learning, online lectures, and deprofessionalization

Some observers and donors (including The Gates Foundation) have gotten all breathless over the video-and-software products of the Khan Academy, whose stated mission is “changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education to anyone anywhere”.

Not “free lessons” or “free instructional videos” or “free supplemental help”; Khan Academy is providing “a free world-class education”. There appears to have been a transition somewhere along the line from ‘a tool for studying and learning’ to ‘the tool for studying and learning’.

The educational media market is plagued by cases of apparent ignorance or complete disregard of the fundamental components of the pedagogy and developmental stages that the materials are supposed to “support” or “be based upon”. Developmental science and pediatrics agree that children under two should not watch or be provided with screen media, but the baby video market is still a thriving one; the same goes for early childhood screen media, which the same experts agree should be greatly limited for children over 2. But the market is so big that naming and shaming the producers of shoddy material is essentially a huge game of whack-a-mole.

Khan Academy’s materials are generally not described as shoddy, even by their detractors in education. What critics take issue with, from the standpoint of pedagogy, is the fact that Khan Academy’s format and content is not new; it’s essentially a repackaging, with digital drawing tools, of the same old stand-and-deliver, “answer chase” models. In that sense, Khan Academy is yet another example of ignorance in the educational media market, for, as the Mathalicious blog points out, the Khan Academy approach ignores the many decades of refinement of our understanding of human learning and development, in favor of a limited, if not discredited, notion of learning and teaching that cannot address the needs of individual learners or society.

The phrase “personalized learning” comes up over and over again in laudatory pieces about Khan Academy, but there is little evidence to support that characterization. It’s impossible for a recorded video lecture with diagnostic software to in any way adapt to fit an individual learner’s needs, as there is literally no feedback for the lecturer and limited feedback in essentially one modality for the learner. Without that potential for feedback and subsequent action, it’s pretty clear that “personalization” is just an empty marketing phrase, as feedback is an indispensable part of scaffolding to help students reach the zone of proximal development. One math educator’s blog post describing the results of his action research indicates that the Khan Academy materials neither motivated students nor provided sufficient challenge to students who were genuinely interested in the topics, with little proof that students achieved deep understanding or could transfer the concepts presented in the Khan Academy lessons to new problems and formats.

A lot of learning is making mistakes and figuring out why, and a lot of school is actually learning how to learn with other people around. But both are a lot less likely to happen if you’re watching a video and answering questions alone on a computer. Particularly in the case of younger children, students are still really learning how to learn and learning how to study when they go to school each day, and lecture followed by external assessment is not going to help them to learn how to study and learn as well as, say, engaging in movement and interaction with their (human) teachers and classmates while planning and executing a project. This is somewhat different for adults, as many get better at self-teaching over the course of their lives; even then, though, not every adult is a skilled autodidact, and adults generally still require an immediate social context to learn and study to greatest effect. Watching a video lesson on German noun declension and taking a diagnostic quiz does not have the same effect as interacting face-to-face with other people who are declining nouns in German (or who are learning to).

One of Khan Academy’s claims really stands out:

We’ve put a lot of energy into making sure that the Khan Academy empowers teachers by giving them access to the data they should’ve had for years. You’ll know instantly if a student is struggling in multiplying fractions…or if she hit a streak and is now far ahead of the class.

Although they may not previously have had constant access to it in digital form, this newly-liberated data is what organized teachers have always had access to, by means of observation, test and quiz scores, homework and project submissions, and discussion with students. And teachers (and students and parents) know that poor or high performance according to the quantified data — test and quiz scores, homework and project submissions — does not necessarily indicate whether a student understands the topic and can actually apply it in new contexts; a bored or tired student’s performance data can look a lot like that of a bewildered one. Much like any set of curricular assignments and assessments, this performance data indicates how well the student has completed the work and complied with the teacher’s directions, which involves much more than student comprehension of the material. This may appear to be a minor point, but discrepancy between perceived ability or comprehension and actual performance (the Khan Academy software-based data) is still a pretty big part of identifying individual student needs and determining how best to assist them. Performance data addresses only half of that discrepancy and, as any critic of high-stakes standardized testing will readily tell you, achievement data is insufficient for characterizing student learning and understanding.

Again, back to Khan Academy’s mission statement. If their nonprofit corporation’s work is truly needed to produce the lectures and diagnostic materials used in public school classrooms, then it would follow that the free education provided in those public school classrooms without their materials is insufficient (or at least not “world-class”). Khan Academy’s materials, produced by MBAs, computer programmers, and digital designers who appear to have little training in or understanding of human learning and development, is “world-class”; the materials and methods chosen by trained, licensed teachers are not. So “anyone, anywhere” can provide that “world-class education” to another person, regardless of any teaching experience derived over years of practice and study, and, as the Assailed Teacher points out, the Khan Academy approach is somehow universally applicable and effective across the entire range of local settings, even though there is nothing else in education that is.

One of the program’s best results, according to Khan Academy’s own developers, came with the inclusion of badges and point rewards for games and answers which, they claimed, increased student interest and achievement. But external rewards are pretty well known to be ineffective at promoting sustained study and intrinsic motivation in nearly all contexts, with deep learning particularly ill-served by the use of rewards. There are, broadly speaking, two possible interpretations of the developers’ findings:

1. Khan Academy’s materials and lessons are actually more akin to rote, uninteresting tasks, which are essentially the only situations in which external rewards are effective; or

2. Khan Academy’s developers don’t actually know about, much less understand, the large body of research on motivation, learning, and rewards, relying instead upon short-term performance data to assess both student progress and the developers’ own progress.

That brings us to what is really the main problem with the Khan Academy strategy: its assumptions, structure, and use strongly discount the role of the well-prepared, live teacher. In this respect, the timing for Khan Academy is perfect, as non-professional, non-unionized, and relatively unprepared teaching is the bread and butter of several education policies and teacher recruitment programs. Framing classroom teachers as facilitators of online content delivery or as proctors of computerized assessments makes it much easier to argue that they are not true professionals. As non-professionals, teachers wouldn’t deserve the status afforded to professionals in our society, and they certainly wouldn’t need thorough preservice preparation, good salaries and benefits, quality professional development opportunities, paid planning and collaboration time, or protection from arbitrary disciplinary action or dismissal. Wouldn’t free videos and software plus low-wage, low-job security employees make for great savings in public expenditures, at least until the developers find a way to monetize their free materials?

If most or all of what teachers are doing is helping kids with the videos that are helping the kids with their homework, why worry about their working conditions or professional fulfillment? And why worry about whether they are able to actually get to know their students, if the lecturer on the video can do just as well at delivering content? It’s so simple, anybody with a computer and online access to the Khan Academy can do it.

ADDENDUM (8/26/2012): Some substantive criticisms of the content of the math videos produced by Khan Academy appeared in the Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet” blog last month.

So, what do you think?

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