In Defense of Khan Academy

09 Aug

There has been a lot of talk about Khan Academy. If you’re unfamiliar, a simple search will yield many results including accolades, news articles, and blog posts.

My first impression of Khan Academy almost two years ago was positive. I was immediately impressed by the idea that a former hedge fund manager would leave his lucrative career to devote his time to a project which started out as an idea to help a relative with her math work. At the time, I was teaching 6th Grade math and appreciated how concise the videos are. They gave my students another avenue to access concepts and also another person, albeit recorded, from which to learn.

The conversation surrounding Khan Academy essentially revolves around two arguments. The first argues KA is transformational. The short, specific video lessons on literally thousands of topics allow students to easy access to instruction, independent of an actually person. Proponents, including some big names in education reform (who are not actually educators, for what it’s worth) argue that KA represents the future of education.

24/7-learning, flipped classrooms, individualized instruction, differentiated instruction, educational technology; KA represents the best of all these, or so say its fans.

Now, detractors argue that KA is just another step in the wrong direction. Yes, it’s a good use of technology. Yes, Salman Khan is a pretty good math teacher. Yes, these videos can be helpful. But the “beef” with SA that I’ve heard from educators is it is simply an extension of the “monolithic teaching” being pushed by reformers (Christensen, et al). Students, or in this case viewers, are taught in the same way, irrespective of individual learning preferences and strengths. KA is not individualized or differentiated at all. It is NOT transformational and should not be the direction in which we, as educators, go. Math educators also argue that Khan presents math as a process removed from real-life application.

Here’s where I have a problem with the naysayers. I agree that KA is basically “sage on the stage” teaching. Videos are inherently one-sided. It is representative of monolithic teaching. But that does not mean there is no value in Khan Academy or video instruction.

We can argue for days about the state of education in the United States. There is certainly progress to be made. But, for better or worse we are stuck with our educational system. That does not mean that it cannot be changed, or that it should not. But changing a system so complex will take a while. In the meantime, there are a lot of students who can benefit from Khan’s videos in order to navigate the current system, one they will not likely see change, with its high-stakes testing and over-standardization. Unfortunately, students must absorb as much information as possible in order to succeed in today’s system. Why not deliver it on the student’s own time and free up the teacher for more in-depth and personal problem solving?

I argue that KA is useful as another tool in the veritable teacher’s toolbox. I recognize that some big names are pinning a lot on this type of education. I think they are wrong. But that does not mean there is not a place for video instruction. Too many people testify to the help KA has provided.

I have not read all there is on Khan Academy so I’m eager to hear other perspectives and welcome any comments.


Posted by on August 9, 2011 in Thinking Out Loud


2 responses to “In Defense of Khan Academy

  1. Carla Sensing

    August 9, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    Khan Academy is useful within my classroom, but out here in rural Tennessee, only a third of my students have “some sort of” access to Internet. It is not, and will not, be our future. Videos serve their purpose, but they will not replace people and the interaction students get from “reality” school.

  2. Stephen Davis

    August 11, 2011 at 10:00 pm

    I have been thinking about this much lately. I am appalled by the blatant arrogance many who disagree with Khan write in blog posts and tweets.

    Who are we to determine the ways in which even one of our students in class constructs knowledge?

    I personally know of students who have watched the videos on the way to school as review.

    How is a student watching a Khan video lesson at eleven at night, copying the steps to a math problem, any different than the same student watching a Ramone’s video trying to learn how to play it on his guitar?

    In addition, what if we do look at Khan as being bad pedagogy, is it not possible that a student who has a deep, meaningful love of mathematics still be able to get past the pedagogy and understand the concept? Even if it is merely a stepping stone to much greater work in the future?

    Great post, Matt…keep them coming!


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