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The Khan Academy: Distinguishing the App Store From the Apps

A crippling problem in K-12 schooling is the sequential, enthusiastic embrace of "innovations"... that... never... quite... pan... out. One legacy is the justified skepticism that greets the over-the-top promises for each new advance and new generation of devices.

The problem, though, is not with technology itself. It's with the simple-minded, reflexive, and generally inept way in which we've failed to use technology to rethink teaching and learning. In fact, I'd argue, the last ed tech innovation to be seamlessly and widely integrated into classrooms in a way that dramatically allowed teachers and students to make better use of their time was... the book. (And, let's recall that, five centuries ago, plenty of educators raised bloody hell about the perils of students learning from books instead of from their teachers.)

This is what makes so many of today's most-discussed ventures -- from Florida Virtual to School of One to Rocketship to Khan Academy -- so intriguing. These are very explicit efforts to not merely strap devices and tools to the familiar classroom, but to see how we might use these technologies to rethink schooling, teaching, and learning. The Khan Academy, for instance, uses YouTube-style videos to make it possible for students to learn science and math at home.

That said, these efforts are imperiled by their own success. There's a common failure to recognize that exploring opportunities to rethink instructional delivery is totally apart from doing instruction well. (For instance, the mere fact that you've invented the book doesn't mean you've got a good tool for learning - it matters whether what students are reading is informative and interesting.) Yet, accounts of the Khan Academy tend to wax rhapsodic about the fact that students can now access a library of instructional videos, without much wondering about the instructional quality or pedagogical savvy of the videos.

This is where the Sal Khans and traditional classroom expertise can happily coexist. Entrepreneurs like Khan are doing invaluable work pioneering new ways for educators to deliver instruction and mentor students, but there's little reason to think that non-educators are the best bets to craft effective lessons that leverage such opportunities. Khan has popularized a new capability that, for disheartening reasons, no traditional pedagogue, school district, or school of education saw fit to pioneer. Yet there's no more reason to expect that the guy who dreamed up the Khan Academy would be the best bet to fill its offerings than would be to think that the folks who built Apple's App Store ought to create all the apps to fill it. The genius of these innovations is the way they allow others to more readily share their craftsmanship and expertise.

Indeed, there are seasoned educators, curriculum designers, mentors, and the rest who may be far better bets to craft terrific lessons, especially if we start thinking in terms of the national equivalent of "Star Search." In other words, rather than expecting the folks who developed the App Store to also be the best bet to create each app, we're thinking about the App Store as a terrific platform-- and an opportunity for talented people to start showing what they've got.

That's why I'm cheering what this pair of associate professors from Michigan's Grand Valley State University have done, in taking an acerbic look at particular Khan Academy lessons. Back in June, the two professors, Dave Coffey and John Golden, posted a video in the style of classic fave Mystery Science Theater 3000 that shredded a Khan mathematics lesson. As Ed Week's Katie Ash reported, ["[They] pointed out areas where [Khan] could improve his pedagogy, generally poking fun at the Khan Academy and its trove of videos." I first learned of this whole thing while on blog break, when Coffey and Golden's video had already been viewed over 20,000 times.

Ash reported back in early July, "The Khan Academy immediately pulled the math video in question and posted two separate videos explaining the concept, implementing many of the changes suggested by the professors in their satirical video. A few days later, the Khan Academy released yet another video dealing with the same subject and addressing more of the professors' concerns."

This is what's desperately needed. Instead of Khan hagiography from enthusiasts or mean-spirited attacks by critics, we'd be a helluva lot better off if we recognized that the YouTube-enabled "flipped classroom" is nothing more than a natural extension of the book-enabled "flipped classroom" (whence kids can learn at home by reading, even when they're not in the classroom with their teacher). It's not a solution. It's not a fix. It's an opportunity that we can use in smarter and dumber ways. Khan deserves kudos for helping to systematize and popularize a way to build a viable platform. But what's needed now is tough-minded scrutiny of the actual content, and fierce efforts to figure out how to best use that platform to help make available an array of smart, diverse, informative, and interesting lessons. Folks like Coffey and Golden have an invaluable role to play in that process. I'm delighted to see them taking this on, and I hope a lot more academics and educators follow their lead.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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