Revisiting Khan Academy

Today I’m flying out of Tampa, FL back to Connecticut. My parents had other projects today, so they hired a woman to drive me to the airport. She and I had a nice conversation on the way. Among the things we talked about were her grandchildren. When she found out about my work as a teacher, she thrillingly recounted her days in a one-room school house, and her granddaughter’s few weeks in a “virtual academy” online. The mother liked the degree of supervision she got over her child’s education, but my driver the grandmother didn’t think much of the lack of interaction with other students. Ultimately, the online academy didn’t work for the family, and the kid went back to a public school.

Ok. Score one for public schools, and face-to-face communities of teachers and learners.

But. Over the last three weeks or so, and particularly in the last few days here in Florida, I’ve been working my way through Khan Academy’s tutorial in computer science. Finishing that, I realized that I needed to review a bunch of mathematics. So I’ve been doing that. As I’ve done so, I’ve done a little browsing and a little sideline investigation. And although a grandmother at the end of 2013 can talk about the clear and obvious advantages of face-to-face education, I think that we who teach should do a little bit of self reflection, and a little bit of sidelong-analysis of our future competitors. Because there’s a bleeding edge of transformation approaching, and school teachers and administrators and activists and policy hacks are going to want to be thinking about it.

How many years ago did Khan Academy get its start? Not long, I think. I’m writing this on the plane, so I can’t do research at the moment. Let’s call it five years, because I remember questions about it at my last job interview. It was a poorly thought out website then, clunky and not easily navigated, and it was pretty much just a link-field for YouTube videos. None of us who were teachers then saw it as any kind of competition for us. Not really. We still don’t.

But. It’s gotten a lot slicker since then. Better site design. More interactivity. More community. More feedback loops. Clunky test-taking and scratch pads, true. But much improved over early versions of the site. Closer to the vision of what a virtual academy could be.

Remember the early mobile phones? They were huge and heavy, like concrete blocks with antennas sticking out of one end. No one wanted one. Then they suddenly became pocket sized novelties. And then just as suddenly they were ubiquitous. Schools went from having no policies about cell phones, to having cautious policies, to having draconian policies, in the space of three years. The sudden drop in price, combined with wide availability, made cellphones implosive— they pulled everything toward themselves so rapidly, it’s hard to imagine the realities of life before them.

Given how some US states have reacted to the question of gay marriage — first no policy, then cautious ones, then draconian ones, then utter surrender — it’s hard to imagine that cellphones on school property aren’t going through a similar shift. If your school has a draconian policy now, watch out: surrender is just around the corner.

And the same is true of online academies, and online academics. Your school and school district right now, probably your state too, currently has no policy on them. But if Khan Academy has gotten this good in four years or five or six, it’s time for schools and school-related people to sit up and take notice. Khan Academy has narrower iteration loops than schools do; it takes a school a year or more to implement a new curriculum, but KA doesn’t have to teach the whole curriculum and see what doesn’t work before they go back and revise the earlier parts. Their iteration loop is shorter and more responsive. Smaller staff, too, and less dependent on teachers, teachers’ unions, or even administrators and school boards. Textbook wars? Potentially a thing of the past: Khan Academy is going to teach scientific literacy including Darwinism. Don’t count on a creationist bio unit. Textbooks? Mmm not so much. Book bags too heavy? Not at an online academy.

A prediction.

I and my colleagues will not be retirement age before online academies start bringing down public and private face-to-face schools. We’re not twenty years out from online learning being “better” than face-to-face. We’re probably not even a decade out from one or more online academies replacing some K-12 learning completely in some areas.

In part, I think this is the result of two private-interest groups trying to capture and control two sources of revenue from schools and schooling-interested people: testing services trying to capture school district dollars, and tech companies trying to capture parent dollars (‘free’ learning content, but expensive hardware and software and connectivity). But I don’t think we need to imply conspiratorial aims or collusion here. These folks are out to make money and become rich — not screw over teachers or students.

But the storm of online academies and too much testing in face-to-face schools will have that effect. It will drive parents and students out of private and public institutions, and into software academies to learn drillable skills from machines. And parents will spend their education dollars on things that can’t be taught by machine: music and pottery and timber framing and so on. Parents already believe that the schools do their children a disservice. In some cases they’re right; schools do not serve boys well at all, for example. Meanwhile the marginalized and minorities and the poor have other challenges besides schools alone, but schools still get blamed for many of those challenges. Some of this failure is not the schools’ fault, but some of it is.

It’s far past time for teachers and school administrators to look up from their paperwork and their bulletin board display plans. We have to begin thinking about how we’ll face the challenge of online learning. It is well past the big “car phone brick” stage, and moving toward ubiquity.

How strange to think of schools like so many antelope on the savanna, suddenly being stalked by a new kind of predator.

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    • I’ve been involved in helping people find their race and value for a long time, even before I knew it was called that.

      I’ll think of something.

      I’m more concerned about teachers who aren’t thinking about this yet. A lot of folks are gonna get run over in the middle-term, I think.

  1. Really interesting article. I’ll be forwarding to my personal list. I appreciate the time it takes to write such a thoughtful review. I would be interested in your opinion of which parts of KA are good, medium and shoddy.

    • Interestingly enough, Christina, comments from parents indicate that they’re pretty happy all around with Khan Academy. Several parents told me today that it’s filling in for inadequate teachers at their children’s schools, one teacher said that she’s using it to prep for a class she’s unfamiliar with teaching, and another said that having initially dismissed it, he’s giving it a serious second look. So far, then, I’m reluctantly going to say that it’s not as shoddy as I originally thought.

  2. I recently heard a report that KA’s academics are really shoddy and shallow. I don’t know if it was a case of traditionalist “sour grapes” or an authentic critique. I haven’t investigated their site much. Do you have any opinions on the quality of their content and presentation?

    • They’re really good in some areas, shoddy in others, and fair-to-middling in others. Rather like any face-to-face school in America, really. The real challenge is that you can’t predict the day that Khan Academy will be substantially better than its face-to-face competitors. And my guess is that by the time you and K. are thinking about fourth or fifth grade for D., you’ll have to have a serious conversation about whether online or face-to-face is a better fit for him. You may still decide on a traditional school — but at this point I wouldn’t be willing to bet that way.

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