A lot of hullabaloo has been made recently about the Khan Academy. Teachers getting on board the “flipped” classroom movement are using Salman Khan’s videos as homework for their students, certain news outlets and education think tanks claim that Khan is “reinventing” education, and the Khan academy has garnered the support from one of the largest proponents of education reform in the world, Bill Gates. Audiences cheer when Salman Khan speaks, students and parents extol the benefit of having access to a 24/7 tutor, and the Khan Academy itself claims that anyone can now have a “world-class education”.
Needless to say, I have a few problems with this. Besides the borg-like precision of the educational videos hosted by Khan Academy, and the alacrity with which educators have been trumpeting Khan’s success in the classroom, there is a growing push back from educators willing to take a stand, revealing how Khan Academy short circuits critical thought, arguably something that is in short supply in both our classrooms and society today.
I’m certainly not the first to be questioning the value of Khan Academy. After reading Frank Noschese’s fantastic analysis of how the ear-drum deafening support of Khan Academy from the corporate world, thought leaders, and the media is a sad reflection of what people don’t understand about education in this country, I felt as though it might be beneficial to take a more balanced approach. To picture Khan Academy as the Borg Collective from the Star Trek universe is certainly a cheap shot (and a geeky one at that), but makes it easier to illustrate the shortcomings of hailing Khan Academy as a force here to
dominate save education. Then again, as a participant of the “hive mind”, there are some benefits from being a part of the collective that aren’t immediately obvious.
Technological Prowess Robs Us of Our Individuality
In much the same way that the Borg methodically assimilate entire planets, eliminating distinctness and augmenting their drones with inhuman cybernetic implants in order to function at peak efficiency as a part of the collective, the Khan Academy assimilates learners with a one size fits all methodology of instruction greatly leveraged by our ever growing advances in technology. Yes, the ability to broadcast video to most corners of the Earth today is an amazing feat, and a powerful way to bring learning resources to millions that would otherwise go without, allowing anyone to be a part of a “world class” learning environment. But when we applaud the use of that technology to deliver the most basic and low level thinking experiences to those individuals, we run the risk of losing what makes us unique; inquisitive, and individual thought. We become drones, focusing on “getting” to the next level of achievement without appreciating the process of scaffolding, trial and error, and authentic learning that comes from the application of thought, reasoning, and the testing of our own hypothesis and theorems.
Every single video created for Khan Academy is created by one individual, one mind, and provides what you would expect from someone who hasn’t been formally trained in educational practices; one understanding, one singular route to achievement. Khan’s method is not teaching, Khan’s method is showing you the answers, or rather, the one answer, and the one way to achieve it. You will not be required to think, you will not be asked to reflect, you will receive lecture, and you will be assimilated. The luring addiction of media, learning via long distance, and group-thought promises all the answers in the shortest amount of time. The power of YouTube has been now harnessed to replicate the “oldest”, and most dehumanizing form of education; sit and get, drill and kill, sage on the stage. The learning process is no longer important, just the ability to memorize what the teacher is imparting to you. Something all good robots are capable of doing.
Your Pre-existing Knowledge is Useless
In the fictional Star Trek universe, the Borg coldly chant “resistance is futile” in a monotonous tone as they tear apart innocent star ships, lay waste to countless worlds, all while shrugging off the the pathetic attempts of their victims to resist assimilation or destruction. They’re highly advanced technology makes they nearly impervious to any attack; they are so confident in their technological superiority that they willing allow “lesser” species to beam over and explore the Borg vessel unimpeded. Unless a species can prove themselves as a physical threat there’s no need to waste any more than the minimal effort it might require to assimilate a star ship full of future drones. In other words, if you’re not strong enough to stand up to the Borg in a fight, they’d just assume ignore your efforts to stop them from turning you and your loved ones into their cyborg brethren.
It is elements of this same arrogance that madden me to no end when reading, exploring, and watching videos on the Khan Academy website. Besides that fact that all of the video lectures are produced by one individual, Salman Khan, there seems to be no acknowledgement that a learner’s pre-existing knowledge might be of any use at all to them. Any teacher who was formally trained in the late 90s and beyond can tell you that activating a student’s prior knowledge, and attempting to scaffold new material and concepts on that knowledge is an imperative in modern educational thought. There are thousands of papers, articles, and studies showing that the ability to build on what the learner already knows has huge dividends. While we must give credit to Khan Academy for recognizing that students must follow a clear learning roadmap, building upon previously mastered subjects, the videos do nothing to question how sound that previous understanding is, nor can they be tailored to learners who have had unique real world experiences with the content about to be taught. Both the Borg and Khan are only interested in looking in one direction, constantly moving forward. Sure, you can always go back and rewatch the Khan videos over and over again until you’ve memorized the content well enough to pass the test, but what have you done to connect what you’ve watched to what you know about how the real world works.
The Borg did not understand this, and the Enterprise’s ingenious crew was able to capitalize on it. They were able to “reach” one of the members of the Borg collective after he had become separated from the hive-mind, and awaken within him a sense of individuality. By capitalizing on his own unique experiences while with the humans, this individual Borg began to exhibit signs of individual understanding, awareness, and ultimately the enlightenment of being able to approach the world based on his own intuition and experiences, rather than rely on the subroutines and the Borg collective programming. This individual was reintroduced to the collective, thus causing a chain reaction of “individuality” to spread based on his individualy unique experience. While the Khan Academy does not actively ignore a learner’s pre-existing knowledge, it cannot hope to access it via videos, as they are a one way medium.
Sitting passively, consuming video, there is no way for the students’ pre-existing knowledge to be accessed, thus tapping into that individual experience. Sure, there may be some common experiences that Khan can tap into (e.g. everyone can remember working on number sense by practicing making change in grade school), but the coincidence of millions of learners having the same experience as Khan is highly unlikely, which means there is no way to systemically scaffold new learning upon what Khan Academy learners already know. You quickly come to the realization that Khan Academy is not for every learner, but rather the self-motivated learner; someone aware enough of their own educational needs that they can connect what the videos offer to what they already understand about a topic, possibly filling in gaps along the way.
Learners that haven’t been properly assessed for prior understanding may quickly find themselves memorizing new facts, theories, and mathematical processes with out the greater understanding of how it applies to what they should have known previously. The connections they make to their own personal experiences are limited, and often weak, allowing their new understanding to easily be undermined and forgotten, and thus the collective gains fall apart when applied to real world situations. A side effect is that you’re left with learners looking for the next educational “road sign” pointing them in the direction they need to go, rather than relying on their own self intuition and previous experience to guide them. It’s more difficult for them to decode, analyze, and process unknown problems or information.
Strength in Numbers
In bringing to a close this critique (and nerdy comparison), it’s important to note that it would be not just poor practice, but a poor analysis for any educator to simply choose one side of an issue or tool and pass judgement on it based solely on that one-sided argument. Yes, the Borg are a single-minded force erasing the individuality of any beings they come into contact with, conscripting them to become more drones in the greater collective, but there’s some value to their hostile existence. All of the members of the collective work together to benefit the larger community. They have been able to achieve a technological prowess unmatched in the Star Trek universe, giving them a seemingly limitless ability to adapt and learn.
Khan Academy provides an equally massive community of learners with a common shared experience, an important function of education that is
almost always often overlooked by many outside of the educational world. Yes, a school’s primary duty is to educate students, but just as important is the ability to assimilate and acculturate each new generation of youth, to give them a firm understanding of how our society functions, and pass on important traditions and mores of the larger community. Perhaps acculturate is too harsh of a word, but a large part of a formal education is to impart upon students that no matter what they learn, and no matter how they express themselves, there are certain norms that society expects them to adhere to, and when we have communal or shared experiences, it helps provide everyone with similar schema and prior knowledge as they attempt to tackle problems that will affect the larger community. If you have a common goal of building a new bridge over a canyon to help connect community A with community B, you want the team of engineers working on the project to have a common understanding of physics, geology, and mathematics. If only one member of the group has the necessary skills to complete the project, it will be much more difficult to achieve anything close to the Borg-like efficiency of collaboration and team work.
What the Khan Academy lacks in providing a truly authentic educational experience based on strong educational foundations of accessing prior knowledge, taking into account a learner’s individual needs, and providing authentic opportunities to build knowledge rather than memorize facts, it attempts to make up with in providing a common foundational base and engaging media. My take away from this is that Khan Academy will serve best those learners who are self-motivated, are able to provide an intrinsic passion for reaching the next achievement rung, and have the ability to “sit and get” just the material they need, and then get on to larger problems. Those learners who may struggle with constructing new knowledge may find the resources provided by Khan Academy too frustrating, or simply come to rely on it purely for the rote memorization of single use application.
Not everyone aboard the star ship Enterprise was able to resist being assimilated by the Borg, and not all learners achieve a critical understanding of their studies. However, if you simply abandon all critical thought in favor of the one-size-fits all hive mentality of Khan Academy it will be much more difficult for future generations to address the problems they will face.
P.S. If you were impressed that I was able to get through this entire analogy between the Khan Academy and Star Trek without actually mentioning one of the series’ titular enemies (Khan Noonien Singh), then that makes two of us!
P.P.S. If you would like to challenge my analogy, or provide an even geekier one, PLEASE DO! This particular Borg related analogy was a challenge from a reader, and thus I’ve probably compromised all sorts of effective and rational educational and logical thought. But it sure was fun to write!
image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/upyernoz/4537416/
image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mwichary/2908231527/