October 25, 2011

What is good about the Khan Academy?

I've already hinted at what I think is bad about the Khan Academy (KA), but in my upcoming talk at the Illinois Science Education Conference, I promised to talk about what is good about the KA.

I have identified four specific things which I think represent the good parts of the KA.

  1. Breadth of topics - Having what is closing in on 3000 videos in the KA, there is no doubt that the breadth of topics that is covered is incredibly wide. If you are a student in grades 4-12 and/or college, chance are good that the KA has a video which is related to something that is being discussed in one of your classes. That alone doesn't make KA a good resource, but if a video can serve as a launching point for discussion in class that would be a good thing. The more videos they have, the greater the chance that topics in more classes could have discussions related to something students watched on KA.
  2. Resource for "flipping" - Much has been said about the potential for using KA to "flip" the classroom model. I don't want to make this discussion all about whether or not trying using "flipping" in a physics classroom is a good thing or not. I can see the value in the idea doing something to encourage engagement with the course material is a good thing.  Full disclosure: I made videos for 2 terms that students were encouraged to watch to guide their reading of the assigned material. I believe that critical reading is a skill we overlook in the college curriculum, and that I should be doing more to help my students be better readers. With respect to the KA, I think that if you have decided to use a "flipping" technique in your classroom then you owe to yourself to at least look at KA and decide if it could be a resource for you.
  3. Connection to Peer Instruction - One of the basic principles of Eric Mazur's "Peer Instruction" technique of teaching is that the students learn by talking to each other more effectively that by hearing a lecture because the students in class who just learned the concept can explain the concept in a way that makes sense to others in the class. That's the "peer" in Peer Instruction, right?  Students learn from other students better since the professor has forgotten what it was like to not understand the concept and can't connect with a struggling student as well as another student.
  4. Virtual Tutor - I do believe that one of my jobs as a teacher is to have alternate ways of explaining a concept to students. Not everyone is going to understand every concept the first time we cover it, and there may be students who don't understand something the second, third or tenth time I explain it. If a KA video provides an alternate explanation for something that didn't click for a student in class, then I'm all for that. It is sort of like having a virtual tutor, except you can't really ask questions of the tutor.
So there you have it.  Four things I think are good about the Khan Academy.


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?