April 10, 2011

Khan Academy: the bad

Filed under: education,mathematics,rants,reviews — Peter Saveliev @ 10:25 am

The Khan Academy has been such a significant phenomenon in online education that it can’t be overlooked. Last time I addressed the tutoring nature that’s at its heart.

The Khan Academy has a few good things that make the service useful. Unfortunately, the good things about it don’t outweigh the bad ones. Let’s take a look at the big ones — the math part only.

  • Salman Khan has never taught a class in his life.

This means two things. First, Khan has never lectured. What do you expect from a good lecture? Depth, insight, introspective. It shouldn’t be just regurgitated material from a textbook and it shouldn’t be a “how-to” manual on tape. This is an inevitable consequence of Khan’s attitude, which is very common among non-mathematicians: math is a tool. It’s more important then to be able to compute the derivative of a specific function than to understand the idea of the derivative. The result is a parade of computational examples that neatly fit into the mini-lecture format. (To be fair, let’s not forget about a different kind of damage inflicted by many mathematicians with their definition-theorem-proof style.)

Second, Khan has never taught. Notice that his lectures, when recorded, are addressed to an empty room. This way you don’t have to deal with the problems the students may be having. If the student in the “audience” is struggling, he is free to turn the video off and try something else. In either case, you will have only satisfied customers! In a real classroom, you don’t have this option.

  • Salman Khan lacks the domain knowledge necessary for developing a curriculum on the college level.

Khan uncritically follows the standard curriculum and emphasizes standardized tests. Compare to this project of mine as an example of the issues one has to face in order to develop something new. Also, developing a curriculum even for high school requires considerable background and careful thinking. Consider this recent article with a serious, mathematical discussion about how and what to teach about fractions, yes, fractions!

  • Trying to build “a new paradigm in education” on such a foundation is a mistake.

That’s my conclusion. Beyond that, the implied goal of covering the whole high school/college curriculum — “in pretty much every subject” — leaves me extremely puzzled…

One may be able to overcome such a lack of background, especially with a few millions in the bank. But did Salman Khan surround himself with experienced educators? No. In fact, the Khan Academy is hiring software developers. Teachers are welcome to contribute — for free.

This is an excerpt from a longer article about Khan Academy.