Learning is more than watching.

By | March 29, 2011

There’s been a lot of attention paid lately to the resources being provided by Salman Khan and the Khan Academy.1 Salman talks about the epiphany he had when remotely tutoring family members and how perhaps his videos could replace the lectures happening in classrooms across the country. As Salman says:

“Our goal is to use technology to humanize, not just in Los Altos, but on a global scale, what’s happening in education. And actually, that kind of brings an interesting point. A lot of the effort in humanizing the classroom is focused on student-to-teacher ratios. In our mind, the relevant metric is student-to-valuable-human-time- with-the-teacher ratio. So in a traditional model, most of the teacher’s time is spent giving lectures and grading and whatnot. Maybe five percent of their time is actually sitting next to students and actually working with them. Now 100 percent of their time is. So once again, using technology, not just flipping the classroom, you’re humanizing the classroom, I’d argue, by a factor of five or 10.”

Here’s his talk titled, “Let’s use video to reinvent education”

About 90 years ahead of the Khan Academy, Thomas Edison was making related arguments about the ability of film to replace much of the teaching done in schools.

“Film teaching will be done without any books whatsoever The only text-books needed will be for the teacher’s own use. The films will serve as guideposts to these teacher instruction books, not the books as guides to the films. The pupils will learn everything there is to learn, in every grade from the lowest to the highest. The long years now spent in cramming indigestible knowledge down unwilling young throats and in examining young minds on subjects which they can never learn under the present system will be cut down marvelously, waste will be eliminated, and the youth of every land will at last become actually educated. By making every classroom and every assembly hall a movie show, 100 per cent, attendance will be assured. Why, you won’t be able to keep boys and girls away from school then. They’ll get there ahead of time and scramble for good seats, and they’ll stay late, begging to see some of the films over again. I’d like to be a boy again when film teaching becomes universal.”

Here’s the source of that excerpt.

On the surface, there’s nothing inherently wrong with either of these assumptions. But at the same time there’s the implicit conclusion that the delivery of content is what learning is made of.

It’s not.

Media can’t recreate the community of school. The best things that happen in classrooms have nothing to do with the delivery of a lecture or the viewing of a video or the solving of problem sets. The best things that happen in classrooms have kids and teachers working through things together.2 Kids talking and writing and learning in community with one another. The delivery of facts is the smallest part of learning.

I like the concept of providing content for students to individualize and personalize their learning. But I worry when the thinking is that simply providing a set of media resources, even when they’re linked to data tools will somehow make students into learners. The magic of learning happens when students are connected to content in a way that motivates them to want to learn more. No video can bring about that change.

Change requires that we be willing to rethink not only the delivery of content, but also what we have students and teachers do with that content. Change requires that our assessments value the use of content, not the acquisition of content.

Change requires that we acknowledge there’s more to learning than access to information and then spend time and money figuring out those bits too.

  1. Bill Gates is one of the folks talking. I want to believe that he’s truly interested in improving education. I really do. []
  2. Isaac Asimov wrote about it years ago. []


Meredith (@msstewart) on March 29, 2011 at 7:41 pm.

I agree that there’s a potential danger for Kahn’s videos to be (mis)used in a way that impoverishes rather than enhances learning. But I think if that is the case, it’s a result of choices that administrators, schools, and teachers are making, not the videos themselves. I heard Kahn speak last month at the National Association of Independent Schools Annual Convention, and he emphatically emphasized that he was not trying to replace the community of schools or teachers, for that matter. He suggested that he hoped his videos freed teachers to have more time to focus on individual instruction and the community aspect of school. My strong impression was that he was contesting the implicit assumption that you’ve suggested might be drawn from his statement. I’m hopeful his videos will be used in ways that contribute to community, but I suppose that remains to be seen.


milobo on March 29, 2011 at 8:21 pm.

I agree, Meredith, that both Khan and even Edison are on the right track in creating opportunities to deliver content using the media of the time. But the part I want to push is that we continually have folks who spend the time and money on the easy bits – packaging and pushing the content. There are dozens of textbook manufacturers who are willing to do the same for a fee. So while I laud Khan’s efforts and think his goal is noble, I’m not satisfied in saying it’ll “reinvent education.”

Content (or for that matter content delivery) can’t reinvent education. The actions and activities that happen as the content is being delivered is what will reinvent education. Khan alludes to that by saying teachers will have more time to work with students and data to help guide them. However, he doesn’t have a concrete plan to help make what teachers do with that time and data more effective. He doesn’t have a plan to help make sure teachers have the support and time they need to do good things with content such as his. And he doesn’t have a plan that’ll motivate students to want to engage with his content or understand how it’s important to them. To me, those will be the parts that will be much harder to get right.

I don’t think that Khan’s role in this conversation is to provide that part of the plan. But it’s got to be someone’s. And somewhere there has to be money and time for someone to take that step. That’s what I’m hoping to push for.


Joanne Meester on March 29, 2011 at 8:08 pm.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I was completely in the dark – have not, for some reason heard about Khan’s videos/tutorials. I agree with Bill Gates, when he states that, “anyone motivated to learn, can do so by having access to the “web”. I’m in the process of attempting to pass a statistics test with a 75% average for entrance to a PhD program. Khan’s video instruction on stats should help achieve that goal. Other instruction that will help, I found through a $2.99 and a $3.99 statistics apps. There is a wealth of information and application to practical learning available, A – if you know that it exists, and B – if you are motivated to learn through these non-traditional resources.


Kyle A on March 30, 2011 at 10:14 pm.

Very good and balanced post in my humble opinion. It has been interesting to see the polarization around these videos and even the concept. Your ending statement is incredibly important “Change requires that we acknowledge there’s more to learning than access to information and then spend time and money figuring out those bits too.” This post helps draw a line in the sand to say we will not let ‘education’ be boiled down to ‘the acquisition of content.’


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