08 December 2011

Link of the day: Khan Academy goes beyond just video

As Khan Academy (see my earlier post) gains fame and recognition, the backlash of criticism is starting. Some commenters on the recent New York Times feature "Online Learning, Personalized" think Khan Academy is overrated and nothing special.

In this article on Inside Higher Education, Salman Khan explains that in fact,
“I think too much conversation about Khan Academy is about cute little videos," Khan said in an interview last week. “Most of our resources, almost two-thirds of [the staff], are engineers working on the exercises and analytics platform. That, I think, is what we’re most excited about.”
It's true that people visit Khan Academy for its online video tutorials of math and science subjects, but behind the scenes, Khan's team is collecting statistics on 1.4 million registered users. They are using that data to understand how well the user is learning, for example, to predict whether the user will be able to solve a similar problem weeks later. One of Khan's engineers notes that "the work he does for Khan Academy is similar to the statistical modeling he did in finance."

They are also experimenting with incorporating memory research into their software. Websites like SuperMemo have touted the power of reviewing material at specific time intervals to deepen your memory of the knowledge.

What impressed me most is that Khan's team is working to differentiate between "pattern matching" and true understanding. Pattern matching is a problem solving method in which the person recognizes a class of problem and then uses a standard method to solve it. As Eric Mazur remarked in his talk on teaching introductory physics, his student would look at an exam question, think "oh, this is a Kirchoff's law problem" and then use the textbook method to solve it. Pattern matching is a useful method, but rather low-level, "a sort of useful imitation that allows toddlers to learn how to use language without first learning how grammar works." Unfortunately, in the real world, we can't easily identify problems in convenient categories like "Kirchoff's law." Even in the confined reality of physics class, Mazur found that his students would become frustrated when they came across a problem they couldn't classify. They would blindly apply atextbookrecipe and complain when it didn't work. Moreover, innovation and creativity requires global, comprehensive mastery of concepts, what I would loosely call "trueunderstanding." One of Khan's engineers states
“A big part of real-life problem-solving,” Kohlmeier says, “is recognizing what kind of problem you’re dealing with.”
Salman Khan proposes a radical idea: develop an independent agency to administer an exam that will test college students' competencies and mastery of concepts. The problem is that we have a mass of college graduates with degrees and GPAs, but there is no easy way to differentiate between them -- to know if they have developed the skills that employers want. That's why a lot of employers simply hire Ivy League graduates, because the colleges have already done the hard work of filtering already.

Khan is not impressed with the liberal arts education, an opinion that will no doubt spark controversy.
“If you can go deep in many things, awesome,” he told Inside Higher Ed. “That’s wonderful. But the reality is, right now, you’re forcing students to [obtain], and employers to hire students with, kind of a broad and very shallow experience base -- an expensive broad experience base. And it’s not clear that’s doing anyone any good.”

“Higher order” skills in critical thinking and creativity are useful only to the extent that graduates wind up in a position to apply them, Khan said. In the malaise of post-college unemployment, a graduate’s aptitude for analyzing themes in literature or conducting reliable research will languish. “If you don’t have that starting point of [graduates] being engaged and productive in society in some way, then the rest is just a waste of time,” said Khan.

Distribution requirements, the four-year model, and the buffet approach to curriculum all contribute to the “arbitrariness” that muddies the signaling function of college degrees and “have no relation to what makes you a more productive citizen or better for society or a more creative person,” Khan said.

“If you decouple [learning and credentialing], the arbitrariness is gone,” he added, and “it federates the options to adjust to what people’s needs are.”
I don't think we should completely get rid of the liberal arts education, but I agree that it's definitely not for everyone and that perhaps we should move to the German model where some students go to university and others attend vocational schools.

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