Greg DeKoenigsberg Speaks

Insert your favorite “Wrath of Khan” joke blog title here

Posted in Uncategorized by Greg DeKoenigsberg on July 22, 2011

For any agent of change, there’s no measurement of success so sure as the steady accumulation of vocal critics — and Sal Khan is finding all kinds of critics as he continues to press forward.

What’s most notable is that he’s finding many of his most vocal critics among professional educators who are eager to point out that he’s Doing It Wrong, and that their own methods are clearly superior.

They’re absolutely right, too — but they are right about points that no reasonable person disputes.

Of course a motivated, talented teacher with a strong pedagogical background, years of experience, and an excellent relationship with his or her students is going to provide a superior learning experience to a website on the internet.

But here’s the thing, Highly Effective Teacher: not every kid has access to the Wonder That Is You.  Right?  So what can we offer to those kids?

Something is always better than Nothing, and there are still way too many kids in this world (and adults, for that matter) who are closer to that Nothing side of the continuum.  Khan Academy, and the projects that came before it like One Laptop Per Child and Sugar Labs, and the many projects that will surely come after, are all trying to solve that Nothing problem.  Why are so many teachers threatened by that?

Working with ISKME and OER Commons over the past year has been eye-opening for me, in a lot of ways.  Full of a-ha moments.  One of the critical a-ha moments: doing reverse DNS lookups for server logs for OER Commons, and seeing how many of those hits come from India and Pakistan, where the Nothing problem is acute.  And many of those users who search for open educational resources, and find them at our site, describe themselves in their online profiles as Learners.

Learners exist outside of the classroom.  All over the world.  And those learners are finding the internet, and searching it desperately for knowledge that can improve their lives.  Sal Khan is trying to serve their needs, and near as I can tell, he’s doing a better job in his particular problem space than anyone before him ever has.  Of course he’s not doing it exactly right.  He’s making mistakes, just like every innovator does.  That’s how it works.

So you mind your students, Highly Effective Teachers of the world, and let Sal mind his.

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11 Responses

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  1. MBP said, on July 22, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    As far as I can tell, Khan Academy has two big-picture missions. First, is to improve access to educational resources all across the world. If someone doesn’t have access to textbooks or science teachers, well, if they have a computer and the internet, now they do. Second, is to allow teachers to “flip” their classrooms, assigning lectures for homework and freeing up the teacher to work with the students on other things in class.

    I don’t think any of the educators I know would be critical of the first mission. Better access to educational resources is a great thing. If you have an internet connection in 2011, then you have access to textbooks and encyclopedias no matter where you are living. More radically, you have access to individuals, in forums or in chats or in blogs, who share your interests and will help you learn. To this, Khan has added lecture videos. Now, there are books, people, and lectures. Undoubtedly, this is a good thing. Just how good of a thing it is depends on how good you think lectures are. And that bring me to the second point …

    …which is that Khan has gotten a lot of momentum for suggesting that lectures could do some of what teachers do now, freeing them up to do other important things. This is where educators start kvetching about Khan. This is where they start citing data about the relative ineffectiveness of lectures, about the lack of conceptual grounding that students, relatively, receive from lectures. And these educators ask: is this really the best that we can dream up? Is this the future of learning? Just as we’re breaking down old models of pedagogy, just as we’re realizing what technology can REALLY be used for, we’re using the internet to enshrine the old methods?

    So if Khan wants to reach English-speaking internet users without access to teachers all over the world, I wish him the best. But to the extent that he’s talking about flipping classrooms, we need to talk about whether this is really much of an improvement. However that conversation turns out, though, one thing is clear: what he’s doing in the classroom, assigning lectures for homework, isn’t that big of a change. We can be WAY more radical.

    • Greg DeKoenigsberg said, on July 23, 2011 at 9:41 am

      “We can be WAY more radical.”

      Okay. I’ll buy that. I agree wholeheartedly with it, in fact — but show me the money. :)

      Where’s your approach that is (a) sticky, (b) effective, (c) scalable, and (d) students can play with right now? Because Khan has all of those advantages, to at least some degree.

      • MBP said, on July 29, 2011 at 12:25 pm

        Well, how big are we able to talk about? Do we have to accept the restrictions of the current secondary school structure? Or are we allowed to talk about issues with the curricula we’ve designed, with the assumptions that learning has to happen 45 minutes at a time? Can we talk about how math and science isn’t integrated?

        Because often the way this conversation goes is like this:
        A: I have an idea that’s gonna be huge.
        B: Your idea isn’t gonna be huge. We shouldn’t pretend that it is.
        A: Oh, yeah? So what’s your big idea?
        B: Well, since you asked, here’s my really big idea for revamping the system. [Mentions idea.]
        A: That’s pie-in-the-sky. I’m concerned about reality, the here and now.

        And I guess that’s my point. Big, radical ideas are disruptive. If anyone tells you that they’re going to radically transform education with a subtle, incremental change, they’re lying to you. And I think that’s why talk about Khan rubs a lot of educators the wrong way — you can’t radically change education without, you know, radically changing it.

        At the end of the day, what Khan’s doing isn’t that exciting. Teachers don’t feel threatened by Khan — they feel threatened by the conversation about Khan.

  2. R. Wright said, on July 22, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    Something is always better than Nothing…

    Is it? What about opportunity costs? As an analogy, what if Khan’s videos are like giving free Twinkies to the malnourished? I bet you’re right about Khan being the best option for many children worldwide, but I think that’s overwhelmingly not the case in the U.S. And yet U.S. students (and parents) will mostly favor Khan’s junk food over real instruction. It’s tastier.

    • arcadeninja said, on July 22, 2011 at 9:28 pm

      Are you proposing that If I were stranded on a desert island you would withhold my only source of nourishment? I find you’re lack of humanity more disgusting than any Twinkie I’ve ever eaten.

      No one is shoving these intellectual Twinkies down anyone’s throat. There consuming them out of their own free will. How many hours of your day do you spend walking up and down the inter cities slapping fast food out of the hands of the homeless who cant afford to eat better? Is it so hard to see that access to cheap fast food is better than having less fortunate people starving to death in the streets?

    • Greg DeKoenigsberg said, on July 23, 2011 at 9:38 am

      The key difference between junk food and the “junk education”, which is what you claim Khan Academy to be:

      The junk food is what it is.

      The “junk education” is improving all the time.

      Traditional education is caught squarely in the jaws of the innovator’s dilemma. Maybe Khan Academy will become a solution; maybe Khan Academy will make some mistakes, and those who come after will learn from them. But Khan is moving forward, and quickly. I haven’t seen the traditional classroom move significantly forward in my entire lifetime.

    • Greg DeKoenigsberg said, on July 23, 2011 at 9:44 am

      And re: opportunity cost: so what? Your job, as the “parent” in this scenario, is to ensure that your kids are eating a healthy, balanced diet. Or are you claiming that the existence of Khan Academy prevents you from being able to convince your kids to do their homework, because Khan Academy is so much more compelling?

      If that’s the case, then the opportunity cost you *should* be worrying about is World of Warcraft and Farmville and Harry Potter.

  3. R. Wright said, on July 22, 2011 at 11:03 pm

    Are you proposing that If I were stranded on a desert island you would withhold my only source of nourishment?

    I addressed that in my comment.

    I find [your] lack of humanity more disgusting than any Twinkie I’ve ever eaten.

    I find your invective unconvincing.

    No one is shoving these intellectual Twinkies down anyone’s throat. [They're] consuming them out of their own free will.

    I also addressed this in my comment.

    How many hours of your day do you spend walking up and down the [inner] cities slapping fast food out of the hands of the homeless who cant afford to eat better?

    None; I eat fast food all the time despite not being particularly poor. I love Twinkies, too. But I wouldn’t claim that Twinkies have nutritional value (beyond calories to avoid outright starvation).

    Is it so hard to see that access to cheap fast food is better than having less fortunate people starving to death in the streets?

    Again, I addressed this in my comment. If kids in the third world have no real opportunity for education, they may as well take advantage of the training Khan provides instead.

  4. [...] long, though, before DeKoenigsberg decided that education wasn’t quite a perfect fit, and he left in July of this year. By phone, DeKoenigsberg said that “education is fascinating, but the drivers are just [...]


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