A response to those threatened or excited by the Khan Academy resources
(with Ted Bongiovanni)

Over the past couple years, many conversations I’ve had about educational technology with my colleagues and administrators turn to the Khan Academy videos.   For those of you who don’t know the Khan Academy has a library of close to 3,000 videos and self-assessments that “teach” topics in finance, history, physics, arithmetic, calculus, art history, computer science, etc. The resource is free and available to anyone. 
It’s a great resource for people to gain a working understanding of a particular topic. The audience is anyone who wants to learn more about a topic through through watching and listening to videos. 
I’m certainly reference Khan in conversation when describing different modes and models of teaching and learning. In fact, in my book, my co-author and I reference the Khan academy. The we way reference it is as a RESOURCE.
However, a larger dialogue is taking place in higher education community at large about the Khan Academy. Questions arise such as “can we create a Khan Academy resource with our faculty instead of teaching basic courses?” “Can we make better use of our best faculty by filming them and posting their lectures online? This way we can relieve them of the burden of teaching the same subjects year after year. “
The Khan Academy is challenging institutions of higher learning. As faculty, we hear rumors that students are going to this resource to learn and review concepts that they should have learned in their university level course.  The notion that Khan can replace the college classroom is further reinforced by Anya Kamenetz’s book DYI U.
Freedom vs. Fear
My first supposition is: 
Faculty are challenged by a resource as robust and thorough as the Khan academy

Some faculty feel they are the “holders” of knowledge and that through “teaching” students learn. This statement is not intended to offend faculty. I’m a professor myself. I think that there is a legitimate concern about how our students learn.

When students go outside and learn the concepts on their own (through Khan or some other non-authorized faculty suggested resource) some of us may get scared.   Perhaps Khan is better at teaching linear programming than I am? I am I obsolete? What’s my role as a teacher when students have learned the things I was suppose to teach them? Moreover, I haven’t approved these resources as part of my syllabus. Perhaps students know more than me? This can challenge a teacher who feels his/her students are vessels to be filled with knowledge and that knowledge should come from faculty prescribed materials.  Ignorance also contributes to this fear. Many faculty haven’t taken the time to really watch a whole video on the Khan Academy. Therefore, they haven’t experienced the potential value of such a resource. Just like “cliff” notes, if it is a resource that the students has identified as helpful to their learning, then all the better.  

These are serious questions and concerns. 
Watching vs. Learning

My second supposition is:
Teaching and learning is misunderstood
Like MIT OpenCourseware, the Khan Academy provides an approach to teaching that is pretty passive. Learners can watch the videos and maybe do a few exercises to try to practice the skills learned. These resources are geared towards self-motivated learners. The Khan videos appeal to a few learning styles: Intrapersonal, Logical, and Visual learners. However, they have less of an affect on linguistic, kinesthetic, and interpersonal learners. (If you don’t know what any of this means, check out VARK assessment  or Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences to learn more about how you and others learn).  For example, the learner who needs to actually communicate with an instructor and peers to learn something, the Khan resources fall short.  All the student can do is watch the video and maybe complete an online exercise. 
Faculty do much more than this in the classroom. Even mediocre professors deliver lectures where students can ask questions, interact with their classmates, read the text, complete homework assignments, and demonstrate their mastery of the subject on a midterm and final exam. 
How people learn. 

Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (1999) present a framework for understanding how people learn. The framework begins with the organization of knowledge and concludes with development of expertise and knowledge transfer. 


  1. Knowledge-centeredness: What is being taught? Why is it important? 
  2. Assessment-centeredness: Formative and summative assessments. 
  3. Learner-centeredness: What is the knowledge, skills, goals, and cultural beliefs that a learner brings to a situation. 
  4. Community Centeredness: Connectedness with the school and/or program as a whole.
The point here the Khan Academy is missing a curriculum and community of learners. Khan offers coaching and forums for participation and question. However, it’s all dependent on the participation by those using the Khan resources. It’s almost the perfect social-constructivist learning environment (except for all those didactic videos). The Khan Academy is a great resource, but it’s not anything more than that. We’re missing the social element of learning, the collaborative aspects, and the personalized faculty assessment of student progress. 

Innovation vs. Aggregation
My third supposition is:
Content is misunderstood.
For those that think the best thing to do is film faculty lectures and post them online (instead of teaching in the classroom), you’re not thinking about teaching and learning. You’re thinking about efficiency. You’re probably also thinking about building big digital libraries full of boring lectures of faculty teaching a class.  Khan keeps the audience in mind. Instead of filming a lecture that was delivered to a live audience, Khan speaks to the viewer of the video. This is an important distinction. The videos are designed for an “online” audience. It is not a re-purposed lectured that was originally delivered to live audience. 
Content isn’t just the artifacts that support learning such as textbooks and lectures. Content is the intellectual capabilities of the teacher and the transference of those strategies developed by the expert (the teacher) to the novice (the learner). 
Khan is a great resource to support a learner is his/her process of developing an understanding of the subject matter. However, it is not the resource to develop expertise in the subject. That’s our job as faculty. 
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someonePrint this page