Friday, July 22, 2011

Sal Khan and Online Teaching

Dan Allosso

For those who don’t recognize his name, Sal Khan is the founder and faculty of Khan Academy, which offers over 2,400 educational videos on the web, free of charge. Khan’s goal is to educate the world.
He’s been featured on PBS’s News Hour, he’s on Forbes list of “Names You Need to Know,” he’s spoken at TED and at the end of his talk Bill Gates came up on stage to say how cool he thought Khan was.

In the TED Talk clip (at about 2:50), Sal Khan tells the story of how he began tutoring his cousins, and putting “refresher” talks on YouTube for them to look at when he wasn’t around. The cousins preferred the videos to the tutoring, and Khan realized the reason was that they could go over them at their own pace, without the pressure of a teacher looking at them. He extended this idea to the classroom, and suggested teachers use the videos as “homework,” and then follow up in class. Teachers become less involved in lecturing and more involved in mentoring, students get instruction that moves at their pace and requires them to master a concept before they move on (Khan says even smart students get to the end of traditional curricula with a “swiss-cheese” knowledge of a subject, which can cause problems for them later), and schools can focus less on teacher-student ratios, and more on meaningful interaction between teachers and students.

I think this is insanely cool. So does Bill Gates, and you can see what he says about it at the end of the TED Talk, and also in the clip from The Gates Notes on the Khan Academy homepage. Bill especially likes the fact that Khan “has taken all this material, and broken it down into little 12-minute lectures.” Of course I like this, because I’m doing the same thing with my online American Environmental History program. But more than that, I think it’s an editing process that helps you focus on what is really important in a topic.

Well okay, you may be thinking, but the Khan Academy format is better suited to some kinds of learning. Sure it is, but let’s not kid ourselves that there’s none of that kind of learning in what we do as history teachers. Even at the college level. Yes, he’s got a lot more math up there than he does history. And yes, I think that’s partly because history is much more driven by interpretation—it’s not just a careful accumulation of brick-like facts that get stacked one on another until you’ve built a wall (with apologies to Arthur Marwick). But the idea of turning lectures and discussions/reflections upside-down is exciting!

There’s been a lot of recent talk here and throughout the history blogosphere (for example) about the positive and negative possibilities of online education. I think Khan Academy is worth looking at carefully, and keeping a sharp eye on.


Lisa Clark Diller said...

Oh dear. You've made some good points. I hate having to think I might really have to come to grips with online learning. But it is true. We need to think about how this is done well and use those best practices as models. Maybe an old dog can learn new tricks.

Unknown said...

I find it very exciting. But I have to remind myself, I'm on the outside, looking in.