Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Blog Post #3

Khan Academy is a site dedicated to helping students learn at their own pace. With the help of experts in different fields, Salman Khan creates videos aimed at teaching students new material while allowing them to stop, rewind, and repeat as many times as necessary to understand the material. Not to expound too much on information already known about Khan Academy, I will discuss some benefits and potentially downfalls of the system as seen by me and others.

Khan Academy is very useful for many students that want to learn new material but just cannot grasp what is being taught in a traditional classroom. It is also useful for individuals wanting to learn more about a subject in which they did not study during their school years. Lastly, I would say that it is useful for those that want to possibly brush up on former skills in subjects like, Math, Physics, and Economics.

Khan Academy has been controlled by Sal Khan since its inception but as the site has grown, he has recruited and received help from several people, like President and COO Shantanu. While I am sure Sal still controls everything that is released on his site, he needed the help and has thus received it in big ways. Not only was Sal brilliant enough to develop such a site based on demand from YouTube viewers (this implied that he had a great understanding of economics), he was smart enough to get expert help and opinions to help develop and make his site even more of a success.

Now, reading above, you would probably believe that I am all for Khan Academy but wait a minute. I am just stating the facts (well, mostly). Khan Academy has many supporters, like billionaire entrepreneur Bill Gates and some teachers in the Los Altos school district. Gates has even gone on to make comments like “It’s just super-impressive that Sal explains stuff so well,” Gates says. “The fact that one guy can do so many subjects is pretty amazing.” (Thompson, 2011) It looks very impressive to be supported by such a successful entrepreneur but is it enough to convince everyone this is the new way of learning? Also, isn’t it in Gates’ best interest to promote Khan Academy if he wants to make such a large investment in a business? While this comment was probably released before the investment was made, it still looks good for all of the Microsoft shareholders, thus reaffirming Gates’ ability to make financially prudent decisions in a struggling, yet rising economy. You also have supporters like Google, but isn’t Google looking for ways to advance their portfolio and take over the digital world? This is definitely not a bad move for them. In fact, it may have been one of the best investments they have ever made. Again, rest-assured I am not being an avid supporter of Khan Academy; I am just writing a critical review of this “educational tool” and providing differing scenarios of why some might support such a rising giant in the information age.

Picture of Khan Academy cube shooting at Star Wars ship that says critical thouhgt

So let’s move on to those that may have a differing opinion of just how useful Khan Academy is. “…the Khan Academy offers video lectures that promote rote learning.” (Miklasz, 2012) is just one example stated in an online article of how Khan Academy is no different than what has been taught in the past. Critics have claimed that Khan Academy like the traditional educational system teaches rote learning and doesn’t give students the opportunity to experience what they are learning. Many education experts also believe this but Gary Stager has gone on to state, “The videos and software modules, he contends, are just a high tech version of that most hoary of teaching techniques—lecturing and drilling. Schools have become “joyless test-prep factories,” he says, and Khan Academy caters to this dismal trend.” (Thompson, 2011) While, to me, this seems like an unjustifiable overstatement of what Khan’s intentions are, it is understandable. Teachers have long been threatened by technology taking over their positions and while this still involves a human (somewhat), it is able to reach millions in seconds and teachers are limited to 20 – 30 students at a time. Of course they should be worried.

What I haven’t found in my research is a lot of parents that have had problems with Khan Academy and this basically falls on the lap of the failing school districts our children have been forced to attend. When you read articles like Thompson’s and see that 10 year olds are learning trigonometry, although likely an exception to the norm, why would parents be disappointed with Khan Academy. Parents want the best for their child and if this means sitting down and watching a video and learning from it, most parents would be all for it. For many parents, these are things that they can’t help their children with and having a tool at your fingertips that can do what you can’t and do it successfully; they would be in love with it.

Picture of cat and dog dressed in USA attire holding a USA snowboard that says CoolMath.com
Knowing that this post could easily get out of hand and run on forever, I will now introduce more of my beliefs about the Academy as one that will be a future educator. I personally don’t have a problem with the system if it is used in the correct manner. Of course a video, or several videos, cannot replace a living, breathing, teacher. What it can do, however, is be used as a resource when the teacher doesn’t have all of the answers. No one knows everything about everything so and no one knows the best way to teach all. If they did, this controversy would not exist today. So, as a teacher (knowing that Khan Academy isn’t going away), it is our responsibility to be on our feet and teaching children the best way we can and offering up, as assistance, the use of tools like Khan Academy and CoolMath. These resources can be threatening but also very useful if used wisely. I, for one, will not be afraid to direct a student to Khan Academy if they are not getting what I am trying to say, but I will also not guarantee that they will understand even if the information is presented on Khan Academy.

A problem that I have with Khan Academy, being a math teacher, is that several times there are different ways to come to the same conclusion. If the answer is right and the method will always work, I say go for it. But Khan Academy teaches one method and another site will teach another method and the teacher will teach another method. But wait, the tutor might teach another method. Many think of math as black and white when it clearly is not. The answers are right or wrong but the avenue to get to the answer varies by person. So, when students have questions, who will they go to for the answers? The videos can only provide so much but a teacher can provide answer after answer after answer and if they don’t have the answer, can direct the student where to go to find the answer.

Also, it gives instantaneous feedback about what you get right or wrong, but it also provides hints which show how to come to an answer. While this should be a good thing, students may click on all of the hints and the last hint basically just shows the answer. While I wish students would pay attention to the hints and learn from them. I believe they may just do this to get the answer and then no learning is taking place. Also, after they click on one hint, they don’t get credit for getting the question right anyway, so one could say it was counterproductive. Students may not know exactly how to do it and just need a push to get started. Should they be penalized for getting one hint? I don’t think so but again, it is not my site.

One key that math teachers have incorporated is the possibility of partial credit if you show your work. This makes students try by pulling from their knowledge bank what they know and using that to answer new questions. Khan Academy doesn’t require this which means it should only be used as a supplement rather than a teaching tool for students.

Picture of 10 year old Matthew Carpenter at his computer on KhanAcademy.org learn trigonometry problems
Finally, I would like to say that I do like the ways that those dedicated students are able to learn as much as they want on Khan Academy. I don’t believe we should hold any student back. Let the students learn. They are at an age when their brain is like a sponge and we shouldn’t hold them back because in our minds they shouldn’t be there yet. As teachers, we should be promoting the advancement of all students and encouraging them to succeed.

How Khan Academy Is Changing the Rules of Education, Clive Thompson, Wired Magazine, August 2011
The Khan Academy Controversy, Kevin Miklasz, Iridescent, September 14, 2012


  1. You have written a very thorough article Ramsey. As a former math teacher and mother of a 12 year old in pre-algebra, I completely understand your comments about Khan Academy teaching only one method to reach a solution. When tutoring my son, I always ask him to show me how his teacher worked the problem. Nine times out of ten, I would have shown him a different route, and sometimes do if he is struggling. The key with Khan Academy is using it, as you stated, as a resource. Keep the toolbox open for rotating the tools in and out!
    Lynn Gartman

  2. Your thoughts of Khan Academy fall in line with mine after having read reviews of both proponents and critics. Many of the critics feel the videos lack structure and pedagogy, but yet give credit for the instructional videos being useful as a resource. Like yourself, I agree the resources should be used to supplement content, provide extra practice, or even provide alternate methods for arriving at a solution, but not as an isolated tool for understanding content. I can see where clicking on hints just to arrive at the answer might subtract from what a user could learn, but I feel the hints would be helpful for students who are very reluctant to learn math, especially younger students. Have you created a personal profile on the site, and have you used the site before this assignment? If so, did you use it for your own personal benefit, or to help students? Good job formulating your thoughts!

    1. Hi Angel

      Yes, I used Khan Academy before personally as a refresher for the Math Praxis but the level of content was much lower than what I needed so it wasn't very useful for me. I haven't created a personal profile yet and am not ready to just yet. I'm still feeling it out. Thank you for the comment. I know the post was long but I try to be thorough.

  3. "Also, isn’t it in Gates’ best interest to promote Khan Academy if he wants to make such a large investment in a business?...it still looks good for all of the Microsoft shareholders, ..." The Academy is non-profit. Gates made a large contribution rather than an investment to seek some personal benefit. He did it with his personal fortune, not with the resources of Microsoft.

    "The videos can only provide so much but a teacher can provide answer after answer after answer and if they don’t have the answer, can direct the student where to go to find the answer. " Isn't it better to teach how to find the answer rather than to "provide" the answer?

    Interesting. Thorough.

    1. Dr. Strange

      I realize that Bill Gates contributed to Khan Academy with his own resources. But to me it seemed like an investment because his children were using Khan Academy. You contribute to ideas, products, visions that make sense to you and this did for him as it was a resource for the people he loved. My thought process in mentioning it though was to show that Gates was still a wise investor, thus reaffirming his position at the top of Microsoft.

      As far as the videos, I agree they should be used as a resource and if the teacher can direct the students where to go to find the answer and that is where they direct them, that is excellent. They are using Khan Academy as it is intended to be used. My point in that paragraph was when people are using Khan Academy in place of the teacher and they go over the videos time and time again and still don't get it, they are lost. If they don't have someone (a teacher) that can direct them to other resources, a lot of people just stay confused. The key is to teach the students early how to search out and find information for themselves instead of them just depending on you. The teacher should be a person that validates information obtained as well as be a provider of new ideas. They should not give all of the answers because then the students are learning to depend on that instead of learning the material.