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A Report Card -- Part 1
When most of us come across something offered for free, we react with skepticism. Through experience, we’ve learned to read the fine print anytime we see the words “free offer.” There’s always a catch, right? However, a remarkable revolution is taking place in online education, and the number of truly free resources for learning currently available is staggering. The term for this movement is open education, and it encompasses everything from video tutorials to classes to educational software to books. In other words, open learning is about the tools as well as the content, and to illustrate, this TED talk by Rice University professor Richard Baraniuk offers an introduction to open-source course material.
What most learners may be familiar with are the free online sites, such as Khan Academy for both young and old learners as well as sites like Coursera, Open Culture and Academic Earth, which offer courses taught by university faculty at prestigious institutions like Harvard, MIT and Stanford. We decided to take a closer look some of these initiatives and found that free doesn’t always mean free of controversy. In Part 1, we look at the Khan Academy phenomenon, and in Part 2, we examine the exponential growth of free options for older learners.
Khan Academy has arguably become the most talked about of the free online learning sites since it was launched in 2006 by ex-hedge fund analyst and MIT and Harvard graduate Salman Khan. The now familiar story is that he began by tutoring his cousin Nadia using Yahoo!’s doodle notepad, then started posting the tutorials on YouTube. His site now has almost 400,000 subscribers and 3300 videos on subjects ranging from science to art to mathematics. Khan Academy also has some very prominent backers, including Bill Gates and Google. Mr. Gates said at a 2010 conference in Aspen, “At 3,000 lessons online, Sal’s personal ability as a teacher is remarkable.” Some are even calling the site the future of education.
We agree that Mr. Khan has a gift for delivering content, stripping information down to its bare essentials and making a viewer feel as if they’re receiving one-on-one instruction from a friendly and enthusiastic tutor. Plus, flipping the classroom, or flip teaching, where lectures are watched outside the class and tutoring occurs in school, offers the possibility of a real transformation in the way kids learn.
But, Khan Academy does have its detractors, as shown in this Education Week article titled "Don’t Use Khan Academy without Watching this First." The piece includes a video circulating on the internet put together by two teachers which shines an unflattering spotlight on Khan’s sloppy teaching methods, including his inconsistent or even incorrect use of mathematical symbols. Another major criticism is Khan teaches the ‘how’ but not the ‘why’ of the calculations, leaving students to wonder about the context or real-world applications of math.
Another critic of Khan Academy is former teacher and math coach Karim Kai Ani, founder of the educational site Mathalicious. In a Washington Post piece titled "Khan Academy: The hype and the reality," he argues that the videos are of low quality, full of misinformation and just not very good. He points to one video in particular where a fundamental concept in algebra -- slope -- is inaccurately defined, and says his lack of preparation and understanding of the content is the antithesis of good teaching. The piece hit more quite a few nerves and elicited a flurry of posts in the comment section. The Post published a response by Sal Khan where he deftly defends his methods, the academy and his definition of slope, saying, “We have never said that we are a cure-all and think we have a lot to do just to fulfill our potential as a valuable tool for students and teachers.”
And while Sal Khan didn’t invent the concept of flipping the classroom, he is one its most vocal champions, as can be heard in an NPR piece titled "How Can Videos “Flip The Classroom.?" In the audio portion he says it brings free, peer-to-peer tutoring to anyone, creating what he calls a “global, one-world classroom.” But critics argue that some at-risk students may not have the motivation or even the technology to watch presentations at home, while others make the point that flipping substantially increases the amount of time students must commit to schoolwork. In theory, flipping should prepare learners for face-to-face time in the classroom, but what if the student didn’t watch the video at home? "The Flipped Classroom: Pro and Con," a blog on the on the edutopia website written by a K-6 computer teacher, addresses some of those concerns. The author makes the case that flipping may not be for every teacher or student, but writes, “So in the end, why should we care so much about the flipped classroom model? The primary reason is because it is forcing teachers to reflect on their practice and rethink how they reach their kids.”
After reviewing the content on the Khan Academy and Mathalicious sites, we have to say we like the approaches both take to teaching, though the models are fundamentally different. The content on Mathalicious may arguably be more engaging, but it is not as accessible (or free) as the content on the Khan Academy site. The founder of Mathalicious states in the piece, “People may interpret my criticism as a sign that I want Khan Academy to disappear. I don’t. I believe it has the potential to be a useful tool for students and teachers.” We couldn’t agree more. Also, we admire the ideas, dedication and passion both educators bring to the debate of how to best educate children.
Any visit to the Khan Academy should leave one feeling it’s a work in progress that’s evolving into something more than just a website with a collection of short, educational videos. The founder even opened a summer camp to give students the kind of project-based, immersive and face-to-face interaction that takes placed in a flipped classroom. He comes across as someone who doesn’t want to do away with the classroom experience, just make it better. It’s difficult to not to feel impressed by the way some students are embracing the content, as shown in this video on the site. We have to give Sal Khan a ‘B+’ for inspiring so many students and getting them excited about learning subjects they may have struggled with, especially math and science. We hope the academy continues to improve, and we look forward to seeing a generation of young people who discover they were capable of learning calculus or chemistry because sites like Khan Academy showed them it was possible.
Read Part 2 of our Open Education Series.