August 05, 2013

Does Khan Academy listen to content experts?

Christopher Danielson has an Open Letter to Sal Khan which has stirred up some discussion recently.  When I read his piece I was drawn to this part in the middle:
"Mr. Khan, you have a team of teacher advisors. If none of them can identify these gaps for you, you need to ask for help from the larger community (and then to reexamine your hiring practices)."
Out of all the criticisms of the Khan Academy, this is the one that upsets me the most. That KA in general, and Sal Khan personally, cannot find it in themselves to reach out to the education community to improve their offering indicates to me that they must not care about having high quality resources on their site, only that they care about having a high quantity of resources.

Over a year ago, I posted my critique of the stellar parallax videos.  In my critique I pointed out several (at least four) things that I thought were really good about the explanations of parallax.  But, I also pointed out some huge problems with the videos, including the incorrect depiction of the night sky showing East and West directions reversed (starting at about the 8:40 mark in my video). Apparently, Sal Khan does not know which way East and West go. None of the videos on parallax have been changed in the past year.

I realize that I'm just one guy, and maybe KA has no reason to listen to me. (Sal has yet to take me up on my offer to have him talk with us at the Global Physics department or an AAPT conference.) I have taught intro astronomy at least 20 times and we usually spend an hour or two of class time on parallax not including review time or out of class discussions that I have with students.  I have invested at least as much time prepping for teaching these classes, so I have at least 40 hours of experience in teaching this topic alone. I know there are teachers out there with even more experience than that, and I am constantly looking to learn from them. When I learn a better way to teach a topic, I alter my approach. Why isn't the same true for KA? 

I pointed out above that in my critique of the parallax videos I thought there were some pretty good things about them, including at least one part of the explanation that was unique (and accurate) and I hadn't seen anywhere else.  I'm pointing this out again in part because I'm not interested in rehashing any of the tired arguments that supporters of KA bring up over and over again.

Let's talk about how KA can engage with great educators at all levels so that we can all get better at what we are trying to do. Some of the KA staff do engage with others in discussions, but they sometimes miss the point.  In the Hacker News discussion that I linked to above Ben from KA says this:
"It's difficult for us to work through all of the submitted issues because most of them are from students who don't understand the problem or have made a mistake in their work, not real issues with the content. We always keep an eye on the number of issues per exercise, and we're lucky to have volunteers who read through the issues and surface the real issues."
To be fair, Ben is talking about responding to issues related to homework-like problems on KA.  But, his statement reveals the heart of the problem with what KA is trying to do: engaging learners in a meaningful way using algorithmic methods doesn't always (often?) work. I would argue this must be especially true for conceptual learning, which is the root of deep understanding in most topics. 

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