The Khan Academy: a virtual classroom

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Thomas Lowery, Contributing Writer

Picture a classroom full of desks occupied by young students, and at the front a blackboard, besides which stands the teacher. Then conjure an image of a large invisible strand protruding from the teacher’s head and being joined in the air by smaller strands stemming from the heads of each individual student. The strands of course represent an idea, the focal point of the class on that particular day, and the union of them suggests an ideal: that the teacher, whose larger strand indicates mastery of the subject, is conveying information clearly such that each student is compelled to connect their strand to the instructor’s.
This produces a conjoining of minds – not just fulfilling the goal of communal learning, but defining it. After all, what good is it to have a congregation of learners if this fusion does not occur?
And yet it is hardly even necessary to remind you that this union is an ideal. The fact that minds are not joining together in classrooms today is evident by the all-too familiar images of students surreptitiously toying on their phones beneath their desks or playing games on their computers despite insisting that they’re taking notes. In short, modern technology produces endless options and allows for its users to get what they want when they want it (video-streaming being the most pertinent example, I think).
In itself this is nothing terrible, and in many ways it is rather cool. It sounds as if I am digressing here, but really it ties back to that ideal of the classroom in which a teacher produces a central idea and the entire class meets it and engages it. Because of the influx of information that technology provides, the notion of a student engaging in a single idea for an extended period of time is not only fading away, but it is, dare I say, passé.
“You’re asking questions?” one student asks a friend while simultaneously updating his Twitter page. “You’re actually going to read that book? Why, whatever for?” – as if to wonder how this could be more hip than embracing the inundation of diversions made available by techo-gadgets.
Now imagine a classroom in which each student sits at his desk in front of a computer screen, each learning different lessons on the Internet according to the areas that he finds particularly difficult. The teacher is no longer a teacher in a pedagogical sense, but more an overseer, someone a student can call on for assistance. In India, this is happening today. According to The New York Times, Indian schools short on teachers or textbooks are turning to the website The Khan Academy to help students master the fundamentals of math and science.
The website, founded in 2006 by Salman Khan, offers over 3,000 videos covering not just math and science, but business, civics, history, and art. With the exception of some of the art-history lessons, this is a one-man show, with Khan and his nifty electronic blackboard at the helm of every entry.
Khan, armed with an MS in Computer Science from MIT and an MBA from Harvard Business School, is beguilingly smart. And yet it is not just his percipience in a variety of subjects that makes him successful, but his passion for them. He seems just as interested in discussing oscillatory motion as he does in explaining that the historical setting of Les Miserables was not the French Revolution. The world has responded to his work with a bang. Within a few short years, millions have turned to his website for instruction. He has not just made learning more accessible, but he’s made it exciting when too many see the quest for knowledge as a chore rather than a pleasure. On top of that, the website is available for the beautiful price of free.
This all sounds quite perfect, and yet, as in many good things, there seems to be a pitfall. I pointed it out when I said that The Khan Academy has found its way into Indian schools. Having students learning from computers in the classroom is in direct conflict with the idea of a classroom in which minds join to focus on an individual topic. The classroom, which has always been a very human and natural place, suddenly begins to take the shape of something out of a science-fiction movie.
The problem is not just that this trend could spread throughout all schools, but that by having a single person on a computer instructing students, gifted teachers may feel their need to make an impact in schools begin to diminish. They know that good-quality teachers are in high demand, but if technology can solve the problem, why should they even make an attempt to?
Conversely (and this is my hope), The Khan Academy may actually be the needed spark for gifted teachers to find jobs in schools. After all, the site’s key to success is not that it’s free or that it offers a wide range of topics, but that Salman Khan is a tremendous educator. Because that has nothing to do with technology, one would hope that others discouraged by the mess of public schools would be inspired to make a difference in the classroom. Of course, one may disagree entirely and say that learning through systems like The Khan Academy is the best way to ensure that students, working at their own pace, can grasp the necessary material. But I’m a little sentimental and prefer the view that if a classroom teacher is good enough, the children will learn. I imagine that the ghost of Mr. Chips calls more now than ever before.
I began with an ideal and hinted that technology has contributed to its being less and less of a reality. It’s a tad ironic that a man like Khan is capable of bringing that ideal to fruition, and yet the medium through which he works represents the pith of why such an ideal is so difficult to achieve.

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