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Guest Opinion: Khan Academy is a game changer for education

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By Todd Borden | Guest Opinion | December 7, 2011

I have seen the future of education, and it doesn’t involve schools or teachers; it’s the Khan Academy.

If you haven’t seen the Khan Academy yet, you would be well advised to check it out; it is an absolute game changer because it allows students to take control of their own education and not be subject to the whims and dictates of the educational establishment.

Founder of the online Khan Academy, Salman Khan.

A bit of history—all the way back to last century. When I went to Dos Pueblos (1977-1981) I came to the school to be exposed to people who were repositories of knowledge. They would decide what knowledge to impart on me, and how fast to give it to me—“You’re in 11th grade, you enroll in United States History.” This was a model that had been established about 75 years earlier, and it is a model that we largely still follow today—with the same small classrooms, Carnegie units, and curriculum from on high. Khan will change that.

And this system, with teachers, expert in certain subjects, imparting knowledge to children was largely necessary. In my case, I was not a gifted math student, and my parents, despite advanced college degrees, did not possess the math knowledge to assist me. So I went to the experts—the teachers—to educate me on what my parents could not provide. But the Khan academy changes that model by giving any child with a computer an expert in math (and science, and social studies, and soon-to-be English) in their house, whenever they want it.

My daughter and I have been using Khan to augment the math education she is receiving at Kellogg school. Her grade level curriculum is working on division, estimates, and place value. With Khan she is working on linear equations, negative exponents, and radicals. I used to worry that her school wouldn’t provide a pre-algebra curriculum for her before she went to Goleta Valley Junior High; now I’m confident that she will complete the basic concepts of pre-algebra before Christmas of this year—her fourth grade year. And let me be clear, Alison is not a math prodigy or profoundly academic; she is a well-rounded youngster with a healthy motivation—Khan has been the difference, the game changer.

When my wife, a special education teacher at Dos Pueblos, and I first looked at Khan earlier this year she exclaimed: “This is great, now my students have a mechanism to excel.” And she is correct. However, as egalitarian as Khan is (it’s totally free and available to anyone who has access to the internet) it is going to be exploited more completely by the already motivated students (and their helicopter parents). This has implications for our future at DP. I don’t believe it will be possible for teachers, or administrators, or school boards, or state boards, or colleges to tell students what they need to know and when they will learn it anymore. Those days are long gone. If students can access their own curriculum, the motivated students will learn and progress at their own rate. They will show up to DP with robust academic experiences and many will “test out” of our current core classes through challenge exams, or they will already have fulfilled the requirements by enrollment at SBCC or in online courses. These students will demand ever more robust academic programs from us—programs that they can access and progress through at their own rate—or they’ll attend somewhere else.

I’ve been working on establishing an “early college academy” at DP for the last few years. With any luck it will be launched in the next year or two. This academy would allow students to access Santa Barbara City College classes whilst still in high school, to the degree that they could complete their first two years of college without ever leaving the DP campus. I used to say, only somewhat facetiously, that I wanted it in place by the time my daughter arrived in 2016; I now realize this will be too late. The Khan Academy (and the myriad of inevitable imitators) will provide the means for many students to begin arriving at DP with the need for college-level classes in ever-increasing and ever-younger numbers. And we will have to meet that need.

DP will be a very different place in ten years. I predict there will be many fewer teachers to teach the same number of students. Many of the learning experiences for the motivated–and non-motivated–students will be accessed through technology—often without a teacher in the room or students sitting in a classroom. I used to think that one gift I could provide my daughter was to guide her through the labyrinth of the US educational system. I’m not at all sanguine about that now; in fact, the Khan Academy, and Alison’s experience in the next twelve years, will be teaching me about the brave new education in the 21st century.

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2 Responses to “Guest Opinion: Khan Academy is a game changer for education”

  1. Kevin McKee on December 10th, 2011 9:04 AM

    Many thanks for the interesting and well thought out comments from Mr. Borden. In a lot of ways I agree with his assertions that the Khan Academy and other non-traditional educational paradigms will change the way schools operate in the future, and perhaps bifurcate schools a bit more than they already are, but certainly not to the extent he implies.

    Historically, we has a society have decided that certain knowledge and skills are important to have to be a productively contributing citizen. So, we teach kids how to solve problems (math), who we are and how we got here (history), how to effectively communicate (english), knowledge of our bodies and how the universe works (science), how to enrich our existence (the arts), and so on. I believe this is right, proper, and good, and it’s been the backbone of the advancement of civilization since the dawn of man.

    If we view education as simply the acquisition of knowledge by students, with teachers as the delivery vehicle, then the Khan Academy, on-line distance learning, and other, yet-to-be-invented knowledge transfer mechanisms will certainly upend the current educational system. Perhaps hundreds of years ago the invention of books may have been viewed upon as a similar game-changer, but neither all the encyclopedias in the world nor the internet can replace a good teacher, and here’s why:

    Teachers are *not* just knowledge delivery vehicles. Sure, that’s what we do much of the time, but it’s not what we are. At least I hope not. I believe that the human element of teaching, the mentoring, coaching, encouraging, the caring for and guiding of students, is at least as important if not more so than the knowledge and skills we teach. This is what has the most profound effect on students, and is the thing that really helps change and mold their lives. And, it is something that Salman Khan, nor the University of Phoenix, nor any on-line resource can ever do. They can never look a kid in the eye and say “I care about you”, or “How can I help you?”, or “Way to go, you’re awesome!” They will never motivate a kid to write a card at the end of the year saying “Thanks for rekindling my love of (insert subject here)”, or “Thanks for helping me get into (insert college here)”, or anything like that. The internet will never high-five a kid.

    People often ask me why I left my previous profession for the much less lucrative one of teaching. My usual answer (besides “summer vacations”) is this: “If you went up to some random person on the street, and asked them who had a big effect on their lives, nobody will ever answer “the network guy at work”. But just about everybody had a teacher at some point that left a big impact on them. I want to be that guy.”

    On-line learning, whether it’s from Khan or anybody else, is a valuable tool, and for some students it will work very well. I am sure some will see this as the next big thing and go all in, but they will soon discover it’s limitations. It’s a great knowledge delivery system, but it won’t leave the impact on a person’s life like a good teacher can.


  2. Todd Borden on January 5th, 2012 5:10 AM

    That’s an awesome response from Mr. McKee and I really appreciate his perspective on teaching as being so life-affirming; he is absolutely correct that teachers will never be eliminated for all the reasons he enumerated. And it is for all the reasons he states that I want my daughters in public school, with their age-group peers, and with these caring professionals; I believe that half of what students learn in school is outside of the stated curriculum and comes from the social aspects of school.

    However, the days of requiring an allocation of 720 hours (four years) of high school English, or 540 hours (three years) of high school math or social studies, to prepare for college are very antiquated. Khan academy and the like will give students the opportunity to work at their own pace and meet their own needs; that doesn’t mean that they will not need teachers–just fewer teachers. After all, why would a motivated student spend 180 days in a class to master curriculum if he/she could do it in half the time or less? Why would the taxpayers pay a teacher to teach for 180 days if students could access the material more efficiently? And there’s the rub.

    The ability to replace teachers with technology is going to increase rapidly in the next few years. (Unfortunately, the ability to replace many middle class jobs with technology will also increase in the near future, creating a new economic paradigm that I can’t wrap my head around.) It is hard to imagine that all school districts, with limited resources, will not try to save money by moving away from the 100-year-old method of delivering education by leveraging technology. School districts will, reluctantly or not, purchase technology (Read 180 is a current example in English) to reduce their human costs more and more.

    I believe that in the future students will come to school (or not–they certainly will be able to access their curriculum from remote locations) and a smaller number of teachers will monitor their progress. Teachers will be available to assist students whenever the students need help; some students will need a lot of structure and help and nurturing, others will need very little.

    I’ve been teaching in this district for 22 years. I hope my value as a teacher is needed for ten more years when I can retire–but I’m not at all sanguine about that. If I had fewer years in the system, I would have real concerns that there would still be a job for me in 10 or 15 years.


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Guest Opinion: Khan Academy is a game changer for education