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



By 06/13/2011

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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.

– Bryan Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel




Comment on this article
  • marty says:

    Take a look as http://www.sophia.org

  • APatentLawyer says:

    I don’t think you understand Khan’s Academy

    Under your plan, a portion of the Algebra class room hour is spent in front of computer.

    Under Khan’s plan, that *entire* hour is spent with the teacher going from student to student and teaching one on one.

    Furthermore, the student gets to spend as much time as they want with the lecture *at home* not in class.

    whole hour >>> portion of hour.

    There are plenty of problems with Khan’s idea, and seemingly most of his critics don’t fully understand everything about his program – but taking teachers (average or great) out of the lecture game is a benefit of the system, not a detriment.

  • Bryan C. Hassel says:

    Having the whole hour for the teacher to go one-on-one sounds great, if all the students truly view and digest the Khan videos at home. But 39% of high school students do NO homework now, and most do an hour or less across all subjects. Not to mention that many families lack the technology view Khan at home. If a school can swing an all-students-all-at-home use of Khan, super. But most schools will need to figure out to integrate resources like this into their school days as well.

  • Emily Ayscue Hassel says:

    Just to be clear, we Hassels love Khan Academy and two of our four children have used the website (the other two are in preschool)! For motivated students with online connection, it’s terrific.

    But the facts about all of America’s children, as well as teachers, are important to consider:

    –67% of high school students do less than an hour total per day of homework (39% do none at all). Maybe Khan will inspire those with high speed internet to do more! We hope so.

    –Meanwhile, about 20-25% of America’s teachers already produce excellent student learning progress, enough to close achievement gaps in a few years, with or without digital fare. The top quintile achieves three times the learning progress of the bottom quintile.

    Yet excellent teachers reach no more students and are paid no more than the worst teachers, because they must do the rote as well as personalized aspects of instruction (as well as all the administrative work, fully 40+% of their work time). A student’s time is a precious resource, but so is the time of these highly effective teachers. If we treat both as such, we’re likely to get the best outcomes. Using Khan for homework but not to extend the reach of excellent in-person teachers makes the same mistake as most reforms – failing to acknowledge the enormous differences among the people responsible for making sure the job gets done.

    Readers, you tell us: even if your kids are using Khan at night, which teachers do you want handling the personalized and enriched instruction time at school ? How would you like your child to have a 100% greater chance of having an excellent teacher? Khan and its peer services can be used to make it happen – for students who can/will flip homework and for those who cannot.

  • Frank Noschese says:

    Excerpts below from my series taking a critical view of Khan Academy: http://bit.ly/khancritic

    Ironically, Khan’s TED talk is in stark contrast to two previous TED talks:

    * Dan Meyer – Math Curriculum Makeover
    http://bit.ly/DanMeyerTED

    * Sir Ken Robinson – Do Schools Kill Creativity?
    http://bit.ly/SirKenTED

    According to Dan, today’s math curriculum is teaching students to expect (and excel at) paint-by-numbers classwork, robbing kids of a skill more important than solving problems: formulating them. How does Khan Academy foster problem posing and creativity?

    If your philosophy of education is sit-and-get, i.e., teaching is telling and learning is listening, then Khan Academy (and flipping) are more efficient than in-classroom lecturing.

    But why lecture at all? TRUE progressive educators, TRUE education visionaries and revolutionaries don’t want to do these things better. We want to DO BETTER THINGS.

    Rather than instructing students with Khan’s videos, teachers should be inspiring them to figure things out on their own and learn how to create their own knowledge by working together.

    For example, instead of relying on lectures and textbooks, Modeling Instruction in Physics emphasizes active student construction of conceptual and mathematical models in an interactive learning community. Students are engaged with simple scenarios to learn to model the physical world. In comparison to traditional instruction, Modeling is extremely effective — under expert modeling instruction high school students average more than two standard deviations higher on a standard instrument for assessing conceptual understanding of physics.

    Watch one Modeling class in action:
    http://bit.ly/ModelingPhysics

    In the clip, the teacher says, “I don’t lecture at all. Instead, I create experiences for the students either in the lab or puzzles and problems for them to solve and it’s up to them to try to figure that out.” I’ve often wondered why this type of teaching hasn’t gotten more attention in the media. Maybe because the teacher is using simple things like whiteboards and bowling balls rather than shiny iPads and SmartBoards?

    While Khan argues that his videos now eliminate “one-size-fits-all” education, his videos are exactly that. I tried finding Khan Academy videos for my students to use as references for studying, or to use as a tutorial when there’s a substitute teacher, but the physics ones aren’t very good. They don’t use a lot of the multiple representations that are so fundamental to learning. Concept development is minimal, and he unknowingly plays into student misconceptions. His videos do not align with proper Physics Education Research.

    Teachers improve via reading up on pedagogy and getting feedback from mentors & students. Where is Sal’s feedback? Where’s the pedagogy? The research that Khan chooses to ignore is summarized in this one book, now available as a free PDF: “How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom” http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=10126

  • Anne Clark says:

    I think all these ideas are worth exploring because there are so few educational interventions with statistically significant effects. I think it’s time for non-poor districts to start piloting these programs.

    I’m sure many people would think first to use such a program in a high% school lunch eligible school. So how about stepping up to the table and lobbying to have this trialed at your own kids school, with a gold standard accompanying study?

    I’m afraid the reaction would be strong – and negative. But if a higher income school demonstrated results, and the program was designed to succeed in many different school environments, it might have a chance of making an impact.

    I don’t think we have enough great math teachers – and I think we need to get outside-the-box when looking for solutions. Thanks for presenting a possibility.

  • APatentLawyer says:

    I’m not going to address the issues of access and the issue of actually doing the homework, as those issues weren’t presented in the main article.

    A thought experiment.

    Let’s assume a high school of average size. My HS had 450 students in our class, about 1800-2000 in the entire school.

    The ninth grade class has 500 students.
    Every ninth grader takes algebra.
    There are 5 algebra teachers.
    All 5 classes are held every hour on the hour.
    Each Algebra teacher teaches 5 classes of 20 students.
    Each class is about 50 minutes.
    1 of the 5 algebra teachers is extraordinary.
    The other 4 are average educators.

    Under your plan, 1 teacher would visit 25 classes and interact with 500 students.

    Period #1 – 10 minutes in class A, in class B, in class C, in class D, and in class E.

    Period #2 – 10 minutes in class A, in class B, in class C, in class D, and in class E

    …et cetera.

    10 minutes of in-person instruction divided by 20 people?

    That’s about 30 seconds per student. But even if you don’t divide, 10 minutes in a classroom of 20 as a rule might not be long enough for the best teachers to find the students who need the most help, and then give them the help in the time alotted.

    Indeed, what often makes a great teacher isn’t quick diagnosis of the student’s issue coupled with a perfect explanation – but really seeing students over time and being able to identify and differentiate how different minds learn different concepts. Maybe there are some general skills, but often times there are very particular things that you do for a particular student that you won’t do again. It’s not an assembly line.

    Now Under the typical school, format, 10 minute lecture, 40 minutes of instruction, each student gets 2 minutes. And Under Khan’s system, no lecture, 50 minutes, every student gets 2.5 minutes with their instructor, who may or may not be in the top quintile of instructors.

    Play with the #’s all you want.

    Change the # of great teachers, change the class size, change the # of classes, you’re not going to get a satisfactory amount of time for a student with an excellent in-person instructor.

    The only time you see really good #’s in this respect are with 1) very expensive private/boarding schools, 2) home schooling.

    If you really think about Khan’s Academy, you realize that
    - he’s not the best lecturer, and should be replaced by expert teachers (not experts) in the various fields.
    - the ppl who can watch a lecture on Euler equations, are different because they were looking for Euler equations on youtube.

    But aside from that, what Khan really wants to do is to take the power away from the tyranny of excellent teachers and teachers generally.

    An excellent teacher might be able to cover more material quickly, but that teacher’s reach will always be limited. There’s only so much you can do in one day. Even with the scheduling you suggest, there’s simply not enough time. Throw in the burn out factor for great teachers and the professional dis-enfranchisement of all but the best of teachers, and you’ve got serious human resource issues to deal with.

    The problem with Khan is the problem with every education reform. You hint at it above with your 39% statitistic.

    We can control school. We can build new places, renovate old ones. We can choose who we hire and who we promote. We can control the curriculum and class size. We can control the length of the day and the length of the year.

    But what happens when children leave the school.

    Not all of the learning can take place in school.

    A lot of it, dare I say most of it, has to be done away from school. It has to be done by the student. And I think that has to start at very early ages, ages where self control and perserverance aren’t particularly prevalent in every child.

    Ultimately the student has to have the motivation to sit there and do the sentence diagramming, memorize the spelling words, write the book report, finish the essay or solve for X.

  • Frank Noschese says:

    I have research showing this works no matter what the SES of the student body:

    Findings of the Modeling Workshop Project (1994-00)
    http://modeling.asu.edu/R&E/ModelingWorkshopFindings.pdf

    This is one section in the Final Report submitted to the National Science Foundation in fall 2000 for the Teacher Enhancement grant entitled Modeling Instruction in High School Physics. David Hestenes, Professor of Physics at Arizona State University, was Principal Investigator.

    Anyone interested in learning modeling can attend any one of the workshops nationwide:

    http://modeling.asu.edu/MW_nation.html

  • Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan Hassel says:

    Great comments! Thanks to all.

    No doubt, figuring out how to reach more students with great teachers by reorganizing schedules/roles and integrating digital learning presents all kinds of challenges! Do remember that the top quartile of teachers already achieve high-growth learning with students despite the personal obstacles that so many students face.

    Our team with the help of proven excellent teachers will be developing and publishing (for free) a host of potential great-teacher reach extension models for schools to consider over the coming year — as well as sharing more about the ones already being implemented. There are many possibilities to reach more students with great teachers, but each model will have limits based on teacher time, student time, technology access, facilities, cost and the policy environment.

    We do suspect that in secondary schools keeping blocks of time intact makes sense. Students could alternate days for digital class periods and in-person periods for each reach-extended subject, rather than splitting class periods in half. That’s just one option. In addition, 50% reach extension rather than 100% at the secondary level may achieve better outcomes, by limiting each teachers’ student load and leaving half of the freed teacher time for monitoring student work and personalized follow-up. Also, some subjects would not be ripe for reach extension.

    Stay tuned! We’ll keep sharing more and asking for feedback soon.

    –The Hassels

  • Deborah J. Smith says:

    Dear Hassels,

    Thank you so much for your research contributions to curriculum and instruction. I am not yet well read on your research, however, this article has piqued my interest.

    I would like to know your feedback on my initial reaction to the idea of a lab monitor charged with the viewing and student absorption of Khan’s videos:
    As a 3x teacher, I feel fairly certain that the carefully chosen and precisely delivered lesson intro, review, dierct instruction, guided practice, and independent or cooperative activity that involves tasks and strategies that fit my student’s needs coupled with constant formative assessments are the fruits of my 3x qualities. Am I correct in thinking that under the lab monitor model I would be “Touching” my students only during my students’ application of a lesson content? I feel as though I would not be as successful teaching my students if I had not observed their process of lesson absorption. I am am weary about the idea of a lab monitor ensuring that notes were taken properly during the direct instruction and that guided practice sessions were effective. 3x teachers know that there must have been a “chink” in the chain between intro, review, and direct instruction if guided practice sessions are ineffective. Can you please speak to my concerns and point me in the direction of one of your studies that relates to this idea?

    With gratitude,
    Deborah J. Smith
    Curriculum Resource Teacher

  • Bryan Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel says:

    Thanks for this great question. We don’t mean to convey that teachers using these models should rely on digital instruction to do 100% of, as you put it, “lesson intro, review, direct instruction, & guided practice.” Instead, you can think of digital learning as providing either the first pass at that kind of work for students or follow-up reminders after a teacher’s initial lesson. Not every student will get it based on that first pass – as you say, there will be “chinks in the chain”–whether that first pass is digital or teacher-led. But the fact that students are spending part of their day in digital learning frees the time of the excellent live teacher. She can use that time to focus on those chinks, as well as on application and higher-order learning. And she can do so with more students because she’s spending less time on repeating basic lessons.

    For this to work well, teachers still need considerable time with students, and especially with students encountering a lot of those chinks. Most of the schools we see using blended learning well, therefore, have students learning digitally for just a portion of the day, perhaps an hour or so at elementary level and two at secondary level, on average. That’s just about 25 percent of core subject time, not 25 percent of the whole day. Time with teachers or working with peers still dominates students’ school-days. That gives great teachers the time they need to do the work you described so eloquently in your comment, which is just what more students need. Possibly the amount of digital time can rise for some students when technology improves, but for now even this hour or two total per day lets teachers reach more students and add more planning time — if schools design it that way.

  • Seppo Jussila says:

    Very interesting article above on Khan Academy and the comments with all pros and cons of the Khan Academy type of teaching.
    In Sweden we have today big problems with school education that started already some 30 years ago, when the social democratic government having the power destroyed the school. They introduced a system where the Power was taken from the teachers, letting the students decide on everything. The school is now in a kind of nebulous anarchy with scores (PISA) lower than those of many underdeveloped countries. (Sweden used to have rather high scores before)
    Myself, I am not a teacher. However I am very interested in the subject matter.
    Today’s right wing government of Sweden have to solve the problem during the next 12 months. They have to have a good plan, at least. Otherwise we will again have social democratic government in this country. School education is now such an important topic in Sweden.
    The plan is now to extend the compulsory school attendance from nine to ten years. This is very difficult because of the lack of teachers and funding, too.
    I feel that the only way to improve the school is to utilize the best teachers in the country that are able to make the best lessions which then can be reused by the lower skilled teachers. The main task for these lower skilled people would however be that of individual guidance during the school hours.
    For many students this way of teaching (e.g. type of Khan Academy) could open much better and faster opportunities for learning than the normal school education is giving. However a good combination of self studies at home, teaching at school, home work, individual guiding for some some students , tests and follow-up are needed.
    The very big problem are the students themselves. They have all too many interests beside the school. There is no discipline during the lectures. Students playing games, shouting and yelling, quarrelling, sending text messages, using their phones with all this entertainment available disturbing the students trying to learn something. How should we solve this problem? Do you think that it can also be solved by engaging the best teachers? Do they have solutions for this problem? The parents should be motivating their children but I no longer believe that they are able to do it. Instead, I feel , the parents are all dreaming about lucrative sport or entertainer careers for their children.

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