Khan Academy videos: Instructive or destructive?

Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about producing more videos. I’ve certainly fallen behind my planned schedule of producing them – too many other tasks get in the way! Anyhow, I have to produce some so that my school can complete a project for HE-STEM. As part of this I’ve had to consider what makes a good video and for me one of the most interesting debates about videos in education has been triggered by the huge success of Salman Khan’s video series. You can see him explain the history and the philosophy behind it in the following TED video:


Looks good doesn’t it? However, his videos have been strongly criticized. This is not surprising, educators were always going to object to an ex-hedge fund manager – backed by Bill Gates and with no educational training – coming in and saying “This is how you do it”. Nonetheless, many of their criticisms have foundation. I’m particularly against the “gamification” of education. Whilst games can be a useful tool in education when you wrap all learning in a game, then students lose sight of the importance of education; they see it just as collecting points for their scorecard.

Audrey Watters gives a good explanation of the arguments against Khan and various links in her post The Wrath Against Khan which arose as in response to an article in Wired on the Khan Academy.

(Aside: I think that video’s threat to teaching jobs is greatly exaggerated. When the printing press was invented people probably said “No more need for teachers, you can learn from a book”. Every new technology is predicted to revolutionize teaching and to cause the disappearance of the bulk of teaching jobs. People said it about radio, they said it about film, they said it about TV. They now say it about YouTube videos and laptops. (Aside to aside: Currently, the main threat to jobs is funding. Teachers are losing their jobs because governments are cutting budgets. But that’s a different story.))

Another critique, by Frank Noschese, in a post punningly entitled
You Khan’t Ignore How Students Learn contains a great quote:

Khan (along with most of the general public, in my opinion) has this naive notion that teaching is really just explaining. And that the way to be a better teacher is to improve your explanations. Not so! Teaching is really about creating experiences that allow students to construct meaning.

Actually, I doubt Khan believes that teaching is just explaining – although it’s true many of his videos are just explaining – I think the difficulty is that his courses do not do enough to construct the meaning mentioned in the second half of the quote.

I’m a fan of Dan Meyer. He recently blogged about an article on the Khan Academy featured on the TV programme 60 Minutes. Meyer’s post is here but maybe you should watch the report first. (It has a couple of annoying adverts near the beginning but it is worth persevering.)




There is also a follow up video in which the reporter makes a Khan Academy video with Khan. (See it here. One interesting thing to note is how well Sal Khan presents himself. He seems genuinely likeable and self-effacing (see the “My mum wishes I was you” comment). Since the videos I am preparing are about mostly about how to give a presentation it would be a good idea to use him as an example of how important likeability is. I’m guessing that if Kahn was a grumpy man who railed against the world his videos would not be so popular.)

One of the best videos I have seen explaining why Khan’s videos are problematical whilst praising their use in certain situations is by Derek Muller who has a good collection of YouTube videos.




The video relates to science education generally rather than mathematics but I think the point for mathematics is clear too. For example, one can apply the idea of showing common errors when introducing the rigorous definition of limit. This is a subject students think they know when they come to university so don’t pay attention to the correct definition. When asked to define a limit in an exam they write “it’s the thing that gets closer and closer to a number but never actually reaches it”. (Aside: A common complaint I hear from students is that before we taught them limits they understood the concept and afterwards they don’t! Ditto for integrals and Riemann integration.)

Now if you’ll excuse me I’ve got to go and create some online video materials. No, seriously, I have to…

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