Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Affinity Khan

Back in the late 90s, I produced a series to accompany a college algebra textbook. It was the most god-awful thing you've ever seen but the publisher wanted it fast and cheap and since I was able to deliver on those two metrics, so everyone but me seemed to be happy with the final product.

I was reminded of those videos recently when I reviewed a series of online lectures from the Khan Academy. Though the approaches were in many ways very different (on our tapes the author explained and worked through the problems and I then added the graphics postproduction), the content and format and style were remarkably similar. I would love to claim some kind of influence here but I can tell you with certainty that just did not happen. For starters, very few people saw our video. It was featured in a handful of schools that used this textbook and had learning labs with video equipment. More to the point, it was itself absolutely nothing new.

For a while there (and perhaps to this day is far as I know), every math textbook was expected to have a video supplement. You can find literally thousands of hours of textbook authors, many of whom were not dynamic screen presences, diligently working through problem after problem for the camera. Add to that tens of thousands of hours of taped and filmed math lessons from other sources dating back at least to the 50s and the advent of educational television. Of these, Annenberg probably did the best that I've seen and a few others stood out due to exceptionally strong instruction and clever lessons. On the whole, though, they were pretty much interchangeable and the lessons produced by the Khan Academy definitely fall right along the median.

Of course, there is more to the Khan Academy than just the few videos I've checked out but when you look at the massive amount of similar work that had been done and you consider what was already available on on YouTube and Vimeo and from MIT before Khan started the academy, it is difficult to see where the big innovation is. To be blunt, it appears that Salman Khan's main talents lie not in innovation and execution but in self-promotion and fundraising.

Khan is not a conman but he is very much a salesman. and I wonder if part of his success has to do with affinity. Khan is an MIT grad and a Harvard MBA and a former hedge fund analyst. He's at home with CEOs like Bill Gates and management consultants like David Coleman. He's smart but it's the TED-talk kind of smart that journalists find inviting rather than threatening. In other words, both the people who present the narratives and the people who sign the checks see him as one of them.

I don't want to be too harsh -- for some students, watching the Khan videos is helpful just as, for a lot of college students, watching those supplemental video tapes at home was helpful* -- but there are some bigger issues about the way we debate the issue and make policy. If we don't remember what went before and, perhaps more importantly, what failed, if we focus on the style of press releases rather than the substance of products, if we don't think seriously and clearly about these questions, we are not going to make progress.

For some more thoughts on instructional video, check out my 2012 post, the Eugen Weber Paradox over at the teaching blog and for some sharp criticisms of the Khan Academy, take a look at this article, also from 2012, which ran in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

* The university I taught at in the Nineties had a tutoring center with a set of video carrels for watching these textbook videos. They were a complete failure and the tapes went almost completely unused until we started letting students check out the tapes and watch them at home. The response and feedback were much better.

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