I attended an independent schools conference outside Seattle yesterday (Pacific Northwest Association of Independent Schools Educators’ Conference: Innovation and Change in the Classroom). I was excited to listen to keynote speaker Sal Khan of the unvelievably “trending” Khan Academy. Upon arrival I was surprised to receive a note that my question (which I had previously e-mailed in) had been selected to be the closer and that I’d have a chance to ask it before the packed auditorium of about 1,000 teachers & educators. COOL! – you have to understand, I don’t get out much and to me, this is a big room.
For those living under an even bigger rock than me, a few years ago, Sal Khan started posting a small series of math videos for his cousins. This grew into a larger series and in the last 18 months he received the attention and $$$upport of Bill Gates, Google execs and others. Khan now has a very popular TED Talk, worth watching here. The Khan Academy website now has over 2,000 video lessons in a wide and growing range of subjects as well as on-line exercises and a way to track your progress through material. The videos have been translated into 12 languages and have had over 80 million views around the world. (Is this anything like the McDonalds’ billboard, “80 million served here?”) And national news sources have noticed.
A key point in Mr. Khan’s keynote, as in the TED Talk, is that he is not looking for the online lessons to replace classroom time. Rather, the byline of the Academy is “Humanizing Education” because of his concept of “flipping” the classroom. What he is realizing is a change from the traditional highschool format where every student moves in lock step with teachers’ lectures and then goes home to do homework with little or no teacher support. Instead, here students can proceed through lectures at their own pace and as they have focused time at home, then individual progress can be reported to teacher who can give targeted and individualized support and attention to the kids during the precious class time while they do practice work. Passive classroom lectures are no more.
Cool idea really, and he went on to talk about all kinds of other innovations and applications that allow for a much more individualized and self-directed (post-modern, perhaps) vision of education.
But still, something about kids watching videos as any significant piece of their education bugs me somehow. And even when lecturing, a good teacher shares something through his relationship with the students. There is still reciprocity, give and take. When lecturing I am looking for eye contact and body language, I am adjusting and modifying both content and methods depending on how material is being received. I want to share the learning experience with the kids, as they’re being exposed to something new. Even in a lecture format, it’s all about RELATIONSHIP to me.
So my question: “Sal, I believe that at the heart of any meaningful learning is relationship. In order for the learning encounter to be meaningful and relevant the learner must be in a caring relationship with the teacher, the subject and the learning community. I believe that it is only in the context of this relationship that learning can become transformative. In what ways is relationship embedded into participation in the Khan Academy?”
He answered my question by talking about various ways they are tweaking the online platform to allow for more collaboration, contact with tutors or mentors, uploading comments and dialogue, etc. But my concern remains – if the nexus of any program involves learning from pre-recorded digital sources, I’m troubled. Also I am suspicious of anything that big money like Google is supporting. What’s in it for them? And districts like Palo Alto that are supposedly piloting many Khan-based classrooms? Am I just paranoid or is anyone else imagining the efficiency of a digitized educational system like this posing a threat to teachers’ jobs eventually, even if it is not Khan’s intention to do so? Most importantly, where’s the relationship???
Please do explore the Khan Academy’s website, check out some of their promotional materials, watch the TED Talk. What do you think? Is this the kind of transformation you want to see in the educational system?