July 26, 2012

Break the cycle of Khan Academy criticisms and responses

When I first started interacting online (other than just via email) one of the most valuable lessons I learned was to "not feed the trolls". A troll is a person who posts in order to get a reaction from someone else in the hope of continuing an argument online. The "food" that a troll thrives on is attention.

For the most part, I do pretty well not feeding trolls online. But certain discussions about Khan Academy (KA) inevitably suck me in; I forgo protocol and end up in pointless discussions online trying to argue the points that numerous educators are trying to make about the shortcomings of KA. Since the KA has been used millions of times by (likely) millions of people, there are plenty of people who come to the defense of the KA and all that they do.

The KA defenders typically have a standard litany of responses to any criticisms of the KA.  Most of their responses don't actually address the criticism, though.  It makes it really hard to have a discussion about how to improve how the KA can reach its mission of providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere.

The typical responses to KA critics (and my thoughts on them) include:

  1. The critics are just jealous of Sal Khan and his success.

    This, by far, has to be the most ridiculous and possibly most common response. (Haters gonna hate is a subset of this response.)  No educator that takes time to write a piece about the work that KA does is any sense jealous of the KA. The critics of KA are passionate about high quality education. They genuinely love the work they are doing. Anyone who loves what they do for a living does not begrudge another person success in doing what they are passionate about doing. Sal Khan is passionate about providing a free world-class education online? Awesome! We are passionate about world-class educations in our classrooms.  By the way, we've been teaching these classes for several years (sometimes multiple times a day) and we have the experience of knowing what concepts students struggle with in our classes. We'd like to suggest that the KA consider changing how they approach these topics if they want to reach their goal.

    There is no jealousy, only collegiality.
  2. The critics are worried that they are going to be put out of business by KA.

    You can easily search the internet to find articles about KA which include claims that some people think that KA threatens the security of teacher jobs. I have yet to meet a teacher or school administrator who actually believes this to be a possibility. Sal Khan himself has said that the goal of KA is not to replace teachers. The argument on the face of it makes no sense. With no teachers, there are no schools. No schools means that every household becomes a de facto homeschool operation. It seems unlikely to me that this would ever happen anywhere in the K-12 environment, let alone college.

  3. Why don't you go out and make your own set of videos?

    Generally speaking, an educator's job is not to make educational videos. Some teachers have, though, mostly for use in their own classes. I have made videos for my classes in the past, and I feel they served a useful purpose for the classes I was using them in. My videos were made for specifically for the classes I was teaching that year, and I would not expect them to be optimized for anyone to watch them and fully learn the material. The KA is attempting to provide video that can be watched by anyone at anytime, so they have a different way of structuring their videos. Some educators believe that the video format is not the correct way to introduce topics to a novice. That is a separate argument that may be worth having some other time. I'm guessing, though, that the KA is not going away anytime soon. Since it has so much traction, why not try to have the KA post the best pedagogical content that can be produced? Video may be imperfect, but it can be made better.
  4. My teacher sucks/sucked. I read the material and went to my teacher and I still didn't understand anything until I watched the KA videos.

    Eric Mazur frequently repeats the old chestnut that "the plural of anecdote is not data". So although there are dozens/hundreds/thousands/countless of people who claim that they were the victim of substandard instruction we have no way of knowing if all (or any of them) were truly in a class with a poor teacher. Honestly, we have know way of knowing whether or not learning truly happened just by you reporting that you made it through a particular class with a particular grade. An alternate explanation to their experience was that the struggle which the KA supporter went through was ultimately more useful for the learning of the material. It may be that using all the different methods of trying to learn the material, the student was engaging in deep processing of the concepts, the last step was seeing the KA video. So, it's not specifically the KA video, but the overall process of studying which led to learning.
  5. The videos aren't a replacement for teachers; they are meant to flip the class in order to make class time more interactive. Or they are meant for review and refreshing topics.

    The idea that many students would use KA as a review or method to brush up on topics no longer fresh in their minds is not a bad thing at all. But then, let's not hail KA as a revolution in education, okay? Sal Khan is not a trained educator, and while he may be relatively good at explaining his understanding of certain topics, it does not mean that his way of understanding is the best for everyone. He demonstrates knowledge of the content in the videos (mostly he does it acceptably) but often it is at a superficial level. More troubling is that he demonstrates a lack of the pedagogical content knowledge.  That is, he lacks the understanding of what it is that makes a topic difficult to understand. Furthermore, the videos are a one-way street.  There is no way for him to know if anyone watching the video is truly improving in their conceptual understanding.
  6. The videos are better than sitting in class. You aren't distracted by anything because all you see is the digital blackboard and all you hear is Sal Khan's disembodied soothing voice.

    Okay, fair point. Life is filled with lots of distractions. School, no matter what level, is no exception.  If what you need to focus on learning is a digital background with a calming voice leading you through the steps, then KA has a place for you. However, there's is so much more to learning and doing science and mathematics (two of the most prominent topics of KA) than just sitting and watching a digital blackboard!  The KA, with this limited approach, cannot help you perform experiments, take data, do video analysis, perform simulation, or otherwise engage in the material. (KA may be planning to implement some of these ideas in the future, but they are not there now.)  And what stuns me, is the number of KA supporters who claim to be bored by their teachers at school, because all they do is stand in the front and lecture, but they love KA.  What's the difference? Just because it is online doesn't mean it isn't the same delivery method.  Except, you can't ask Sal Khan to clarify or give an alternative example. Sal Khan doesn't have office hours.
  7. The KA is not only about the videos! It has exercises and metrics and badges!

    Not all learning can be quantified by computer-scored exercises. I'm much more interested in what a student knows conceptually, and that tends to require more individualized attention from a teacher.  The metrics tools may be useful for tracking students progress through the KA exercises, but since the exercises don't measure the full picture of the learning of my class it doesn't do much for me.  As for badges, well I do love a good game. But, what about encouraging learning for its own sake? How can we emphasize the importance of pure curiosity if we reward everything with meaningless badges?
  8. Don't you get it? The KA is for middle school math/freshman high school math/remedial math/high school science/introductory classes/third world countries and NOT for graduate level coursework.

    Well, I get it. KA is for anyone at anytime. But that flexibility means everyone at every level can watch any video. Although it is not always explicitly stated, I believe that KA has some vague notion of the target audience for each video that is posted. I don't believe that the fractions videos are intended for college sophomores, nor do I believe the organic chemistry videos are intended for fourth graders. Yet students from both levels are using them. And while much of the content is not intended for advanced levels of study, why should that mean that the presentation should be sub-par? My general education courses that I teach to non-science majors are still legitimate college science classes. I have high standards for myself and for the class. The content is approached differently than I would approach a senior-level course for physics majors, but the standards for the class are still equally high. Why should KA have lower standards? Why should users of KA accept that the videos have mistakes or bad pedagogy in them? They shouldn't.
  9. I'm sick of hearing complaints about KA. KA is great and if you don't like it, don't use it.

    Frank Noschese famously posted on his blog "My final remarks about the Khan Academy" and then a few months later, started tweeting more about KA. He's not the only one who has pointed out problems or issues with KA.  I hope that fans of the KA would see that the educators pointing out the problems with KA are not out to shut down KA or stop Sal Khan from doing what he does. It's because these teachers care about the quality of education that they take the time to point out the problems. If you love KA, you should want it to be better than it already is. Help us out by encouraging the Khan Academy to engage with the educators who have been reaching out to them.
To all of Khan Academy users, please know that we've heard your responses to our critiques. Before you reply to us with one of the typical responses, please consider what we are all looking for: better education for everyone.


SiouxGeonz said...

I wonder whether the same people post "why can't you do better?" as post "You're just afraid of competition." All bases are covered!

Trolls aside, I ponder the rising to defense. You've left off the "hey, he quit is job, and is doing non-profit -- of course it's not perfect!" cries (to which I say -- millions of dollars in grants may be legally non-profit, but I want to know whether he stays in the same kind of accommodations teachers would stay in when he's doing those public speaking engagements...)

Andrew said...

You're right, I did leave off the money issue. It's probably not well known that all 501c3 corporations (KA being one) have to make public their tax filings each year. They have released 2008-2010 and filed for an extension on 2011. 2010 was the first year that Sal Khan took a salary. It's public record, just like public school teachers salaries are.

Of course, that doesn't include speaker fees and travel compensation like you point out. I do feel it's important that people realize he is being compensated just like teachers are. But, just as teachers can teach because they love it and still get paid, Sal Khan and his staff can do what they love and still get paid. So in the end, i feel it doesn't really do much to respond to them on the money issue.

Robert Talbert said...

To expand on the previous comment, another defense I've heard is "This is disruptive technology, so it's rough now, but improvements will come over time." To which you might reply, How long will this take? And will students have moved on by that point? And aren't we able to make instructional materials good the first time?

Anonymous said...

Mark me down as one teacher afraid that Kahn academy will take teacher jobs. I look at states like Idaho, that tried to push through online learning in response to reduced tax revenue. If Kahn says to a state: here's how you can hire 1/3 less teachers, I bet it would be a big fight to keep them from implementing the KA model.

Andrew said...

But schools have always faced the threat of less revenue and possible consolidation. If you have less tax revenue because the population is shrinking in your area, you have fewer students in the school. If you have less tax revenue because the economy tanked, then you're in a similar boat as much of the rest of the country. Either way, using KA as a solution to save money is short-sighted, ultimately won't work, and it isn't the intent of KA.

Marshall Thompson said...

How great would it be to be replaced!? Then I could move on to a more lucrative career!

Seriously though, if we can filter out the noise and rhetoric, there is a really cool, really deep discussion taking place that fascinates me.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SiouxGeonz said...

What makes me queasy is the "now teachers can differentiate!" claim. I'm afraid the translation is: "YOu're not keeping up? Go watch the Khan Academy video until you got it."
Got what? His take on the procedure, with nothing to hang it on -- and you'd better be able to ferret out the procedure between his mistakes, which are even more common in the m ost basic arithmetic videos. Even when he self corrects ("I don't mean 6 x 2, I mean six times itself two times! Remember that, six times itself!") it's not clear.
You don't want a STEM career, since you've gotten the message that you can't do math, so you're on a back burner -- and now you can't do much of anything because you've bombed that college placement test.

Joe Wagner said...

Backpack TV video response to Mystery Teacher Theater 2000 and in defense of Sal Khan and Khan Academy.


SiouxGeonz said...

Welp, except for the lack of criticizing the critiques, the backpack.tv "defense" fits solidly into the list above. He assumes that things are going to be improved -- even though only a single video has been edited, after lots of publicity, and no statement of intent to edit has been made (rather, we're all nitpickers), and says that the videos are great for learning something new -- I would ask how many he's seen, and what he learned... I did, but don't expect an answer.

Unknown said...

The time at which lists of points in dispute are made in not a cycle point. It is an important stage in debate. The debate is barely being joined when lists are prepared of what the charges are and what the defenses are.

You should also formulate what you think the list of charges and particulars are against Khan. How can the defenders of Khan defend him until they see a numbered list of charges with specifics?

Due process to Khan means that he is due a list of charges with specifics and to see the evidence against him. A list of videos is evidence, it is not the same as a written list of specific charges.

The prosecutor does not get to bring a big bag of videos into court and tell the judge and jury to sort out what the charges are and whether the defendant is guilty.

Unknown said...

As I follow this, I still haven't found anyone who can point me to another source beside Stump1999 that say slope is a functional property , which I assume means a property of a function . Stump 1999 has a list of teacher interpretations of slope: this doesn't mean they are correct. Sal is correct. And the teachers are looking rather petty and foolish in this software engineer's view....

Unknown said...

Great work. And it's so funny to see Mr. Backpack TV trawling for criticism of his pal, Sal, so he can post a link to his utterly clueless defense, never disclosing his vested interest in KA, the intertwining of his products with Sal's, and as already pointed out here in the comments, doing a lovely job of following the pattern of Khan's Kadre of Kounter-Kriticism, filled with vapid nonsense that never addresses the issues. :)