Khan Academy: Not Overhyped, Just Missing a Key Ingredient – Excellent Live Teachers

by | June 13, 2011

Rick Hess was right to question the simplistic hyping of Khan Academy’s online video lectures in this Straight Up post. But we think he’s only got it half-right: it’s less a matter of OVER-hyping than MIS-hyping the true potential of what Khan is doing. Just to summarize, Khan Academy offers short, engaging tutorials in math, science and other subjects and is experimenting with having kids use these during homework time, freeing up school time for problem solving and collaborative work – a concept commonly called “flipping.”

We’ve written here and here about the importance figuring out as a nation how to “extend the reach” of great teachers to more students, since great teachers accountable for student learning are the one “intervention” we know can close achievement gaps and raise the bar for all students. Khan Academy represents a potential “double-dose” of reach extension. The hype emphasizes one of the two “doses” – the potential of videos of a super-instructor like Khan to reach millions of kids, what we call “boundless” reach extension (smart instructional software is another version).

The second potential dose is less hyped, but probably more important for learning outcomes: the potential to enable the best in-person teachers to reach more students with personalized instruction. Large amounts of top teachers’ time could be freed up if kids were soaking up more knowledge and basic skills via Khan, smart software, or other vehicles. Excellent teachers could use that time to reach more kids. But homework flipping is not required (a good thing – see the end of our post). Kids can learn online at school, replacing teachers’ rote lectures and one-size-fits-few whole group learning.

Picture this: let’s say one class out of four in a school’s 4th grade has an excellent math teacher, and she spends half her instructional time on whole-group instruction and half on more dynamic/personalized learning. If Kahn takes over the former whole-group time, two 4th grade classes could have that teacher just for personalized/dynamic learning. The effect is a 100% increase in the number of kids who get a top-tier in-person teacher — without reducing personalized instruction time with kids. She’d need a learning lab monitor for Khan time at school and time-saving digital tools to monitor kids’ progress (a la Wireless Generation or others; Khan’s experimenting with this, too). The change would be at least budget-neutral, and the great teacher could earn more within budget, since lab monitors are not paid as much. While one teaching position disappears – and that should be the weakest teacher who goes – other jobs emerge, such as the monitor or combined monitor/tutor. Possibly some of today’s struggling teachers would shine in those more focused roles, a topic Hess has thought about a lot.

This dual power of technology –both to extend reach of super-instructors boundlessly (no more low-value homework and large-group time) AND to allow reorganization of great on-site teacher time – is worth hyping. Khan and Hess are somewhat onto this, but seem to be thinking of it more as just enabling in-person teachers of any quality to engage in more interaction with the kids they have – rather than specifically to give dramatically more kids access to the best available in-person teachers.

As technology advances, students will still need accountable adults taking responsibility for their learning. The excellence of the teacher-in-charge will have the same enhancing and mitigating effect on digital learning as it has on every other reform tried to date. Let’s focus on how Khan Academy and other less-hyped innovations can give nearly all student access to great teachers, nearly every year.

And as we do that, let’s face facts: according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 39% of high school students do no homework. Zip. In a homework flipping model like Khan’s promoters are pressing, these kids have nothing to flip. Khan and his kindred may be able to overcome that, but it reinforces the importance of reaching more students with excellent instruction – live and online – during the 35 hours per week they are already in school.

This blog entry first appeared on Education Next. 

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