My take on common misconceptions about the Khan Academy

With all of the positive press the Khan Academy has received lately, we’ve also started attracting a bunch of new critics. This is a good thing. I can’t tell you how existing in an echo chamber where everyone loves everything you are doing can make a sane person become really paranoid after a while. While there are a bunch of really valid concerns about what we’re doing, I wanted to try to tackle some of the more pervasive misconceptions about the Khan Academy from my perspective.

Misconception 1: The Khan Academy is trying to replace teachers

This is totally false. We have no desire to replace teachers. Teachers are in a unique position to understand their students in a way that a computer program has no hope of doing any time soon (maybe post-singularity?). We firmly believe that this understanding is important from both an educational and social perspective, and if anything, we hope to improve it.

Our goal is to offer tools that will provide great teachers with better assessments and help in motivating students to take charge of their own learning while creating more time for project/concept learning and greater opportunity for truly differentiated instruction. Most great teachers are already trying to find ways to provide these things to their students. We think we can help them.

As for the bad teachers — the unqualified one, the one phoning it in, the one with no passion for the craft of educating — we’re on a mission to make sure that those teachers’ students have a way out. In other words, if the Khan Academy is a substitute for what you’re doing, you’re doing it wrong, and we’re going to make that much more obvious. 

A smart guy once said to me, “The Khan Academy probably won’t replace a truly great teacher, but it could make the world bad-teacher-proof.” Exactly.

Misconception 2: We think students should use the KA all day, just like they go to class all day

Again, totally false. There’s a shared belief around here, based on many combined years of educational experience, that many teachers have a tendency to overcomplicate things. That combined with a lack of differentiated instructions leads to an incredible amount of wasted time in traditional educational settings. We think it’s possible to spend much less on instruction if the instruction is actually targeted at what a student needs to understand right now to get her to master a concept.

The dream is to reduce the amount of instruction time overall, but especially to reduce the amount of time spent on broadcast instruction. Instead, use that time for targeted intervention and project learning/concept application with guidance of peer tutors and the teacher. 

Misconception 3: The Khan Academy is a mechanical how-to guide that doesn’t teach ideas

I’ve seen this one a bunch recently, and I’ve been trying hard to figure out exactly where it comes from since Sal makes such an effort to include concept development in his videos, and we rarely hear this complaint from students. In some cases, and I suspect that this isn’t actually that uncommon, it’s just confusion from not actually watching the videos all the way through. I think this one is driven by expectation. Teachers have seen resources that seem very much like the Khan Academy before, and there is a tendency to believe that our videos are like all other videos. In practice, this isn’t what we’re seeing. We’re constantly getting feedback from students that the videos make the difference in “getting it.” Watching only a small portion of randomly selected videos might not show you the concept development. I encourage people to dig a bit deeper before dismissing the work that’s been done on this.

None of this is to say that we can’t get better at this. I’ve seen an interesting suggestion recently about showing common misconceptions in the videos as a way to increase engagement and the chances of deeper learning more quickly. I just happen to believe, based on the feedback we’re getting from users, that we’re not missing the mark here as badly as some suggest. 

One other thing: Mechanics have their place, especially in developmental math. Some things need to be able to be done quickly and without much thought. If I need to reason out how to multiply things every time I do a multiplication problem, I am going to be some pretty deep doo doo. After seeing the number of students that struggle with multiplication facts, I am inclined to say that we shouldn’t be dismissive of this either. If we can find ways to make this practice more engaging (as we’re trying to do) maybe it will take care of itself in time.

Misconception 4: The Khan Academy is all about changing school

This one is a bit subtler than the others. While I believe that the Khan Academy can be used in the classroom to great effect, it is not actually about school, in the institutional sense. It is about learning.

Since joining the Khan Academy, I’ve spent a lot of time developing stuff that’s helpful to teachers (who typically teach in schools, but we get a ton of homeschoolers too), and I’ve done a bunch of work making things better for students. At no time during design or development did the team make a decision that would benefit schools at the cost of motivated learners visiting us out of curiosity, or homeschoolers, or all of the bankers that come just to watch videos about currency issues with China and the financial crisis. 

When students and teachers/coaches engage with us, we take their input and feedback seriously no matter where they teach or learn. Our goal is to democratize people’s ability to become educated. This doesn’t mean that as an organization we won’t work to help schools implement the Khan Academy in their classrooms, and institutional change in schools may very well be affected by the work we are doing, but we don’t kid ourselves about this: that kind of change will be the result of an incredibly lengthy process, and improving access to a high-quality education is just as important to those outside the school system as in it.

Misconception 5: We think that the system we’ve developed today is the one that is going to get us to our end goals

It seems like a lot of people look at the Khan Academy and see a finished product of some kind. I think that is due in part to Sal having developed so much content over the last several years (what a jerk, right?). From the outside, we don’t exactly look like a startup, but culturally and organizationally we are. I think if a VC were to meet us today, they would see a smart motivated team with great (charismatic) leadership that really believes that they can put a serious dent in the problem of access to high quality educational experiences for everyone. We are scrappy. We are obsessed with delivering a great experience. And we are open-minded. We are not arrogant. We do not believe that we have all the answers. I think that VC would look at us and the success we’ve managed so far — and then they would get all sad because we’re a non-profit.

Seriously though, the critiques of the .9 beta version (the version number I have just made up out of thin air to describe the state of the site) as not being the be-all end-all of educational tools remind me a lot of the critiques that people have about startups in the early stages. There’s a lot of good stuff to come. All we can do is work our asses off and hope that we continue getting people to love the site enough and use it enough to give us the time we need to execute on our plans.

In summary…

The Khan Academy is not trying to get all teachers fired. We do not want to see kids sitting in front of computer screens all day. We strive to make sure that we are teaching concepts and will continue to work at this. We’d love to see institutional change in schools but we have a much more pressing mission of making high quality education accessible to as many people as possible as quickly as possible. And we are nowhere near convinced that we’ve gotten everything exactly right today and spend every day finding ways to make it better. 

In the end, whether we succeed or fail, I am thrilled to be working on a project that is fueling the kind of discussion and debate. I am hopeful, and perhaps even overly confident, that the Khan Academy will continue to be a positive force in that debate. But what kind of startup would it be if the employees didn’t believe in the mission and the company’s ability to deliver?

UPDATE 1: Tried to clean up the phrasing on #4. It was causing some confusion about whether or not we were planning to get KA implemented in schools. We are, we are just designing with a bigger audience in mind.