Learning in the Age of Khan Academy

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As disaffection for higher education grows, it may be time to rethink fundamental assumptions about teaching and learning.

Degrees of Disappointment

For all my years of preparation, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from my first semester of University. I expected it to be rigorous, which it was. I expected it to demand more self-management, which it did. But I also expected the instruction to be in some way more intensive. On this point, I was sometimes disappointed.

My introductory Psychology course was, like most, constructed around a textbook plus a lecture given to 300 groggy freshmen at 8:00 a.m. three times per week. Sitting in my dorm room poring over the textbook I realized that very nearly 100% of the information in the lecture was also in the text. At the time it seemed to me that I was not being taught Psychology so much as I was teaching it to myself. Even though the instructor and course material were fantastic, I felt cheated.

Not all my classes were as large or impersonal. Although at the time I discounted my “Liberal Studies” class for it’s lack of relevance to my major, this class numbered about 20 students and we were all expected to contribute to the class discussion. I came to enjoy this class. In retrospect, this was the kind of active instruction I was expecting. In Liberal Studies, I felt I was actively learning with others. In Psychology, I was stuffing my brain with facts on my own.

Most of my undergraduate academic career feel somewhere in between. An art history course had a gigantic twice-weekly lecture augmented with “discussion” sections. Unfortunately, function did not follow form and discussion meant merely reiterating the same material.

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The one outlier I remember from all my classes was Calculus 2. I’ve never been great shakes at math, but for reasons beyond the scope of this article, I found myself struggling with some of the hardest math problems of my life. Although the lecture was to a group of about 20 students, the amount of material that needed to be covered demanded a high-speed presentation. While the lecturer was outstanding, I just wasn’t quite fast enough to keep up.

What I was missing in class, my professor was more than willing to make up in extra help sessions. I have no doubt that sitting in my professor’s office week after week got me over what seemed like insurmountable problems. At the same time, my work with him revealed weaknesses in my prior math education.

Because the class proceeded at break-neck pace, even if I had the motivation to go back and shore up my weak foundations, there was no time. In the end, I got a C+ in the class, but never had I worked so hard for, or been so proud of a C+.

A Class Turned Upside Down

Although, on the whole, I received a great undergraduate education, my frustrations were not uncommon. In fact, the limitations of mass lectures are finally coming under scrutiny. For purely historical reasons, students have been made to sit passively and receive instruction with experts present, then to struggle actively studying, practicing, and interacting with the materials unassisted.

Maybe this plan made sense when books were as scarce as lecturers. However, today I can hear a lecture by any expert kind enough to record their talk on YouTube and read any book in print, many of which are now available instantly on tablets like the Kindle and Nook.

What good, then, is a lecturer in 2011? Salman Khan figured it out. He recorded his simple, engaging math tutorials, not for the world, but for his cousin. Yet as soon as he put these lessons on YouTube, students flocked to them. Not only were his lessons clear, but they could be watched any time, day or night, paused, rewound, and reviewed again and again. Had I studied Calculus in the same way, I could have avoided being swept away in a flood of high-speed instruction.

If educators aren’t lecturing, then what should they do? Students need individual attention not when acquiring knowledge, but when practicing applying this wisdom. Having a professor, teaching assistant, or peer on hand to assist when the problems get tough is where real-time expert attention is most valuable.

After decades of attempting to use technology for education, we may have at last found a “killer application” in Salman Khan’s Khan Academy. But to use Khan’s technology effectively requires “inverting” the entire classroom. Passive learning, which used to happen in lecture, can now happen outside of class. This frees up instructors to monitor, tutor, and coach students as they actively practice and study the material. As an undergraduate, I could feel something amiss in my education, but only now can I see what was wrong. Salman Khan and educators like him are at last questioning the assumptions that keep educators from applying effort where it is most valuable.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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