There’s been a flurry of excitement recently over hedge-fund trader turned educator, Sal Khan. If you’re getting money from both Gates and Google, the chances are you’re doing something innovative. The Khan Academy (1 principal, 1 faculty) sets out to be the world’s free classroom. It does so through a growing collection (currently over 2000) of video tutorials in maths, science, history and economics, plus a cleverly structured series of exercises which the student can work through (in a game-like format) to check comprehension, and score points. Importantly you can do exercises in a non-sequential fashion, if you want to. (Educators regularly use ‘sequential’ as a marker for rigour, when it’s rarely how we ever learn in practice). Take a look at a typical tutorial in my favourite subject, algebra:
Why do I say it’s better than having in a teacher in the room giving explanations?
1. It’s true just-in-time learning. If you get stuck on a particular maths problem, you can go straight to the relevant video, when you need it, not when the teacher is able to get around to you.
2. You can go at your own speed. Students, listening to a teacher, invariably would rather pretend they understood what was being explained, than hold everyone else up, by asking the teacher to repeat something.
3. It makes learning less stressful. Students, even with the best teacher, can get pretty stressed, worrying if they’re going to be asked a question, or why they’re not getting it, or because other students are disctracting them. Here, it’s just Sal coming out of your headphones, and he’s never going to pick you out for questioning.
4. You can go at your own speed. Ever wish that you could rewind (or fast-forward) your classroom teacher? Well, here you can.
5. It’s truly personalised learning. 30 kids in a single class can be working on different parts of the syllabus. Their exercise progress can be seen at a glance.
6. You focus on the explanation, not the teacher. You don’t see Sal, but you can see the working on ‘the board’.(I speak as someone who spent their entire high school career too embarrassed to wear prescription glasses, pretending I could see what was being written on the board (and dutifully copied down by my fellow students). Can you imagine the needless energy you expend, bluffing like that for 5 years?
If you begin to connect the opportunities that such tutorials provide, with a ‘flipped’ pedagogy, you can start to see what a real 21st century classroom might look like. Kahn certainly presented a powerful argument for this in a recent interview.
Does this mean that online video learning does away with the need for teachers? Give it another 5-10 years, then the answer’s probably yes – but only as in the form that we’re forever casting them. A teacher as lecturer/expert may be superfluous, but teacher as mentor, guide (to the vast wealth of learning tools which are out there) will be worth their weight in gold. School as a 21st century learning commons, will need teachers who can design, connect and network, so that the social learning which should by now be pervasive (through blogging, YouTube and other forms of social media) but sadly is largely absent, or banned, in our classrooms, can be made purposeful, through students using the knowledge gained to solve real-world problems, in their own communities.
Chris Anderson recently put forward a powerful case for video learning. I’m sure the concept of flipping, or of teachers letting Sal Khan do the explanations, horrifies some teacher unions and many parents. They’d have an argument to mount – but only if they themselves hadn’t used online tutorials when they were trying out a new recipe, or struggling to get the back off their iPhone, or looking at any of the millions of ‘how-to’ vids. And I’m willing to bet they have, so why isn’t it good enough for their kids?
And any young teacher coming into the profession who won’t embrace these tools – and I’m surprised by the number I meet – preferring instead to ‘perform’ at the front of their class, should probably think about another career.