Why Khan Academy Is The Wrong Answer

21 Nov

“The problem with television lies not in the quality of resolution but the quality of programming”

Nicholas Negroponte “Being Digital”

Nicholas Negroponte is a genius and one of my heroes. He played a major role in creating the MIT Media Lab, Wired Magazine and the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program. His book “Being Digital” was transformative . Every time I turned a page I read something that blew my mind.

One revelation was Negroponte’s thoughts on the future of TV. In 1995 HDTV was on the horizon and millions of dollars were poured into increasing screen resolution. Negroponte pointed out that what stopped people from watching more TV wasn’t screen resolution, but lousy programming. They were innovating on the wrong problem.

Before we solve a problem it’s important to make sure we’re working on the right problem. We need to do the same when improving education.

Popular efforts to improve education are focusing on the wrong problem. Millions of dollars and hours of innovation are being spent on improving how we deliver content in an era when content matters less and how we interact with it matters more.


What do all these all have in common? They are one-way content delivery systems and large corporations stand to make a lot of money from them.

However, the weak link in our current learning paradigm isn’t content delivery. Traditional textbooks deliver content efficiently and effectively, and access to content is cheaper and easier than at any other time in history thanks to the internet. It’s only with the guidance of a skilled teacher and interaction with other learners that content becomes relevant and engaging. That’s what makes  good teaching important. Future education is better served by  investing in and developing tools that support discussion and interaction, not improving content delivery.

New uses of the internet (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) are social. Web 2.0 is about users interacting and collaborating. The power of YouTube is that users create, share and discuss their own videos. That’s what makes it unique. Using it to show lectures so students can watch their homework while playing World of Warcraft turns it into a TV channel, nothing more.

Promoting interaction and discussion is the most effective way to use technology to support learning. Social media promotes and extends discussion, which is far more effective and transformative than putting lectures on YouTube or textbooks on tablets will ever be.

Some Examples:

  • Google Hangouts facilitates face-to-face discussions when students can’t be in the same space. Use it for after school study groups or to connect remote learners working on the same topic.
  • Twitter allow students to discuss learning and share insights over mobile devices or asynchronously.
  • Skype can effectively and easily connect learners to experts in the field they are studying so they can ask questions and delve deeply into topics.

We need to focus on using and developing technological tools that make learning more interactive and collaborative. It’s is a more effective and innovative way of improving learning than simply finding new ways to deliver content.

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36 Responses to “Why Khan Academy Is The Wrong Answer”

  1. Fred Galang (@NomadCreatives) November 21, 2012 at 4:37 pm #

    The role of the internet and its seemingly endless possibilities of content delivery, coupled with techno-gadgets is incredibly seductive… to those who value the surface. Delving deeper into a problem is key. What’s worse is that these seemingly “convenient” delivery methods is against the very nature of discovery – slow, methodical, meaningful. If Marshall McLuhan believed that the medium is the message (as do I), then the meanings around contemporary devices is very much against the slow and methodical. As far as education is concerned, that message could set it back further than ever before.

  2. Heidi Siwak November 21, 2012 at 7:19 pm #

    Very well said!

  3. Mike Smart November 22, 2012 at 2:00 am #

    I think you’re right in that often the instruction stops with the video or the textbook, which is a shame and totally misses the point.

    I think the power of Khan academy and iPads are that they can be integrated into a larger curriculum. That curriculum can in turn be social, interactive, and more importantly, challenge students to create.

    • ballacheybears November 22, 2012 at 7:59 am #

      Agree. The tools aren’t a problem but how they’re commonly used. As always technology is neutral, it’s how it’s employed that we need to examine.

  4. Adele Stanfield November 22, 2012 at 7:52 am #

    Interesting too that the tools you feel are good examples of technology in the classroom are all free. Tech doesn’t have to be expensive. I wonder if tech-based businesses will figure out this well-kept edu-secret and eventually try to profit from it. Maybe produce “specialized” laptops that are made to make video-based interactions easier. Great post….you always get me thinking beyond. Thanks Andrew!

    • ballacheybears November 22, 2012 at 7:58 am #

      It’s hard to make the big business argument too strongly when Google and Twitter are your examples of ‘free’ but yes, I noticed that too. Thanks for the feedback :)

  5. plerudulier November 22, 2012 at 12:37 pm #

    Couldn’t agree more.

  6. Mark November 22, 2012 at 1:19 pm #

    The tools used in the Khan academy allow for in-depth delivery and then face to face communication in the classroom after the content is delivered. That is the power of what they are suggesting. Also there are the “World of Warcraft” users that never will pay attention to anything they don’t want to hear or see. I want to target the learners that are willing to put in the effort and take off into self guided learners. That’s what on-line can do.

    • Michael Paul Goldenberg November 25, 2012 at 11:59 am #

      If only Khan Academy actually delivered “in-depth” anything. Sitting through Sal Khan lecture mindlessly (and I mean that pointedly) about a mathematics topic could drive any sane person to suicide. He’s duller than watching paint dry. He puts just about zero thought into the examples he chooses, the order in which he presents them, and rarely if ever shows the smallest concern about the “Why?” of anything he discusses. His lectures are just less-than-mediocre mini-lessons that are readily found in mathematics classrooms throughout the nation.

      Oh, but kids can watch them over and over until they “get it,” you say? Get what, exactly? How to imitate a procedure or run through the steps of an algorithm they don’t understand? That’s mathematics? Not according to some very savvy mathematicians who also teach (see, for example, Paul Lockhart, Keith Devlin, James Tanton, George Polya, or many, many others). Certainly not according to anyone who hasn’t swallowed the Kool-Aid of Bill Gates that Sal Khan is “the best teacher” he’s ever seen (either Bill needs to visit more classrooms, or he’s a shameful liar).

      Khan isn’t a good teacher. He’s at best a C- teacher. I wouldn’t pay a dime to see him teach, on-line or off. The supposed magic of his on-line academy, with its badges and other bells and whistles is old news.

      The smartest thing Sal ever did as far as real teaching is concerned is to hire Vi Hart (and it disturbs me that she took the poisoned pill). But even Vi isn’t instructing in a lot of her videos, though there is much that is instructive (and wildly entertaining) in what she does. Sal should stay off-camera, have real teachers redo every execrable video with his death-knell of a voice on it, and rethink the actual content he offers. But then, it would become less popular. Real teaching of mathematics means challenging learners to think. And that’s still not very welcome to kids who’ve been taught that math is a spectator sport.

      • Sadie July 6, 2013 at 10:11 am #

        So give me an alternative. The schools here are garbage. Students are only making 40 to 50 percentile on the standard tests.
        I am homeschooling my 3 sons, they are at or above 95 percentile.
        I am not a math teacher. Text books are only as good as the teacher that explains them. Can you give me an option that’s cost effective? My oldest wants to be an engineer. How do I give him what he needs? I hear a lot of complaining without solutions.

      • ballacheybears July 6, 2013 at 10:23 am #

        There’s a lot here so my response is general:

        1) Standardized test aren’t effective measures of learning. They are tools that can be used to make schools look bad or good.
        2) The way to make schools better isn’t to withdraw, but to stay in the system and fight for a better system. If everyone who can leave does, the only ones left are those who can’t leave.
        3) Public schools can’t meet everyone’s needs. They are large institutions that are designed to meet most student’s needs but they don’t do well with those on the edges. You know your kids. They may well be better of at home.
        4) Why not look for partnerships with other homeschoolers. Find someone who is good at math and offer to trade. Hire a tutor occasionally. Try and create a study group with other homeschooled peers where they can learn together. Face to face interaction is critical.

      • Michael Paul Goldenberg July 6, 2013 at 10:24 am #

        Sadie, read what I wrote. See that list of names in the 2nd paragraph? Start with Tanton. Then check “The Art of Problem Solving.” Lots of free videos online from both. Assuming you want math, not “be a human calculator.” For the latter, Khan and countless others are out there.

      • rp October 17, 2013 at 5:20 pm #

        I disagree with your first statement. Khan does deliver in-depth teaching, and he does explain reasons for the conclusions which he makes. The way Khan explains things is accurate and simple, and I do not find any fault in his teaching skills. How else should he teach, when many other teachers cannot even bother to give adequate explanation?
        Besides, looking at videos on basic skills which you are confident in won’t show the depths that Sal Khan goes to for the sake of education. Look at all the rest of his videos, and observe how much time he has taken to provide a free world class education.

      • ballacheybears October 18, 2013 at 3:24 pm #

        You’re missing the point. Learning doesn’t happen by receiving the information but by working with it and constructing understanding that are relevant to the learner. That happen most effectively when working face to face with educators and other learners who can ask questions and request explanations. That’s what Khan academy doesn’t provide.

  7. Sharon Turner November 22, 2012 at 5:16 pm #

    With the explosion of technology into educational settings made me search for the interaction with learners. If devices are just a way to deliver content without interaction or exploration then their use will be meaningless. However, I arrived at the same conclusion as you have here, which is why I love this article so much, that the possibilities for interaction and discussion are really powerful. Over the last year I have been using Facebook in such a way and the change in the interaction, discussion and curiosity to learn have increased. One of the issues education is still facing is that we have a range of devices for content but not enough theoretical basis for how to incorporate these devices into learning spaces. I have found that theories such as TPACK and Computer Supported Collaborative Learning to be effective ways for me to solve some of the interaction issues. Thank you for such a timely article on such an important issue.

  8. Phillip_Cowell (@Phillip_Cowell) November 23, 2012 at 8:01 am #

    Educators and teachers can only work within the confines set by administrators and governments. Khan Academy helps students achieve a higher level within those externally set standards. I think your article also neglects that the internet didn’t go straight from invention to social networks and 2.0 There was a hell of a lot of inovation and lessons learned first. In many ways, education is just starting their own journey with technology. Khan Academy helps us see the possibilities of what could come next.

    • ballacheybears November 23, 2012 at 8:05 am #

      I disagree. Part of our role as educators is advocate for what we think is best for our students. We are the experts in this and we need to enter that dialogue.

      • George Healy November 26, 2012 at 12:06 am #

        Anytime someone claims a group is the “experts” it’s time to worry. We need to get off our high horses and recognize that the kids themselves are the experts when we get out of their way.

  9. Brian E. Bennett (@bennettscience) November 23, 2012 at 9:44 am #

    I like the analogy of programming vs the resolution. Teaching is the art of creating good programs that pull kids (or anyone, really) into something new. Regardless of the medium, be it text or digital, the teacher’s responsibility is to help the learner make sense of the content and put it into context. We can’t forget that learning is social, not one way.

  10. Lisa Michelle Nielsen November 25, 2012 at 10:06 am #

    I agree with most of what you say except the idea that it is only with the guidance of a skilled teacher and interaction with other learners that content becomes relevant and engaging. This sets up a hierarchy that is not always necessary or beneficial. For example in many cases learners are learning in the world, outside of school making or creating alongside others for whom “doer” not “learner” is how they define themselves. In many cases learners feel that teachers are keeping them prisoners of their their pasts refusing to allow them to create and develop with the tech they own and love. In some cases the students can and should become partners in learning as they also bring expertise to the table. And, in other cases, we are unjustly labeling students as “learners” when they are actually willing and able to be doers, makers, and creators along side those in the world.

    • ballacheybears November 25, 2012 at 7:31 pm #

      Thanks for your comment Lisa. I agree with what you’re saying in the general sense. Children are learning all the time, of course, without the need for an adult of any kind. In this case I was referring to typical classroom learning, the kind of learning specifically targeted by Kahn Academy, iBooks, etc. Traditional schooling sometimes prevents children from being the independent learners we know they are. Part of the role of a skilled teacher should be to empower them and facilitate their increasing independence from teachers in their learning.

  11. Amy Milstein November 25, 2012 at 12:08 pm #

    Lisa is correct. The idea that “only” with the aid of a skilled teacher can learning – in any format – be relevant is incorrect and the basis for much of the problems in our compulsory education system. The problem with schools is that they often take an idea that supports self-directed learning, make it compulsory and call it innovative. As soon as you put it in a format that takes away choice from the student, you’ve destroyed the innovation.

    • ballacheybears November 25, 2012 at 7:35 pm #

      Agree Amy. I was referring specifically to traditional classroom education where children have been re-programmed to be passive learners, dependent on adults who think they need that support and direction. Skilled teachers work to reverse this process and empower children to learn independently.

  12. Bob Collier November 25, 2012 at 7:10 pm #

    ” it is only with the guidance of a skilled teacher and interaction with other learners that content becomes relevant and engaging.”



    • Cindy November 26, 2012 at 2:54 am #

      If you’re saying that skilled teachers are those that reverse the ill effects of compulsory education ala teacher-enforced learning, why don’t we just keep it learner-directed from the start, instead of undoing what the system did? You had a great analogy of not focusing on tuning in the program better, but giving better programming. Why don’t schools provide better “programming” via not messing up the natural learning drive of young children to begin with? Why promote these better teachers who undo things and instead focus on changing how we create learning environments right from the start?

  13. mark8n November 26, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

    Video could be the wrong answer used in isolation, but as part of a larger pedagogy it can become a valuable resource.

  14. Lou Salza (@lsalza) November 28, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

    In education there as many questions and answers as there are children. Kahn Academy is not the wrong answer. Neither is it the right answer. It is ONE answer to the question: How can we increase access to content and information for students and adults who want to learn?

  15. reubentozman (@reubentozman) January 2, 2013 at 4:35 pm #

    I’ve been saying that we’ve been innovating around amplifying the number of people a teacher can reach but what we should be doing is innovating the number of teachers a single person has access to. Khan Academy is simply amplifying the classroom. Until we change the classroom completely, we won’t see true innovation in education.

  16. David Clark June 3, 2013 at 11:18 pm #

    The advantage of Khan Academy is learners progressing at their own pace. Take a look at what they have done with Los Altos 5th and 7th grade math. Kids helping kids is one of the hallmarks. I’m not sure who feels threatened by this free service, but I suppose that a shallow and misguided backlash probably accompanies all good new developments.

    • Michael Paul Goldenberg June 4, 2013 at 8:19 am #

      Then again, perhaps a considered analysis is behind criticism of this shallow approach to teaching mathematics: bad traditional pedagogy … ON LINE! Wow. Maybe when Sal Khan takes more than 5 minutes to prepare a lecture, learns something about mathematical learning from a student perspective, and manages to breathe some life into his soporific presentation style/voice, we can discuss “shallow and misguided” backlashes.

      • Duggum September 4, 2013 at 7:08 pm #

        This is the most well-spoken troll I have ever seen on the Internet. Definitely a troll, or someone Sal Khan beat up in grade school.


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