Sal Kahn on his famous online academy

If you listen to folks such as Bill Gates and Al Gore and Carlos Slim Helu talk about Salman Khan, it would be understandable if you thought that the founder of the online Khan Academy is an education miracle worker.

Here are just a few of the quotes on Amazon.com on the page praising Khan’s latest book, “The One World School House: Education Reimagined.

Gore: Since its founding in 2006, Sal Khan’s project — the Khan academy — has revolutionized our thinking on the potential and promise of unfettered, open-access online education.

Gates: The way Khan portrays the concept of education and the mechanism of learning is revolutionary.

Is it really? Clearly Khan has become the vessel for many reformers’ hopes and dreams about how to educate the masses. How Khan sees himself and his academy — which had, its website says, delivered lessons to 239,373,163 students when I last looked on Tuesday — is a more complicated matter.

The Khan Academy is a website that offers free video lessons in math, science and other subjects, such as art history, as well as interactive activities and assessments. Growing out of his efforts to help tutor his cousin in math, the academy now has more than 4,000 videos in a variety of subjects. Teachers use the videos in their classroom; students use them at home as a supplement to their teacher’s lesson. Some folks love the videos, others say they aren’t helpful, and Kahn says he knows they won’t work for everyone. Some mathematicians say that some are mathematically flawed, while others say they aren’t.

“The One World School House” clearly indicates that he believes he is offering a vision of a new way to educate students. The flap of the book reads: “A free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere: this is the goal of the Khan Academy, a passion project that grew from an ex-engineer and hedge funder’s online tutoring session with his niece, who was struggling with algebra, into a worldwide phenomenon.”

The Khan Academy website says: The Khan Academy is an organization on a mission. We’re a not-for-profit with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere. All of the site’s resources are available to anyone. It doesn’t matter if you are a student, teacher, home-schooler, principal, adult returning to the classroom after 20 years, or a friendly alien just trying to get a leg up in earthly biology. The Khan Academy’s materials and resources are available to you completely free of charge. That is a pretty bold goal.

Yet in his book and in conversation he notes that nothing that he is advocating — ending teacher lecturing, using mastery learning, expanding learning time, incorporating technology as an essential part of education, eliminating letter grades — is new or original to him.

And while there is a public perception of the Khan Academy as being a virtual school, Khan said in an interview: “We will never be a 100 percent complete education.”

“For my kids,” he said, ” I see it only as a tool.” And, he said that he expects his children to go to a traditional brick-and-mortar where they will get a holistic education.

Furthermore, he takes positions in his book that contradict the world view of some of his financial backers’ forays into school reform. Take Gates, for instance Gates, through his foundation, has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in teacher evaluation systems that use student standardized test scores in an important way to assess a teacher’s effectiveness.

In the book and in conversation, Khan says that standardized testing is terribly overused in public education. “Suffice it to say that our over-reliance on testing is based largely on habit, wishful thinking, and leaps of faith.”

Given that the Gates Foundation is the biggest backer of the Khan Academy (which when we talked, had  36 employees, up from one — Khan himself — two years ago), I asked Khan if he ever discussed this with Gates. In the five or six conversations he’s had with Gates, Khan said, he hasn’t, and he “doesn’t have specifics” about what the foundation is doing in terms of funding school reform.

Should he? It’s presumably hard for somehow who is called a revolutionary to tell acolytes to stop saying it, especially when many of them provide funding to pursue the so-called revolution.

Here are some of the things he said that seem to bump against the public perception of Khan and his academy.

* His videos make teachers more important not less, though his promotion of them, though his view about who should be teaching is controversial. As someone who entered the world of education without teaching or curriculum design credentials, Khan is not a believer in the traditional licensing of teachers.

It is important, he said, for educators to “have some deep understanding or connect with the subject matter.” Someone with a deep understanding of geometry is, then, qualified to teach the subject. Should these people also, I asked, have knowledge about how to effectively teach and address the needs of children with learn differently? “That too,” he said in the interview, and noted that he has many teachers and people with a deep understanding of curriculum working on his team.

Regarding the licensing of teachers, he wrote in a follow-up email: “On licensing, I think it is up to the people running the school to decide what credentials/licensing best meets their needs.  Every school is different and serves different populations.”

* The Khan Academy is in the “very early stages” of where he wants to go. He said that he told the Khan Academy board that he would like to reach 100 million people worldwide. A study with the Gates Foundation (one of his funders) is now underway that is supposed to measure the effectiveness of his videos.

* New technology has given us an “opportunity to rethink the [school] model we inherited from the Prussians 200 years ago.”

* The United States is “unlikely to decline like everyone is afraid of” because it is still the place where entrepreneurship and creativity are rewarded. “Kids in Singapore who are creative want to come to the United States,” he said.

* International comparisons of student achievement should be looked at but not be a cause for alarm. Comparisons between the United States and small countries aren’t fair, he said; Singapore is a city state and Finland is a homogenous country of 5 million people, while the United States is a large diverse country.

The latest priorities of the academy, he wrote in an email, are:

1. Internationalizing the site (priority on Spanish and Portuguese)
2. Making the site experience more coherent and rethinking much of the navigation (including how students progress through topics).  Part of this will be to make it gel better with the Common Core State Standards.
3. Trying to make our exercises better at measuring where a student is and helping them retain knowledge.
4. Ways to make the videos easier for teachers to use.

Khan’s videos have value to a lot of people, and his desire to reach as many people as he can in impoverished areas of India and other countries is laudable. But technology is only one tool necessary for a real educational revolution, and the hype around Khan suggests a continuing need by many Americans to find “the right formula” or the silver bullet that will fix what ails us. There isn’t one.

How did Khan get to be regarded as the savior of education?

According to Khan, he was just at the right place at the right time.

And he is a really excellent marketer.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · February 20, 2013