I’ve been following the Khan Academy for a while now. I love the idea of putting learning online. I believe that there’s a big advantage to having access to a teacher’s think-aloud at any time of the day, anywhere in the world. That is an extremely powerful idea, and it wasn’t available or possible a few years ago. So- Salman Khan began making his videos for his cousins, putting them on YouTube, and we all started to take notice.
The idea of learning with the Internet finally began to take shape with Khan Academy, so I showed them to my students. I showed these videos to other teachers. I showed them to my neighbor and my dog. And the one clear problem that kept coming up: they were boring. And dreary. And long (20 minutes?)
So I, with the help of a colleague, created our own math channel called Mathademics (youtube.com/mathademics). I thought that math teachers could make their own mathcasts, and I thought our math teachers could do a better, more flavorful job doing this with SMART boards, ENO boards, Elmo cameras, and other tech. So far, it’s catching on. My aforementioned colleague created her own offshoot of Mathademics called Mathademics4kids (youtube.com/mathademics4kids) where the kids make the tutorials. Teachers have started to get their kids to teach other kids through math tutorials. Now more schools have started franchises of Mathademics (see here). Kids are engaged. Kids are having fun learning math! It’s not 2000 videos yet, but they’re not boring.
The Khan App
Now- Salman Khan has taken his 2000 math videos and tied them to an online curriculum of sorts: http://khanexercises.appspot.com/ I’ve been playing with this all day. I’m stumped. Basically, the App asks you to input answers to math questions. If you know the answer, you get another, then another, then another, then another- until you get ten in a row. Then you are considered proficient when you get 10 in a row. If you have trouble, you can watch one of his videos. Something is missing here. Well a couple things. First of all, I’m reminded of Carl Sagan’s quote:
The simplest thought like the concept of the number one has an elaborate logical underpinning.
The Khan Academy is not teaching concepts and ideas. Khan Academy teaches answers. 1 + 1 = 2 . The concepts and the ideas are really what we want our students to understand, not the rote knowledge. We need a good teacher to facilitate the discussion of what the concept of numbers can be. Algorithms can represent video games, computers, life, and millions of other concepts, yet the Khan App teaches math like it’s a brain game. Get the answer, and move on. In Dan Pink’s book, Drive, we learn that rewards for deeds often backfire, and so I’m suspect about the Khan App’s “badge” reward system as well. I like the idea of data tracking on the backend that allows teachers to see the progress of their students. That’s neat, but it’s disingenuous for me to like that if I don’t like the math practice interactive.
But one glaring hole has yet to be undertaken: context. I’ve had my kids watch math videos, and, in fact, YouTube is full of them. However, when my students go home to engage in math learning, they need one huge thing that Khan Academy doesn’t have- their own teacher’s style, their own teacher’s examples as they relate to prior discussions in class, their own teacher’s process as they think through a problem, they need to see their own teacher mastering technology, mastering online publishing, and just plain being a master. Khan Academy is a symptom of a teaching profession where too many teachers are too shy or too old-school to jump into the publishing world. We need that to happen faster.
A student in my district sees their math teacher in middle school for 90 minutes per day. Khan Academy cannot give my students the context they need to make most of the connections they need to fully engage in these videos, I believe. Context is key. Ever wonder why so many of those math videos are boring? You’re missing the context by which they occur in.
I think the idea of putting math learning online is a great idea, but I’m not sold on the Khan Academy yet. Maybe it has a place as a practice tool among a larger, more thoughtfully guided application of concepts. Maybe it’s great for schools that have terrible teachers, and for students who need more practice in a world where their school is failing them (that could definitely be). Maybe it’s great to just help drive up SAT scores, which, also just ask for answers- not ideas.
Ideas- why can’t Khan Academy teach those?
Image Credit: Cayusa on Flickr