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Thu 6/16: Laughing at the superior intellect

June 16, 2011 Leave a comment

(+3 nerd points for those of you who get my Star Trek reference)

After watching the scorched earth campaign being conducted by Frank Noschese on his blog and on Twitter against Khan Academy, I thought that I might contribute my own two cents to the conversation, based on what I have seen thus far from the KA website and what I’ve managed to absorb from all the traffic on the web about it.

(Note: this post is not meant as a criticism, or even a direct response, to anything that Frank has been writing in the past few weeks. I’m a huge fan of Frank’s work and if I cared half as much about a particular issue in education as he obviously does about this one, I’d be a better teacher.)

I agree with all those who have said that KA is not really revolutionary in any way. It is evolutionary in the sense that it has managed to pull together several pre-existing online teaching resources (including online lectures, online student practice, and teacher monitoring of student performance) into a very slick package. Some would argue that just that integration alone represents a commendable effort, although I am sure that other sites predated KA that could do essentially the same thing.

We should give credit to KA for what it’s good at — namely, providing a resource for students to practice and master the rote concepts that we would otherwise waste time drilling them on in class. My reintroduction into the world of math teaching this past semester showed me that the biggest problem most math students have is that they’re miserable problem solvers. But you can’t develop a strategy for solving a problem if you don’t have command of the skills you will need to execute your plan. To me, sites like KA provide a useful individualized remediation program for those students who demonstrate skill gaps.

It’s also worth pointing out the benefits of the achievement system that KA is using. I haven’t yet gotten my hands on Jane McGonigal’s book that just arrived in our library, but I think there’s something to gamifying this sort of repetitive practice. My kids will do anything for a Starburst, and they’re all ambitious high-school students. I think they would also work harder if they knew that getting another two factoring problems right would get them a virtual badge, as silly as that might sound.

Maybe the lectures are bad. I haven’t watched enough of them to make a qualitative assessment. If they really are that bad, then we as teachers should take it upon ourselves to make better ones. (Or, more likely, just find better ones that are already out there on YouTube.) There’s no reason why you have to accept all of KA as being the absolute best that there is.

I guess in the end, I probably agree with the majority of dissenters out there that argue that we should not hold up KA as a panacea that will teach our students for us in ways that we cannot already do ourselves. I’ve always believed that technology was a catalyst that simply served to accelerate existing work. But lately it seems like the punishment being inflicted on KA doesn’t really fit the crime, either. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle, and KA should serve as a useful tool in the box for teachers that find it helpful for their classes.

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Categories: colleagues, khan, teaching