Itsy Bitsy Pieces

By | June 12, 2011

Salman Khan, of Khan Academy fame, has been in the news a lot lately as his novel approach to education gains traction and funding, and even begins to be applied in traditional classrooms. I have been eagerly anticipating this kind of paradigm shift in education for a long time, and I think the consequences are even more far-reaching than it appears on the surface.

First of all, there’s lots to like about Khan’s approach, including:
  • The casual style and accessibility of his presentations – more like a conversation than a lecture
  • The ability for anyone, anywhere, anytime to access the materials and learn at his/her own pace
  • The ability to repeat, review, jump ahead, and jump around between topics as desired
  • The recently added practice materials and monitoring systems that let teachers manage their classrooms and students’ learning in completely new ways, for example – watching the videos at home, and doing “homework” in the classroom
Lots of universities and colleges, led initially by MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative, have been posting video lectures and course materials online for several years, and that has no doubt been extremely useful to many who lack the ability, for whatever reason, to attend one of these institutions and take one of the courses. But it’s really just traditional education with a new delivery method, and I don’t think it has been as transformative as it might initially sound.

Khan Academy comes at the problem from a completely different direction and I think that makes all the difference. By breaking things down into bite-sized chunks–essentially modularizing the subject matter and mapping it into various sequences, whole new learning methods become practical:
  • You don’t have to sit through an hour-long lecture to get to the part of the information that you need right now.
  • Various components of subject matter can be mixed and matched to customize a curriculum or make it easier to just follow wherever your curiosity leads.
  • You can demonstrate mastery of smaller chunks as you go along–no need for high pressure testing situations and cramming, and the interactivity of the experience keeps you engaged in the learning process.
  • The learning management technology makes it possible to group, connect, and work with others (next to you or anywhere in the world) who are at the exact same level, or who have complementary expertise, or who have similar interests.
Thinking further about what will be possible when this type of educational experience is the norm, it makes ideas like continuous lifetime learning, more precise matching of knowledge and skills to jobs, and the transition of the teaching profession into “learning consultants” really practical and, in my mind, inevitable. No longer will we need “one-size fits all” standardized curricula, tests, textbooks, degrees, or other credentials. Education can then be truly customized to meet the needs and desires of the individual, transforming from something you have to do or that you just do in school, to an ongoing, integrated part of your life. THAT will be the real paradigm shift, and I can see it on the horizon!
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