Being interested in all things edtech, I (like many of you out there) have been following the developments associated with Khan Academy for a while now.
I tried out the maths program on Khan myself this morning, and was really impressed with it. Then I considered some of the criticisms I have seen circulating around the Blogosphere, alongside what I can only term a rigid reluctance to even consider the model from a maths-teaching colleague, and contemplated the very tricky issue of context.
When it comes to context, this -- apparently -- is where Khan and any other online automated instructional model appears to fall down. To that we might add the idea of applied, in that numeracy and other major skills like literacy need to work in the real world and be applied to real life problems or situations for them to incorporate any sort of legitimacy.
I agree. Numeracy and literacy skills need to be contextualised and applied.
But I don't agree that this makes programs like Khan Academy illegitimate. For a variety of reasons.
For one, who decides when, where and how skills are contextualised and applied in the real world? Do we need a context before we can contemplate a problem and learn the necessary skills and processes to handle it? Or can we build certain skills and bring them to bear on the situations as they arise?
If you're telling me that, via our traditional education models with a teacher-fronted classroom and workbooks, context is automatically guaranteed then I would claim you are deluding yourself. Quite clearly, learners are often building numeracy and literacy sub-skills in school well before they ever need to use them for practical purposes. The assumption often is that learners need certain skills before they can be applied to broader real-life problems.
Based on that argument, something like Khan is just as legitimate as any school-based learning program, and possibly more so given that learners can progress through their skill building at their own pace, in more places than a classroom, with efficient application of time based on their individual needs.
Okay, so even if this is the case we still need teachers to facilitate context-rich situations in order to help learners apply the skills for real. Right?
To some degree, yes.
As I've already alluded to, not all teachers actually do this, and not all the time. Many teachers are just as good at presenting a theory and calculation on the whiteboard and having learners practice it with a series of completely decontextualised problems as Khan is.
However, I think that the assumption that many learners can't independently learn how to pick and choose from available skills to apply to given contexts and problems as they present themselves is an erroneous one. Research such as Piaget's would appear to suggest that, through processes like assimilation and adaptation, we appear to be pretty well hard-wired to instinctively pick and choose from available skills and experiment with them to see what eventually gets us the result we are looking for.
Not all learners, of course. And those are the learners who would benefit most from having a teacher, someone who can scaffold, help facilitate (or at least illustrate) the contexts and highlight the skills we need to deal with them. Environments are everything. Some learners learn how to negotiate them very well on their own faster than others, while certain students will need very targeted individualised help for quite a lot of the overall distance.
Personally I believe applications like the Khan model and innovative classroom-based teaching and learning both have their merits. Used together, they could be pretty darned powerful in reaching different kinds of learners based on their individual points of need.
To say something like Khan is a perfect solution that renders classroom-based teachers redundant is obviously a pretty sweeping call, and I don't agree with it.
But to write it off as being ineffective because it doesn't apply specific and individualised context before, during and after discreet skill-building is also full of rather risky assumptions.
Perhaps, as teachers, we should hold off on instinctively taking Khan Academy out of context, and think about when, where, how (and for whom) we could be putting it into context.