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Khan Academy: Are There REALLY No Better Alternatives?

02.12.12 | 7 Comments

written by Ryan Andersen

The Khan Dynasty

Being a former math teacher with a vested interest in math education and the lack of comprehension on the part of many students in mathematics, I have been paying very close attention to the education revolution happening online recently.

We all know the man spearheading this newly mainstreamed idea of learning math online: Salman Khan of the Khan Academy. Of course there have been other notable forays of education into the technology sector (YouTube for Schools, MIT OpenCourseWare, and iTunes University to name a few popular ventures), but none that rose so quickly from being unknown to being world-renown. In a very short time period, Khan received millions of dollars in funding from Google and was publicly backed (and funded) by Bill Gates. Sal and the Khan Academy have had an unlikely and fairy tale sprint into the hearts of Americans. And although much of what the Khan Academy is accomplishing is bettering our world, there are some unforeseen consequences.

Despite the well-intentioned efforts of a few well-funded education initiatives, a few loud, popular education sites are drowning out more subdued, quality ventures and harming the competitive balance in educational progress.

Not All Fun and Games

I am not against the Khan Academy and its vision for a more math-literate world. I support everything that the Khan Academy stands for regarding access to free or inexpensive education to anyone in the world. I think it is commendable and spectacular what Khan has been able to do in so short a time, and I can’t wait for the innovations his idea will spark in the months and years to come. He is truly an inspiration to the education sector, and he has raised the bar for what education (especially math education) means in this technological and video-centric age.

Although the praises being lauded upon Khan drown out most critiques, there are certainly critics of the Khan Academy’s approach to “teaching” and the “Khan philosophy.” Most recently, I very much enjoyed reading the thoughts of the founders of Mathalicious in their blog post, “Khan Academy: It’s Different This Time.” The writer of the post does a pretty thorough job of pointing out that Khan’s methods for changing math education “won’t work (and never did).” He goes on to say that this concept really is no different than any of the other “quick fixes” to math education in America. Unfortunately there are no shortcuts or easy answers to solving the problem we are facing in our mathematical deficiencies. We need good teachers who are ready to reach every individual where he or she is. The article makes a further point that “Khan Academy makes it difficult for something better to come along.” It is difficult to compete with a goliath with millions of dollars in grant money.

Who Needs Credentials?

Being a former math teacher, I have a problem initially with the fact that a man who has never taught middle school or high school math is now “America’s Teacher.” There is no doubt that he is an educated man and has proven his competency and ability in many of the areas that he teaches, but he has still never been trained as a teacher. To suggest that he can teach just as well as any person with a teaching degree is to say that there is no need for schools of education. But instead of universities issuing statements of concern for the integrity of a noble profession that has come under attack lately, they are asking him to speak at their commencement ceremonies.

Not only are Khan’s teaching credentials suspect, when you watch a few of his videos, you will notice that he is more of a tutor than a teacher. Rather than explaining concepts, he often shows how to solve specific problems, similar to what you would expect from a tutor helping you complete a homework assignment. As helpful as this can be when you need to finish your homework, this is not a complete solution for the failing math scores in America. What students need is a fundamental understanding of concepts so they can learn ideas rather than finish problems. In fact, Sal is in total agreement on this issue. Here is an excerpt from an article from Inside Higher Ed:

In October Khan told the Future of State Universities audience that the most pressing problem facing the education system is not so much the retention of students in academic programs, but the retention of specific academic concepts in the minds of those students. Completion means nothing, said the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grantee, without comprehension — a command of crucial skills that stick around long after the test, and the course, are over.

College students do not graduate with a firm enough grasp of the skills — particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields — that they really need to land good jobs, he said. As a result, the credential colleges use to signal the competence of their graduates, the college degree, says very little about what its holder actually knows.

Although Khan admits the fact that many students are just doing enough to get their degree but are not retaining the necessary information to be competent in the job market, it seems that his tools are condoning this practice rather than fixing the problem.

Khan also admits in the article that his videos are not the primary attraction or feature of the site:

“I think too much conversation about Khan Academy is about cute little videos,” Khan said in an interview last week. “Most of our resources, almost two-thirds of [the staff], are engineers working on the exercises and analytics platform. That, I think, is what we’re most excited about.”

No Better Alternatives?

Khan makes a good point in saying that the videos are not the main focus or draw of the site. The videos are not very well made technically, they are not pre-planned, and they are not very engaging.

According to an article from Wired magazine:

He never writes a script. He simply researches a topic until he feels he can explain it off the cuff to “a motivated 7-year-old.”

Some articles have suggested that we are forced to settle for Khan Academy because there are just no good alternatives. But I contend that there are many free or inexpensive sites that have better content from teachers who spend time putting together engaging, quality lessons. Some examples are Mathalicious, MathTV, BrightstormMathVids, and even Mahalo (not exclusively an education site), to name a few. With all of these great resources available, why are we settling for so much less?  It’s not that there are no alternatives. It is just that they are not widely known.

I do think, however, that a student can learn from even the least qualified sources at times (sometimes a student in his or her class who has just learned the same material can explain it in a way that he or she understands). And I truly believe that the more videos being taught by different teachers, tutors, or other students, the better chance there is that a student will find a teaching style that he or she connects with. This is certainly part of the core philosophy of MathTV, where the same problem is solved and explained by multiple teachers. That different students have different learning styles is also a concept that is central to the vision at MathVids, where you can find lessons taught by long-tenured teachers, new teachers, traditional college professors, goofy community college professors, tutors, and even students. By teaching all of the lessons himself and not hiring any qualified math teachers, Khan is limiting his reach and watering down his product. It is clear that not every learner finds his teaching style the best.

Even the organization and structure in the Khan Academy’s videos is messy, making me wonder whether time is being spent on the right things. The site is just a list of every lesson Khan has ever taught thrown onto one page and separated into very broad categories like “Algebra.” Most of the other sites listed here do a much better job of categorizing lessons to make them easy to find.

Don’t Settle

I very much appreciate the work and passion of Salman Khan and his work in revolutionizing the way the world is learning math. But I want to encourage some competition in a field that is badly in need of it. Khan Academy is far from being the best math learning resource on the internet. It is simply the most popular and the best funded at the moment. But the more we expect out of math education, the less we settle for what’s popular. And the more we look around for what is available, the better off we will be. Google was not the first big search engine. Facebook was not the first successful social media site. Just because you are the first successful site on the scene does not mean you are doing things the right way or that you will stay around.

Although Khan has revolutionized the way we think about education and what is possible, there exist many great alternatives to Khan Academy. Now go find them!


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