Valerie Strauss in the The Answer Sheet on WashingtonPost.com has been running an intensive point-counterpoint about the quality, and even the validity of Khan Academy. Experts in both math and teaching find KA lacking on a number of fronts: accuracy, effectiveness, method, and basic pedagogy. I am not going to reprise the argument here; they are experts in their respective fields, and for the most part they are right. What Khan has developed as of today is flawed.
But they utterly miss the point.
Let’s use a short parable:
“Boy, it sure is chilly here on these North Carolina sand dunes in December. Wish those crazy Wright brothers could have brought their new flying contraption out here in the summer. We sat and watched them all day. They did get off the ground but only flew a couple of hundred feet. We are pretty sure that they chose the wrong material for the wings. Not sure they really understand the best way to take off and land; it looks too dangerous for most people to try. I think their glide ratios are wrong.”
Of course I could go on with the parable for a long time, but you get the point. The Wright brothers made a fundamental breakthrough in solving a critical element of human flight: simultaneous three-point control of a heavy craft in the air. Their first flights were a bit of a joke for anyone with either the foresight or hindsight of what aeronautics could become. 10 million changes have been made to flying machines since then. 10 million more will be made in the future. That is the nature of innovation. It starts with a breakthrough, and then everyone gets to make it better.
The importance of Khan Academy has nothing to do with the specific accuracy of their videos, how they are communicated to students, or how they are or are not more effective at teaching the specifics of a concept than a teacher-in-the-flesh. The breakthrough of KA is the re-design of the teacher-student-information foundation of learning. The breakthrough is a re-definition of educational time and space. By freeing teachers-in-the-flesh and students from the inefficient, time-swallowing, passion-killing cycle of lecture and drill in the classroom, those precious minutes and hours are freed up for what learning should have been all along: engagement, exploration, questioning, discourse.
For those who criticize Khan for inaccuracies and other deficiencies: get to work on making it better! Compete! Create a better flying machine. Khan has been around a few years; they and we have the whole future to improve on the breakthrough concept, to (in the language of our parable) fly farther, land better, make it less dangerous, and tweak the glide ratio. But planes still use a three-axis control system, and my bet is that learners deep into the future are going to be using some version of the individualized construct of learning time/space that Khan is pioneering today.