Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Khan Academy: You get what you pay for, right?

          Is anything ever really free? At what cost do you actually pay for things that claim to be “free?” You’ve heard people say, “Freedom isn’t free.” I agree. Nothing is ever really free, and I will attempt to persuade you to see that the Khan Academy isn’t really free either. It can and does come at a very high cost in some instances.

            Khan Academy is a collection of over 3,000 videos available through the Khan Academy website and YouTube. It is a non-profit organization that sets out with the mission, “to provide a ‘free world-class education to anyone anywhere.’” (Wikipedia) Mr. Salman Khan is the mastermind and creator of the website. He started it in 2006. The Khan Academy has received significant funding from the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation and Google. (Wikipedia) Khan has even been coined, “Bill Gates’ favorite teacher.” (Kaplan) However, Mr. Khan has received no “formal training as a teacher.” (Stimpson, p. 49)

            According to numerous sources, Khan started tutoring one of his cousins in math and was very successful at helping her improve her math scores. As a result, other family members requested his help, and that is the very meager beginning of what has grown into a very popular education site that is viewed by millions.

            The popular site not only contains videos, but there are also pretests, practice problems, and badges to earn as you progress in your learning. There is a special section that is dedicated to teachers, or “Coaches” as the site refers to them. There are many tools and resources to help the teacher gain knowledge about the needs of her students.

The Khan Academy offers lessons in a variety of subject areas ranging from mathematics to history.  The lessons are offered to the user in a “self-paced” way. Kahn Academy lists the “bedrock principles” behind these lessons as:
Mastery-based to build a strong foundation

Personalized to meet the unique needs of each student

Interactive and exploratory to encourage creativity and applied learning
Khan Academy logo

            As part of my research, I took a math pretest and proceeded to do some of the practice problems. I admit that it was fun! Receiving all that positive feedback, racking up “energy points,” getting hints when needed, and having the coordinating videos available all give the learner a very personal, engaging, and rewarding experience. Unfortunately, I did not have the same euphoric experience when I clicked on the history section. This is when my opinion of the site began to go in a different direction, but I’ll save that for later.

            There are many opinions about Khan Academy to be found on the Internet. Most of what I found in the beginning was all negative, but after digging a little deeper, I was able to find some positive opinions of the site.  Most negative opinions that I found were those of educators, and the positive opinions were usually ones of those who, like Khan, appeared to have no formal teacher training. I was beginning to see a pattern in the opinions that I was reading. If I had no formal training or experience as a teacher, I might also view Khan Academy as the answer to the broken education system of our country.

            When searching for opinions of Khan Academy, I found an interesting, anonymously written blog titled the “Assailed Teacher.” The author of the blog informs readers that he has been teaching history in New York City for 12 years in his “About” section. In his post, “Khan Academy: If You Don’t Like It, You Don’tGet It,” the assailed teacher very poignantly expresses the views of what I found to be that of all the educator comments I read. He starts the post with the comments left by a Mr. Peter Berger on one of his previous posts about the Khan Academy. Mr. Berger was obviously a fan of Khan Academy stating,

You say “What innovation does Sal Khan offer in American education besides a pause button?” and, disturbingly, you say that as if it’s a small thing. This shows that you’re missing the point. A pause button is a huge leap in pedagogy. A pause button is world-changing.

The assailed teacher responded to the “pause button” comment in a statement of his own,

The fact that people believe a pause button is an educational innovation says a lot about how they see teaching. Sure, you can pause and rewind a video however many times you want. What do you get? The same thing over and over, repeated in the same way.

            Essentially the assailed teacher is saying that a “pause-button” doesn’t allow for questioning or having the information presented to the student in a different, more meaningful way. He also addresses other flaws of the Khan Academy such as its focus on teaching facts and procedures rather than promoting thought and discussion.  The assailed teacher places Khan Academy in the same group with reformers who have sought to reform education through rote memorization of facts and standardized testing. (Anonymous)

            Despite having many critics, Khan Academy does have its supporters. Bill Gates is probably the most well known. Gates said, "I'd say we've moved about 160 IQ points from the hedge fund category to the teaching-many-people-in-a-leveraged-way category. It was a good day his wife let him quit his job." (Kaplan) John and Ann Doerr are also staunch supporters, having made large donations. John Doerr is a venture capitalist in Silicone Valley. Another supporter is John McCall MacBain who also generously donated to the Khan Academy. MacBain is from Canada and made a lot of money in the publishing industry. (Kaplan) All these people have something in common, they are not educators, and I doubt they have any formal training as educators.

            Does Khan have any supporters that are also educators? Yes, he does. Supporters of Khan might also be practicing a new method of teaching known as the “flipped classroom.” In this method, students take acquisition of knowledge into their own hands at home by watching videos. The teacher is no longer standing in front of the classroom giving a lecture, but instead he has projects and learning opportunities prepared for students once they return with the knowledge they gained at home. What was once considered homework is now done at school. 

Picture of Shelby Harris and students

            Shelby Harris, a teacher from Idaho, uses Khan’s videos in her flipped 7th grade math classroom. Harris says she feels that she is a better teacher now, and that she is teaching the students rather than the standards. She admits it was difficult in the beginning and she had to “redefine” how she saw herself as a teacher. She now sees herself as more of a “sideline coach.” (Cotterell)

In closing, I would like to present my opinions and concerns from the viewpoint of an elementary teacher. Like all things, the Khan Academy has its pros and cons, but I do not believe it is the answer we’re looking for to correct the problems that have been created in the educational system. The Khan Academy, if used properly, could be a great teaching tool, but that’s it. It’s just a tool, like many others that are available to teachers. It is not the magical answer so many claim it to be.

Teachers have to take on the hard task of changing the way they teach. The days of memorizing facts and showing off your memorization skills on bubble-in tests are over and should have never begun, in my opinion. “Learning” presented in that manner is such an injustice to what the human brain is actually capable of. My hope is that Khan Academy is used to its potential by educators, and also that it is not put on a pedestal above the teacher as the answer to our educational woes.

Good teachers are of an irreplaceable value to the schools, students, and communities they serve. I do not see them being replaced by Khan Academy, but rather, I see them becoming even better at what they do through using tools like Khan Academy to meet the changing needs of their students. In my opinion, any attempt to replace these valuable members of society with Khan Academy would come at a detrimental price making Khan Academy the most costly program that ever hit the education system.

Anonymous (2012, March 3). Khan Academy: If You Don’t Like It, You Don’t Get It [Web log
post]. Retrieved February 23, 2014, from http://theassailedteacher.com
Cotterell, Adam. (2013, September 3). 48 Idaho Schools “Flip the Classroom” And Pilot Khan Academy Online Learning. Retrieved February 23, 2014, from http://boisestatepublicradio.org
Kaplan, David. (2010, August 24). Bill Gates’ favorite teacher. Retrieved February 23, 2014, from http://money.cnn.com
Khan, Sal. Khan Academy. http://www.khanacademy.org
Khan Academy. n.d. In Wikipedia. Retrieved February 23, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khan_Academy
Stimpson, Catherine. (2013). Book Review The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined. Retrieved February 23, 2014, from http://www.rpajournal.com


  1. Hello Chea,
    This essay was extremely well written. I completely agree that the Khan Academy is a great resource; however, it should not take over primary instruction of our students. It should only be used as a supplemental tool. Like you, I initially explored the math portion of the site and was impressed with how much fun the whole "experience" seemed. The other subjects, though are less impressive and only contain videos that are sometimes inaccurate and require follow-up clarification videos. I believe that the Khan Academy doesn't teach students, it aids them with supplemental information/problems. Thank you for sharing!

    1. I couldn't agree more with your last statement! Kahn, himself, admits that's how the program started out. It's the influence of other people like Bill Gates that have lead to misconstrued ideas of what the capabilities of Kahn Academy actually are. Thanks for your comment, Cain!

  2. Chea,
    Thanks for forming a well rounded response, but I might be a little prejudice! Our conclusions sounded a lot alike in that Khan Academy is a great tool for great teachers to take advantage of. Technology is supposed to help teachers become better at what they do, not stifle their efforts. I would like to see "homework" assignments be viewing these videos at home and them having project based learning to promote more problem solving and less procedural work in the classroom. Unfortunately, that can't be done now, where we live, because not all students have access to the internet at home.

    1. Lynn, you are right. Not having access to the internet at home does set limitations on what we can achieve. Thanks for your comment!

  3. "...I doubt they have any formal training as educators." Nor have I. Just lots of experience!

    "Teachers have to take on the hard task of changing the way they teach." Right!

    Thorough. Thoughtful. Well done indeed!

    1. Experience (on-the-job training) counts too! :) Thank you for your comments!