Saturday, September 01, 2012

Khan Academy Benefits Students

Hundreds of thousands of students from around the world have found a reliable and competent teacher in the 35-year-old Salman Khan, the creator of over 3,300 digital lectures from math and science to economics and humanities. The online videos run anywhere from 10-20 minutes each, focused on a single topic (solve for variables x and y in a system of linear equations, for example) that students can follow and practice repeatedly until they get it.

Though not a professionally-trained teacher, Khan is a born teacher. But his success hasn’t gone down well with professional teachers, particularly math teachers, who are complaining that Khan’s videos do more harm than good. Call it a case of sour grapes.

These “purist” math teachers seem unable to accept the fact that Salman Khan has attracted a world-wide following for the simplicity and elegance of his math and other online lectures. They are nervous because Khan is attempting to reverse traditional teaching: Instead of learning new ideas in the classroom and practicing at home, often without any help, students get ideas by using his videos at home and practice their content in the class, with teachers working as one-on-one tutor.

Pilot projects testing Khan’s idea are sprouting all over, spanning continents. Results are positive. Students learn at their own paces and get personalized help from teachers when stuck, leading to a greater mastery of their subjects than in the traditional one-size-fits-all classrooms. His lesson pages have tallied close to 200 million views worldwide. Surely that says something.

Professional teachers and educators are quibbling over subtle “gaps” in Khan’s logic as he tries to explain, for instance, the mathematics of multiplying two negative numbers that gives a positive result. They are aghast that he uses the term “associative” instead of “commutative” to describe a property of multiplication. They take him to task for mixing up terms like “minus” and “subtract.”

What they overlook is that Khan’s videos are serving their purpose: teaching students what they need to learn, from the slums of Ghana to the resource-starved schools of America, in a fun, focused and interactive way. This is the case with Jennifer, for instance, a precocious 6th-grader from San Jose, California. “I don’t have to listen to my math teacher going on and on about ratios. These videos tell me what ratio is and how I can use it to solve real problems. Once I get the idea, I am on my way.”

Salman Khan’s videos are without any glitz or gimmicks. In fact, they are almost primitive in their simplicity, in contrast to other educational videos in the market that seem more like some Hollywood production, using the best graphics and animation tools that money can buy. They dazzle but rarely teach. They are all sound and fury, signifying practically nothing.

Instead of lamenting the lack of depth or formal structure in Khan’s videos, professional teachers and educators can help raise the standard of K-12 education in America and elsewhere by incorporating the videos in their classrooms and coming up with suggestions that can genuinely improve the quality of the lessons. They should be guided by the interest of the students and not by any feeling of encroachment on their “territory” by an “outsider.”

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