Philosophy

The Khan Academy is not that good

UPDATE (March 24, 2011): The Khan Academy has changed a bit since I originally wrote this. My original post appears right below, followed by some updated observations.

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It seems there are plenty of people, both students and parents, who are unhappy with our current education system, myself included. Unfortunately everyone seems to have different ideas of what exactly is wrong with it and how to fix it.

Google had a link on their homepage to their Project 10 to the 100, in which they gave millions of dollars to organizations that won voting contests. You can see they’re giving Khan Academy $2 million. A lot of people really love Khan Academy (including Bill Gates) and think that it is a great step in the right direction. [The Khan Academy is basically a large collection of cheaply produced educational videos. Being videos, they can only teach fact-based material, like math, science, and history. They can’t teach skills that require feedback.]

I don’t think Khan Academy is bad, but it’s not a replacement for our current education system. It’s not that good. It’s not worthy of praise from Bill Gates (or maybe it is, since he seems to have completely wrong ideas about what steps the education system should take), and it’s not worthy of this $2 million gift. Khan Academy is great because it makes a lot of educational material available for free. But education is not about just knowing stuff.

The big thing people seem to forget or ignore is that everything ultimately comes down to employment… whether or not you can do a job, and whether or not employers will recognize that you can do a job and hire you. Unfortunately people seem to think education is about getting a degree. But the only reason a degree has any value is because employers give it value. It has zero value by itself.

Or people think education is just about knowing stuff, and the more you know the better. The more facts you can cram in your head, the smarter you are. But knowledge is useless if you don’t use it. Oooh, there’s a profound idea! But people don’t always seem to believe it. Going through Khan Academy’s resource is just, in the end, really not that helpful. You’re just not going to use most of it in everyday life, even when you’re employed. It’s a nice resource to have available if it turns out you do need to learn some of it someday, which is the same reason it’s nice for colleges to have libraries. But it doesn’t replace or change anything important in the education system. It’s just a nice reference resource.

Which leads us to what is wrong with our education system. It’s become thought of as separate from the life you’ll live after it, and thus has little focus. Rich people and rich organizations can throw all the millions of dollars they want at it, but until there’s a widespread fundamental shift in employers’ and educators’ and students’ attitudes towards it, things aren’t going to get much better.

The Khan Academy does plan to expand and offer more than just videos, so we’ll see what happens with it. Ultimately it’s currently just a library. A library is a great resource because it means you don’t have to learn stuff; if you ever need certain info, you can go find it in the library when you need it. The point isn’t to try to learn or memorize as much of it as possible.

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Updated comments from March 24, 2011:

(Really this is just copied from one of my comments, but I thought it was important enough to move it up here with the original post.)

Since I first posted this, I think the Khan Academy has added practicing software and coaching abilities, so it’s no longer just a bunch of videos, but does include some form of feedback. If they continue this trend, adding more features that allow more personalized feedback, I think they can certainly come pretty close to replacing the classroom experience, maybe even making it better in some ways: no more needing permission to go to the bathroom, no more disruptive paper airplanes, children can work better at their own pace, etc. There would still be a great deal of challenges (funding probably a big one), but if Khan’s goal is to replace the classroom setting with something more personalized, I think it’s definitely possible with today’s technology and we only await someone with enough tech savvy, time, and money to get it going.

But making a bad education system virtual doesn’t really help. It’s like adding new fancy fonts and pictures to a poorly written textbook.

That is, my main criticism isn’t that the Khan Academy is (or was) just a resource. The specific information is still mostly useless to most students, no matter what form they learn it in, whether it’s a physical or virtual classroom.

If you’re just learning something so you can spew it back out on a test and then forget it next year, that information is serving you no real purpose. You’re just wasting your time learning it. (I shudder to see “California Standards Test” lessons now listed at the Khan Academy.)

The Khan Academy videos seem like Mr. Khan spent some time learning the content out of a textbook and then just regurgitated the material in video form. That *can* be useful in some situations, but to me it implies that Khan, like most public education systems in general, doesn’t really question the applications of the content, doesn’t question why or how that specific content is worth the teachers’ and students’ time and effort. In many cases, it’s just not.

By S P Hannifin, ago