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Parody Critiques Popular Khan Academy Videos

Image Courtesy of John Golden

Khan Academy has 150 million YouTube views, 320,000 subscribers, and major support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—but that doesn’t mean the free online library of educational videos is perfect. It doesn’t even mean the site is especially effective, say two math professors at Grand Valley State University.

The professors, John Golden and David Coffey, have released a parody video calling out what they consider inaccuracies and poor teaching methods in the much-hyped project. They modeled their video on the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000, the cult comedy in which characters made running commentaries on low-quality science-fiction movies.

In the professors’ video, they stand watching one of the Khan Academy videos as it is projected, noting a few inaccuracies, such as when the site’s creator, Salman Khan, uses positive and negative signs inconsistently and mixes up transitive and associative properties. But the professors say their bigger gripe is with the procedural, rules-based approach in all of Mr. Khan’s videos.

Khan Academy videos can be effective supplements to classroom teaching, says Mr. Golden, whose specialty is math education. But he argues that they do not encourage students to think critically. “If I have a bone to pick with the videos that I’ve seen so far, it’s that they tend to be about giving students rules and asking them to practice rules, as opposed to problem-solving,” he says.

Other critics share his concerns. They contend that while Mr. Khan understands the content himself, his videos demonstrate a poor grasp of how to effectively communicate the material.

Mr. Khan, of course, disagrees. Procedural learning is effective, he argues, and he points to big names—professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, even a Nobel laureate—who praise his resources. “There’s always the critique that Khan Academy is not pedagogically sound, that we’re procedural-based, focusing on mechanics without base understanding,” he says. “But I actually think we’re the exact opposite of that.”

“With procedural, worked problems: That’s how I learned, that’s how everyone I knew learned. But we do have videos explaining the ‘why’ of things, like borrowing, or highly rigorous concepts like college-level linear algebra, so it’s kind of weird when people are nitpicking about multiplying negative numbers.”

In fact, Mr. Khan says he intentionally mixed up the transitive and associative properties to show that understanding that a times b is the same as b times a is more important than the procedural process of memorizing vocabulary. In response to the parody video, he created an updated version of his lesson and uploaded a new video explaining concepts behind multiplying positive and negative integers.

But adding more explanation does not address the pedagogical critiques, argues Dan Meyer, a former math teacher who is now pursuing a doctorate in math education at Stanford.

Mr. Meyer, along with Justin Reich, a blogger for EdWeek, is sponsoring a competition offering $750 in prizes to the best user-submitted videos critiquing Khan Academy lessons.

More-accurate videos and more conceptually-based lectures would go only so far, Mr. Meyer says. Nor is the “flipped classroom” model that Mr. Khan champions—in which students watch a lecture at home, then interact with professors in class—an effective replacement for traditional instruction, Mr. Meyer says.

“It’s not a matter of whether he can create a video that’ll explain more concepts,” Mr. Meyer says. “It’s a question of teaching mathematics versus letting a student just do the mathematics, and of whether lecture itself is the best starting point to teach math.”

Lecture has an important place in teaching math, and that’s why online-learning and blended-classroom models focus on it, Mr. Meyer says. But a lecture may not be the best starting point for mathematical investigation. It may be better for students to start by engaging with the concepts.

A better approach, Mr. Meyer says, is to begin by posing interesting problems to students: for example, how to build the biggest possible pen given a 60-foot piece of fence and a 40-foot piece of fence. You pose the question; you let students try it out. Then, by demonstrating a solution to that scenario, you teach not only basic skills, like graphing and multiple-step equations, but also how to relate the technique to solving a real problem.

“That’s a model for an understanding of math that has enduring value—and what I see in Khan and blended-learning models is that you just explicitly teach how to create a table, create a graph, solve equations,” Mr. Meyer says. “Then, once they’ve struggled through that, if they’re still interested in it at all, you give them an application problem. In my experience, that’s not the best way.”

That interaction and engagement are what help students the most, Mr. Meyer argues, and those come from specific types of classroom interaction. Mr. Golden agrees: Students may be learning, he says, but that doesn’t mean online videos are teaching them.

“Khan’s not really interacting with students; he’s presenting a methodology that is mostly carried out correctly,” Mr. Golden says. “The job of a teacher is interacting with students, supporting them in their learning, assessing where they are and what they’re thinking about, creating opportunities for them to create. So it’s hard for me to think of what he does making videos as ‘teaching.’ I think teachers do so much more.”

That said, both Mr. Golden and Mr. Meyer emphasize that the Kahn Academy site does have value. Mr. Meyer says his twin sister used the videos, and a little help from him, to satisfy the prerequisites for a calculus class.

That is precisely the kind of success that Mr. Khan says he is looking for. “We will never say that our visual library is perfect,” he says. “And we’re constantly trying to improve. But I think it’s a straw-man argument to pick one video and say, ‘This is a procedural video, it is not conceptual, they’re all like this, these people don’t have an understanding of pedagogy.’ That is, frankly, a bit arrogant and disparaging.”

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