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Visual Learning

Michael Noer's One Man, One Computer, 10 Million Students: How Khan Academy is Reinventing Education
Visual Learning

Education in America today, particularly so-called “Higher Education”, is in turmoil as it has not been perhaps in our nation’s history. Only a little research in the matter points to the digital revolution as the largest culprit, but others are the lowering of the status of teachers in our society, the controversy surrounding the positive and negative aspects of teachers’ unions, and the advance of many other nations in the educational arena of our world. As has been documented many times, Americans are getting their socks beaten off by other countries in the test scores of everything from mathematics to reading, and no one seems to know what to do about it.

In this brief article, Michael Noer documents one attempt on the part of a young, Silicon valley entrepreneur, Salman Khan, who in 2006, founded Khan Academy, a website that attempts to provide “a high quality education for anyone, anywhere,” a quotation from the organization’s mission statement. At that time it was simply Khan’s hobby, while he worked as a hedge fund analyst, but in 2009, Khan devoted his full-time attention to the nonprofit. The Wikipedia article on Khan Academy quotes Bill Gates as saying, “I’d say we’ve moved about 160 IQ points from the hedge fund category to the teaching-many-people-in-a-leveraged-way category. It was a good day his wife let him quit his job.” Gates and a number of other philanthropic venture capitalists from around the world have now made Khan Academy able to do its work in many languages around the globe.

The Academy has focused its attention on creating and managing over 4,000 YouTube videos. Distinctive to Khan’s method is that these are not “talking head” videos but rather present their concepts as if “popping out of a darkened universe and into one’s mind with a voice out of nowhere”. The model is that of one person showing another person how to solve a problem by directing both person’s eyes to a screen, book or tablet in front of them, as one would in a tutorial. Important, too, is that students are urged to learn at their own pace. They can pause the tutorial or rewind it to go over portions that are not yet understood before advancing to new material. The brevity of the lessons creates a sense of accomplishment in the student and encourages them to continue, too.

Noer uses Khan Academy to jump into an insightful analysis of all online learning from its origins at Harvard, Rice and MIT in the 1990’s to its recent explosion in classes of 155,000 students at MIT and the famous Introduction to Artificial Intelligence class taught by Sebastian Thrun at Stanford. Because of the response to this class, Thrun quit his professorship and started Udacity, a for-profit company teaching courses in science, engineering and entrepreneurship. Thrun claims that of his 160,000 online students in the Stanford course, fully 15% of them completed his course at a Stanford grade level, and even out of his 200 student Stanford attendees, 170 preferred the digital class and outperformed the others on tests.

Noer claims that the revolution is happening now because certain pieces of the puzzle, which were not in place in the past, are now available. “With education several things were needed that until this decade hadn’t materialized: widespread broadband, low content costs (both creation and distribution) and rapidly proliferating mobile devices. And just as critically, a shift in social norms that accepts the efficacy of online learning coupled with a generation of digital natives willing to wholeheartedly embrace it.”

For the Christian of course all this begs the question of whether this type of learning actually accomplishes the goal of teaching not only knowledge, but also wisdom. In fact, there has not been enough time yet to know whether it even teaches us knowledge in a lasting, constructive way. Will the students of the future, if only digitally educated, know how to move from one fact to the next in a consistent and connective way without the help of human teachers communicating not only their data but their skill to the student.

Of course some of that learning comes from doing, and Khan’s method emphasizes practical exercises in which the students engage, and which they have to finish before they move forward. In addition, new roles for teachers are envisioned by many of these education revolutionaries. In the new world, teachers who are good mentors could concentrate on one-to-one time; teachers who are great lecturers can widen their audience. Interestingly, though much of the online material is free, no one really envisions the end of schools or colleges and universities.

No one knows where this is leading, but they know it is away from what seems to have been failing our students for too many years now. Christians need to be at the forefront of that movement, helping to shape it with the wisdom that we derive from the God whose earthly role was primarily that of a Rabbi, when He walked the earth.

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