Khan Academy annoys me, and it should annoy you

There’s been a lot of fuss about Khan Academy. In 2010, it received over $3.5 million in grants from Google and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, and people on Twitter seem to love it.

However, I have three major issues with the site.

Firstly I think Khan Academy and me differ in significantly in our view of what mathematics should be, and they way that it should be taught.

Recently I went to Crytek UK to interview people on how they use maths and why maths is useful (a video of this will be up on the site soon) and one of the interviewees said something really interesting. He talked about how most of the programming is actually fairly simple, and often he refreshes his knowledge of mathematical processes by simply Googling the answer. He told me that what they really needed from graduates, and the skills that were really useful were those of mathematical problem solving.  By far the greatest need was people who could see a problem and write that problem in a mathematical context. Most of the best mathematics is not in the doing of the problem, but working out how to phrase the problem in the first place.

Let’s consider these two questions:

Calculate £25 x 22000 and How much revenue do Hull City make each game? One of those is significantly more challenging and much more interesting and open.

Khan Academy focuses almost entirely on the mechanics of mathematics, the skills, and leaves almost no room for creativity, for thinking or for problem solving. Surely these are the very reasons we’re learning the mechanical processes for.

The second issue that I have with Khan Academy is that it’s simply not very engaging, and doesn’t make best use of the environment that it’s in. For instance, watch this video.

The web is an interactive medium. Simply presenting boring old lectures through a computer screen is not good enough. There is real possibility on the web to simulate things. You can take guesses from thousands of people. You can collate data and create rich learning environments with models and interactive software. Simply doing the same thing that put of thousands of students before but on the web isn’t a breakthrough and isn’t real innovation.

As a side note, the interface for writing equations and expressions on the web really needs a think through. Things like the image below are really unhelpful, and I found myself not bothering with the problem, becuase there’s something so unnatural about using a computer with a notepad and pen to do working out (surely using the interactivity of the web we can build in the ‘working out’ tools to enable people not to need a notepad and pen)

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 20.37.14

My third issue with Khan Academy, and with MOOC (Massive Online Open Courses) is that they neglect the role of the teacher. I strongly believe a good teacher isn’t just there to fill student’s head with knowledge. A good teacher questions. A good teacher challenges and pushes. A good teacher is created by a thousand tiny, human interactions. No online course in the world can substitute for a teacher asking a really probing question or responding to a student with enthusiasm and warmth.

I don’t want to be too harsh on Khan Academy. It’s aims to pass on functional knowledge to people with no access to it otherwise are laudable, and people taking control of their own learning is brilliant. But let’s not pretend that it’s new, or that it’s the future. It’s simply a reissue of an old book with a fancy new cover.

EDIT: This video on Khan at 6:36 terrifies me. A teacher wondering around a near silent classroom.