructional videos. In these, he demonstrates how to solve math problems at every level – from 2+2 all the way up to the most advanced calculus.

Now teachers can send their students home to learn by watching Khan’s videos after school. By outsourcing instruction to a video series, they could “flip” their classroom, freeing up time to work one-on-one with students as they practice what they learned last night.

And the media rejoiced. Salman Khan was hailed as education’s savior, the world’s teacher, the messiah of math. He even appeared in a front-page feature in the New York Times.

With so much hype, it was only a matter of time before the backlash began. Several teachers began questioning Khan Academy’s instructional design. One of the most thorough and effective takedowns came from a former middle school teacher named Karim Kai Ani. Writing for the Washington Post, Ani cites a couple of errors in Khan Academy’s math lessons, including a lesson on negative numbers, “things he got plain wrong.”

Here is Ani on the media’s breathless celebration of Khan’s achievement:

"…the truth is that there’s nothing revolutionary about Khan Academy at all. In fact, Khan’s style of instruction is identical to what students have seen for generations: a do this then do this approach to teaching that presents mathematics as a meaningless series of steps. Khan himself says that “math is not just random things to memorize and regurgitate,” yet that’s exactly how his videos present it…

The real problem with Khan Academy is not the low-quality videos or the absence of any pedagogical intentionality. It’s just one resource among many, after all. Rather, the danger is that we believe the promise of silver bullets – of simple solutions to complex problems – and in so doing become deaf to what really needs to be done."

The article was a dose of common sense, but Ani’s treatment of Salman Khan is somewhat harsh. He claims, “the videos aren’t very good,” ignoring the fact that the videos are minimalist by design. After all, Khan Academy didn’t produce thousands of videos by devoting time to special effects and editing. A video library of that size is likely to contain at least a few flaws. And Ani neglects to mention that Khan is no longer the only person teaching for Khan Academy, as he has brought on other instructors to teach humanities. Salman Kahn is a smart guy with great intentions, and he should be encouraged in his efforts.

In the end, I learned that Khan Academy is nowhere near the cure-all that some claimed. But it’s a good start in the right direction. We need to have a serious conversation about the use of video at every level, from elementary through graduate education.

What if we could make video fully interactive? What about teaching students to record and edit their own film clips for each other? As an instructional technology, video looks very promising. But it will take more than just one cool startup to fulfill that potential.

Written by: Michael Mussman
Michael is a regular contributor to the Ashford University blog.

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