Khan Academy (KA), a website for learning, is the brain-child of Salman Khan, graduate of Harvard Business School. The idea originally developed from Sal tutoring his cousins in math via internet. It transitioned into YouTube videos that began to gain viewers and sparked the website idea. Sal left his hedge fund job to devote all of his time to the start up of this project. The purpose of the academy is to provide an environment for everyone who has access to the internet, to learn, free of charge by utilizing over 5000 web-based video lessons. As for its intended audience, Khan Academy states “we want to share our content with whoever may find it useful,” however after using the site myself, I found that the mathematics begins at grade 4, and other subjects are more suited for middle grades through college.
Khan Academy is a non-profit organization “with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere”. Because KA is non-profit, it provides all its material and courses free of charge. When asked why KA was set up as a non-profit, Sal responded “because I wanted our content to be accessible to all people, for a long time in the future. Beyond your generation, do you have the confidence that a for-profit will stay true to its mission?” Since its inception, the media coverage for KA has been largely positive and media outlets such as the Harvard Business Review are making statements indicating that KA is “disrupting not only schools but also the education industry built around them”, which is a very bold statement.
A cursory review of the website can lead most people to believe the previous statement to be true. KA offers courses in mathematics from grade 4 through advanced college courses, humanities, economics and finance, sciences and computer programming. They also offer a variety of “partner content” which originates from other institutions, but is published through KA as well. Their content specialists are a diverse group of people who have extensive knowledge in their subject areas and have previously or are currently teaching in their field. Courses are delivered through the use of video instruction, but not all videos are simply an instructor writing on a board. Some lessons actually take the learner to places like museums or use video storytelling while discussing historical topics, and some like the computer programming courses, are very interactive. My background is in mathematics so naturally I was more curious about how these topics were presented. I was disappointed to discover that most math lessons were of the traditional standup instructor, showing examples, and at times, explaining the “whys”, not very creative or attention “keeping”.
For younger students who may need more reinforcement or rewards, KA offers units in the form of “missions” and awards energy points and badges. This gives the learning a more gaming feel. Interaction is encouraged by the use of questioning and providing answers to others questions for any video lesson. Additional badges are awarded for being an active participant! If you need help in a particular class, you can sign up to get individual help from a coach. If you desire to use this product in your classroom, you can become a “coach” to your students. The dashboard keeps you up to date on your missions, badges, points earned, recent activity, skill progression and more. Even with all of the offerings of Khan Academy, it isn’t hard to find naysayers of the website.
Anytime something is deemed a breakthrough in education or touted as the new education revolution, there will be those who want to break the legs off of the pedestal. Of the cons, several videos have been found to have incorrect information or have used incorrect terminology. Mathematics professors, John Golden and David Coffey, have become famous themselves, by producing videos of their own: spoofs that point out these flaws. Another criticism of the learning website is that it isn’t much different than the traditional instructor lead lecture method, but without the benefit of a person to ask questions or for an instructor to simply read body language to gauge understanding. Also noted,
…the output of Khan Academy simply updates the repetitive practices of "drill and kill." But perhaps the most serious concern is this: that so many important people--Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, the producers at 60 Minutes--view the work of the Khan Academy as so remarkable that they may convince us to let it lead the way in transforming education. That, the naysayers shudder, is chilling, indeed.
But even the naysayers cannot deny the power of this learning website. Justin Reich, blogger for the website Education Week, says “I have summed up my position on Khan Academy as follows: Khan Academy teaches only one part of mathematics – procedures- and that isn’t the most important part.” He also cites Golden and Coffey’s videos dismantling some of Khan’s video lessons, but in the same blog acknowledges that once these videos were brought to light, KA removed the lessons in question, and uploaded new ones within a matter of days! Imagine getting feedback about your content, and making adjustments and publishing within that time frame. It would NEVER happen with a textbook and its publishing company! This is a pro then, right?
Speaking of pros, I read so many testimonials of parents and students praising the website for its course offerings, the manner in which they are presented and for many, the ability to hit the pause button, digest, rewind if necessary, and then continue, was the best part. I am reminded of a recent study on programmed instruction. Branching programs allow students to learn at their own pace and provide remedial instruction for students needing help while allowing other students to move ahead with their learning. Pros to this type of instruction include immediate feedback, remedial instruction opportunities, and real time tracking of student progress.
Khan Academy just gets it….if you are a student, parent, or just a life-long learner, Khan Academy will become a household name. The site has been expanding rapidly, but has shown vast improvements in the last year alone. Khan’s content is phenomenal, and that is what matters.