There’s little doubt that the much-acclaimed, Bill Gates-backed Khan Academy is chasing a Good Thing: providing online video courses and educational materials to all. It doesn’t get much nobler than that—of course the world wins if everyone with an internet connection can bone up on algebra and economics. The disadvantaged can get a solid education, under-funded schools can turn to ready-made lessons, and everybody would can become better, smarter people at will. Just log on.
There’s just one big ol requisite: those lessons—the 3,300 or so that have been viewed over 174 million times—had better be pretty damn good if they’re to become the de facto standard of digital global schooling. But the press is sold. After all, the Khan Academy has been met with the sort of sweeping, near-total adulation that’s typically reserved for Apple products. Salman Khan, the man behind the curtain, has been loudly championed by Bill Gates, gave TED talks before everybody started hating on TED talks, and has been the subject of glowing praise in a bevy of magazine profiles and features.
Which makes sense. His product harps on two of the most prevalent flash points of modern Thought Leaderdom: That the internet will save the world and that, sometimes, it just takes a single innovator with a big brain and some steely grit will make it happen. Check and check. Unfortunately, critics are starting to raise their voices about the boring stuff that doesn’t get touched on in those shiny narratives—the quality of the lessons themselves.
Here’s a story from the San Jose Mercury called “Popular Khan Academy draws criticism for first time”:
Amid the adulation, some teachers now have piped up with criticism of his teaching methods. While they admire the website’s accessibility and fun, the question sets and teacher “dashboard,” they criticize lapses in content, a shortage of explanation and occasional leaps in logic. And, they say, the collection of eight- to 10-minute videos skips the heavy-lifting part of teaching, focuses on procedures over concepts, and doesn’t ensure that students understand what’s being taught.
Most pointedly, these two teachers skewered one of Khan’s algebra lessons:
The video gained notice, and comments like this were voted to the top: “Such pioneering work! A negative times a negative is a positive. And why is that Mr Khan? Response: Well, that’s something for you to think about on your own time. Only the most inept observer would mistake this for good teaching.”
Khan quickly replaced the video. But the critique unleashed a minor chorus—there’s now an actual contest to see who can come up with the best Khan critique on Youtube, with $750 in prizes for the best entries.
Wired’s physics writer Rhett Allain likes the idea, and set about doing his own.
It’s nice to see Khan getting some critical attention here—it’s not particularly useful to anybody to continue to smother the project in unthinking praise; particularly not to the Khan academy itself. Many have complained that Khan’s been unreceptive to criticism, and these efforts have cracked the door for a more robust conversation.
If Khan’s online school continues to expand into homes around the world, of course there should be watchdogs making sure the content beamed in is solid stuff. Nobody’s trying to say that the whole venture is a bad idea; it’s clearly a great one. And the Khan Academy represents an amazing step towards accessible, digitized universal education. But if millions of kids are going to be learning their lessons online, let’s embark on an ongoing effort to make sure as hell that those lessons are as good as they can be.