Wednesday, 23 September 2015

TANDQ 04: Riffing On Khan

In 2014-2015 I wrote an education column called "There Are No Dumb Questions" for the website "MuseHack". As that site has evolved, I have decided to republish those columns here (updating the index page as I go) every Wednesday. This fourth column originally appeared on Thursday, July 3, 2014.

How can you tell when criticism is justified?

Look for certain telltale signs. I’ll expand on that below, after I tell you what Khan Academy has in common with old movies. Specifically, about something called “Mystery Teacher Theatre 2000”.

Odds are good that you’ve heard about Khan Academy. But let me quickly recap the history. Ten years ago, in 2004, Salman Khan posted videos on YouTube to help his cousin with seventh grade math. YouTube being a public forum, he got positive feedback not just from relatives, but from many people. Thus the not-for-profit “Khan Academy” was created, and in 2009, Khan decided to turn this hobby of making videos into his profession, quitting his job as a hedge fund analyst. In 2010, Bill Gates advocated for Khan at the Aspen Ideas Festival. That same year, “Khan Academy” won one of 5 two million dollar prizes from Google. In 2011, Salman Khan gave a TED Talk about using his videos to reinvent education. In 2012, he was featured on “60 Minutes” and he was listed (as an educator) among “The World’s 100 Most Influential People: 2012” in Time Magazine. But something else also happened in 2012.

The “Mystery Teacher Theatre 2000” (MTT2K) videos began in June 2012. Two professors (Dave Coffey and John Golden) watched a Khan video, commenting in the style of “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” to “get a conversation started”. Justin Reich and Dan Meyer picked up on this idea, sponsoring an MTT2K prize for video critiques. (Incidentally, Meyer also has the credentials of a TED Talk, in 2010.) And conversation did occur. The media reported on the issue. Khan himself responded to one critic in The Washington Post. Many teachers made MTT2K videos (mine among them), the winning video looking at “What if Khan Academy was made in Japan?” And in fact, the very idea of videos being used for instruction had been critiqued a year earlier, in 2011 - here’s Veritasium’s look at “Effectiveness of Science Videos”. Increasing confidence in the wrong answers? That can’t be good!

Haters Gonna... Wait

Hopefully you’ve noticed that at least some of the criticism levelled at video instruction is valid. Don’t get me wrong - I’m not saying all criticism is valid, or that you should let a few people talk you out of pursuing your dreams. But I do think that this story illustrates how easy it can be for any of us to dismiss criticism of our work as “THEY don’t understand”. (Particularly when, as in Khan’s case, you have people in high places who are on your side.) So, to return to the original question, what are the signs that your critics may have a point, as opposed to just “haters gonna hate”?

First, look at their qualifications. When asked about why teachers were upset, Khan responded “It’d piss me off too, if I had been teaching for 30 years and suddenly this ex-hedge-fund guy is hailed as the world’s teacher”. But if “they” actually have qualifications you do not, it might not be that they are simply nitpicking. It may be that they have some understanding or experience that you lack. Just because you’re an innovator doesn’t mean you should disregard the history.  Secondly, look at the research. I’ve already mentioned confirmation bias, whereby we tend to find exactly what we’re looking for - whether it’s wrong or right. So is all your data anecdotal? Should we dismiss the Veritasium experiment above as a single incident, or is it worth doing further research? Finally, look at your goals. If they align with the goals of those people who are criticizing you, then perhaps it’s more beneficial that you all work together to get results. Granted, there are always those people who will be trying to tear you down so that they can “get the credit”, or have less competition. But if that’s their goal, presumably it doesn’t align with yours any more.

In all cases, you shouldn’t lose heart - you can upgrade your qualifications, you can track down new research in order to counter any future claims, and you can build a network of people with different perspectives to help you make more progress. Granted, it’s easier to simply dismiss those critics and keep walking down the same path - but you should at least ask yourself if that is in your best interests.

As far as Khan Academy goes, two years later, it has been piloted in many schools. EdSurge summarized an in-depth implementation report, adding the caveat “No single implementation model was used across all the sites”. Khan has also partnered with other institutions to promote blended learning, and with NASA to promote STEM opportunities - good on them for that. The Academy has even moved to become “Common Core aligned”… which invites a host of new critics who are against that educational model. Through it all, Khan has spoken of changing “the traditional classroom”. Because we all know what “a classroom” looks like, right? It’s a bunch of geek teachers coming up with crazy ideas, trying their best to educate people… people who have a tendency to simply tune them out. Then again, the classroom might be a bunch of students watching five year old instructional videos, wondering if a remake might look any better. No, that’s silly - why would anyone want to update a classic?

For further viewing:

1. Summary of Funding to Khan Academy

2. An open letter to Sal Khan (2013)

3. Educators Meta Parody their own MTT2K video (video)

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