Saturday, January 12, 2013


The last time I wrote about education, I was emailed by a few people who were excited by the rise in open educational resources (OER) and massive open online courses (MOOCs). A few of my friends believe this is one reason why a free, open Internet is so important around the world. Of course, sometimes those very friends forget that an open Internet is one problem, but a more fundamental problem is Internet access at all or, even more basic, literacy. There are so many people who are cut off from the Internet today because most webpages are user-friendly for those who can read.

Still, many changes are continuing to happen. As I try to push for increased literacy work, access work, and education work through my company, I want to highlight a few new things I’ve seen recently.

Salman Khan, founder of Kahn Academy, was interviewed by Google recently. I sat down to watch it after someone sent me the 1-hour interview of Salman Khan. I had already seen his 2011 TED talk on videos in education. I really like Sal and am amazed that he left a lucrative career and job at a hedge fund to try to make these online educational videos but he really is transforming education. Two points from this interview resonate very strongly with my experience.

First, I hate lecturing. Even if I’m not simply lecturing, my least preferred way of teaching is simply introducing, telling, and explaining a new concept to students. I do it if I have to; I do it if there is not enough time to teach a better way (which always requires a greater time investment). My most preferred way is exploratory lessons, inquiry-based learning, expeditionary education, or self-guided instruction. There is still a role for a teacher but it is an altered role, and the teacher no longer leads the instruction; the student does. This is what I love in secondary education.

In higher (tertiary) education, where lecturing is expected, I still avoid it. If I was able to avoid administrative intervention, I would always make students learn the material outside of class and use “lecture-time” for problem solving, correcting misunderstandings, etc. It was always so much more effective. Of course, you need students who will actually initially learn the material or read the material outside of class.

Now if you listen to Sal talk in the interview, this is exactly what he says. The Khan Academy staff actually work with schools to implement and use Khan Academy courses in the classroom allowing students to work at their own pace. The teacher shifts her role to that of an aid or clarifier and classroom time is not used for lecture but instead for extra help, going deeper, correcting mistakes, etc. This is called flipping the classroom. This is pretty amazing to be able to do this at the secondary school level and make it work. I love it and hope they continue.

The biggest and most important notion he brought up is a horrible divide that develops at quite a young age, both at home, in school, and the community between smart kids and dumb kids. It’s a false divide, honestly.  I’ve never done social scientific research to try to prove my hypothesis, but a teacher knows. I’ve said it before: I have never had a single students, not one, who mastered the previous year and all lessons of my class up to today that then could not understand and master today’s lesson. Any trouble is almost always due to holes or gaps in knowledge (which my school would blame me for). Normally what happens is you keep going. If I’m teaching statics and a student has a gap in algebra, this is a statistics class for final year students (seniors, 12th graders); I’m not supposed to teach something outside the scope of the course. Usually I was only allowed to go back and teach something else if a significant percentage of the class had the same gap. So you keep going. If a student fails an exam, the student should continue to work on that topic until comprehension and passing that objective, but not in school. Once the exam has been given, we move on to the next unit or chapter or module. I tried to work against this by using objective-based tracking, but even then I had to tell students to work on previously failed-objectives after school, at night, or weekends. We didn’t have time in the class. And the extra weight of it became too much for many students especially when they are behind across the board, in multiple classes/subjects.

With the teachers who use Khan Academy in schools, students can go at their own pace and they don’t continue to a succeeding topic until the pass and master the preceding one (for cumulative subjects like mathematics and science). This is really important and helps to avoid passing a student who hasn’t learned the material. All schools should move in this direction. Thankfully there have been innovative schools that have done this, like Montessori, though in the minority. The tough part about what I have said is that people don’t believe you because you haven’t done research to prove it. Khan Academy has started to do research, and they are seeing that when you fill the remediation gaps in a ‘weak’ student, “that same kid that you thought was weak 6 months ago is now the best student in the class, and we’re seeing it over and over again.” Yes. Watch the interview.

I’m such a big fan of what they are doing at Khan Academy and how they’ve grown and are going after an even bigger mission across the country and world. I’ve always wanted to work there, and would do it in a second if I had the chance.

Due to the rise in OER, much of it in the form of MOOCs, Stanford University has decided to make a bold move. Both Coursera and Udacity come from current and former Stanford University professors, so it’s no surprise that Stanford University is the first university to create a new vice provost position. On the 30th of August, 2012, Stanford University announced the creation of its first Vice Provost for Online Learning. The Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning (VPOL) will be part of the larger Stanford Online Initiative and shows Stanford’s commitment to online learning not just for it’s physically enrolled students but for people studying its courses from around the world. I, myself, decided to try an online course and took one from a group called TechChange.

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