October 23, 2011

Khan Academy is the free online "for dummies" resource for learning

Would you recommend any of these books to someone taking a physics class?

If someone was taking a physics class and told you they were using one of those books as a supplement, would you tell them not to?

I don't think there is a right or wrong answer to either one of those questions, but I do have my own opinions. :-)

I think, in general, the condensed review-guide style or "for dummies" type books are not particularly great resources for students in my classes to turn to. I would not recommend them, if asked by a student, but if a student said they had picked one up and was trying to use it to help study, I wouldn't necessarily discourage that, either. I would encourage that student (and ALL my students) to focus on the material and concepts we are engaged with in class, but if another books helps facilitate that, maybe that is okay.

The warning that I would give my students is that I cannot possibly review all the material out there to know the quality of that particular book.  I wouldn't know if it has any errors or misconceptions presented in it. I also have a bit of trouble knowing whether or not to trust the author without reading the book and evaluating it myself. From the four books shown above, I've only ever heard of one of the co-authors: Eugene Hecht, who has written an optics textbook that I have used in teaching.  Finding and verifying the credentials of the other authors is difficult or impossible in many cases.

I go to bookstores frequently, and I have no doubt that any of these books are going away anytime soon. A few new ones trickle out every year or so and eventually old ones go out of print.

If someone was to decide to write a new physics study guide, that wouldn't be a big deal. But what if that person decided to give it away for free on the internet.  Would that be a big deal?  Would you point your students to that resource?  (Maybe you would.  Maybe you wouldn't.  Again, there is no wrong answer to that question.)

Of course, you can find study guides or collections of notes all over the web. Some are great, some are not so great.

It should be no big deal if someone posts a new resource online. Yet, there is no denying that the Khan Academy has got the attention of teachers, administrators, school boards, foundations and policy makers who are all concerned with the future of education.

My question is WHY are so many people excited about the Khan Academy when the quality of the product is no better than the "for dummies" series of books, and in some cases, isn't even as good as those?


Unknown said...

You do not have to buy Khan Academy. I think this is one reason that public institutions like it: it doesn't cost them money. Also, it makes you 'feel' like you understand things: people love to 'feel' like they understand things rather than actually doing the hard work needed to understand things as they are.

In general, the accessibility of high quality educational resources is strange. If you have the internet then allegedly you have access to some of the best that human knowledge has to offer. Yet, how many high quality resources cost money? Cost is a barrier to curiosity, but if some things did not cost money then would they be of high quality? Khan Academy gives us something to ponder when we look at the intersection of Quality and Accessibility: perhaps it is an example of someone raising the bottom line.

Andrew said...

I think you're absolutely right on all those points.

Cost is an unfortunate barrier. But there are already free educational videos out there (e.g. MIT open courses). Why don't they get the same attention?

In the talk I'm giving I do mention some good things about KA. It's not all bad. :-)

Unknown said...

The reason they don't get the same attention is because they don't try to make you 'feel' like you understand the material, they're actually trying to get you to understand things as they are, not how you might want them to be (which most people want things to be easy).

Unknown said...

Learning is hard, it doesn't feel good until you've actually done the work to learn it. Up until you understand something you feel down right stupid, and that's because you are becoming aware of gaps in your knowledge. People don't like gaps. They like to feel like things are as they expect them to be. If the MIT courses tried to mislead people into thinking they understand something then they would be talked about more on the internet and in the media. They don't compromise the truth for attention. In this way one may consider Khan Academy a fools paradise, but only a fool would believe they were understanding things simply by watching a Khan Academy video.

Anonymous said...

I think you're making a gross misrepresentation of the Khan Academy. It covers topics MORE in-depth than most traditional high school classes. What part of any of these videos are "for dummies"?




Andrew said...

Well, the "For Dummies" moniker is a bit of a red herring, right? I mean, even in the actual "For Dummies" books, there can be quite complicated concepts covered. That's their whole strategy: they make you feel like you don't have to be knowledgeable about the topic before reading the book. There's nothing inherently wrong with that philosophy, and in fact, I agree with a lot of that idea. It fits with the idea that ability is not fixed, but that anyone can work to improve their ability and knowledge of a topic. (See "Mindset" by Dweck for more details.)

My point with comparing KA to those books was that there's no vetting of the person's ability to teach and properly convey the concepts in a way that leads to long-term and meaningful learning.

In the electric field due to an infinite plate video you linked to I counted 3 instances where Khan said something that I would hope that I would not say if I were discussing this concept with a class or with an individual student. I slip up sometimes, sure. I hope that I catch most of my slip-ups. My point is that Khan doesn't seem to have that awareness that he has slipped up. This is something that I think all novice teachers (myself included) experience. I don't see Khan becoming an expert in any topic though, since he tries to have such a breadth of topics he covers.

As for whether those advanced topics are covered in high school classes, I would say it depends. There are certainly AP classes that would cover those topics. It's not so simple to define what a "traditional" high school physics class is.

Thank you for your feedback. It is valuable to me.