Mathalicious screams “Khaaaaaaaaaan”

I know, I should have found a copy of the YouTube video of Kirk screaming, but you get the idea.

Mathalicious.com seems like a nice site. Integrated math skills tied to real world objects. I’m not entirely sure that they are real world problems, partially because I am not willing to actually pay to look at the material and partially because after reading the post I am not interested enough to dig into the samples.

What am I talking about? They went on a little rant about Kahn Academy. You can find the post here. I am going to do a video going through the post step by step, mainly  because whenever I start re-reading it I find myself inexplicably on a Soap Box of my own. The comment section after the article is well represented and most of what I want to say is represented with varying degrees of effectiveness.

However, I do need to touch on a couple things. I am sure I’ll go over them again in the video (which I’ll repost here after I get it done).

I want to frame this as an ESL issue though. In ESL/SLA classrooms there is slow movement towards more integrated and project based learning, but here in Japan there is still a majority who doesn’t really understand project or task based work. They are stuck in the comfort of the low level rote memorization. So with that in mind, on to the post.

The author(s) (it’s a little unclear and there is no byline), contend that Kahn Academy is not a revolution in education and in fact it is dangerous. Here is the hard part, I agree with the first half. Kahn Academy (KA), while interesting, is not a revolution in education. It is a very well implemented evolution in the delivery of education.

The post opens with a reference to a Raytheon report that states that 61% of middle school students would rather take out the garbage than do their math homework. What surprises me about this finding is that it is only 61%. It seems like it should be a much higher number, and perhaps if it looked at all homework, it would be higher. Either way, it is not quite possible to say what the cause of this result is from. There are a number of factors other than the desirability of math homework that could explain this. But it is a very pretty strawman that just feels right. That will be a phrase that I am pretty sure I will unfortunately have to revisit several times throughout this response. At the end of this section the author says that KA is just doing exactly the same thing that classroom teachers have been doing for years and have been rejected by students. To that I respond, sort of… While some (or many) of the KA vids are re-worked classroom lectures, the fact that students can access them at home, while doing the homework, or anytime they have an internet connection and a device to play the videos is a HUGE change. One that mathalicious also leverages.

In Japan, students and teachers are still pretty much unaware of KA and have NO access to lectures after school hours. The fact that the KA lectures can be played, re-played and re-played again, at the student’s home or on the student’s phone is not something that can be glossed over. That is what make KA a revolution in some eyes and and evolution in others.

The next section is where the authors really show what their complaint is. Bill Gates gave KA a huge grant. The authors are upset that KA used this to hire systems engineers and computer specialists. First, if you want to build a robust system that doesn’t break when more than 300 people try to use it at the same time, making sure you have good infrastructure people is an excellent start. So, really, what I read is that mathalicious is upset because they didn’t get any of the money or notoriety.

They go on to cite (sort of, they never actually say where the quotes come from) Erlwanger sometime in 1973 railing against Individually Prescribed Instruction (IPI) and programmed instruction. Well, without being able to figure out what the rest of the context for that quote is, it is challenging to figure out what Erlwanger is on about. When you look at the computer programming and ability to deliver adaptive instruction in the early 1970’s, it is hard to argue against (the assumed theory) that IPI would be a mass produced set of instruction aimed at the lowest common denominator. Yep, that would not be ideal. But even today, how many classrooms in the US fit that description. A teacher (doing their best) teaching the steps to the slowest student in the room. Yes, I know, that is not every classroom but it is what most people remember about their own education. In Japan, this is the standard. The classes move through the grades together and while the bright students may be given extra work, the classroom is paced at the slowest student there. This is where the high school rankings and high school entrance exams come in to play. The high school entrance exams are one way that the schools try to make sure the students coming in have a minimum level. Yes, even public high schools have an entrance exam. If you don’t pass the exam, you don’t go to high school.

At the end of that section, the author states, “the best way for students to learn math is to work closely with a teacher trained in pedagogy and supported by an effective curriculum.” Well, yeah, or for the student to have one on one lessons with that highly trained and well paid teacher every day. But that really isn’t how the US educational system (or really any national educational system) is set up. If you have the money, you can have a personal tutor.

The next section, entitled “This Time it’s Different”, seems to be a mix of educators’ fears and a hidden layer of good points. The author laments that KA will replace classroom math instruction due to “exponential growth + budget cuts”. That seems unlikely. If your child’s school cuts math ed. and says KA will now run the entire math education for the school, get the principal and the school board fired. I cannot imagine a situation where that would happen, but it is a very pretty strawman, and it even has fangs!!

So, to channel Jeff Jarvis for a moment… Gutenberg. The whole movable type thing had a similar effect. The Church was horrified that anyone other than them could write a book for publication. Scholars lamented the end of education because libraries collected works all into a single location and how easy was that. Textbooks weakened the students’ minds by not forcing them to write down every word the teacher spoke. The internet will ruin education. Google will prevent students from knowing basic information. Filter bubble. All of my chips are on this shiny new toy. Robot zombies from hell…. ah got carried away there, but you see the point.

Good Enough is Good Enough… or Mathalicious channels the recording and tv industries in the late 20th and early 21st centuries and the Church from somewhere in the Middle Ages. Ever heard of Just-In-Time training? The authors are upset because KA gives students “what they want, when they want it.” And goes on to pout that it is not what they need. Or, um, what they think students need. And that leads on to the actual problem for mathalicious. KA is free. The authors are going through the exact same arguments that the media companies have been struggling with for the past 20 years. It all comes down to “I don’t wanna compete with free.”  Too bad. That is the way the world is now.

“KA will make it difficult for something better to come along.” Nope. But sometimes society doesn’t choose the best one. See the VHS vs. BetaMax battle. Or, how about this, Facebook will make it difficult for a new social media platform to come along. Talk to G+. This is a very very pretty strawman. Let me restate mathalicious’ argument… I don’t wanna compete with KA, I don’t like KA’s pedagogy (even though it is pretty similar to what happens in the classroom everyday).  Mathalicious will never be able to charge what we are charging because KA is free and freely available.  Or at least that is what I see when I read it.

There are issues about our educational system that need to be solved. Almost everyone agrees we need to be doing better at every level from elementary to the doctorate. KA stepped up and took a shot. They took a swing and connected in a more solid way than pretty much anything in education has since Dewey. But whining about competition isn’t the answer.

Mathalicious, if you are better than KA step up and take that swing. Make it count and find some grants and sponsors. Make your projects free so that we can see why your way is better rather than crying a river about why KA is terrible and unfair. But if you are going to pull out ivory tower excuses and old media complaints, it is time for you to fold up shop. I hear much the same things from teachers across the country here in Japan as well. That isn’t the way we did it. Well, those days are gone and they are not coming back.

I for one, wish you luck. Online education is where we are going. Worldwide.

About Scott
  • http://twitter.com/vpletap Purav Patel

    Scott, great points throughout your post. I posted my own critique in the comments section, which I’ll share here verbatim:

    All nice points Karim, but I’d like to play devil’s advocate. First, you claim that”On the most recent Program for International Student Assessment, American high school students finished 25th in math among OECD countries.” As a math educator, you should be wary of statistics. Rank order fails to separate statistically insignificant differences. Moreover, when controlled for race, US (Whites and Asians) do very well in international math, science, and reading exams considering the largely ill-equipped schools they attend. Check out the stats here…http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/international/ide/Also, your claim that ” Meanwhile, a recent Raytheon report found that 61 percent of middle school students would rather take out the garbage than do their math homework.” is also statistically devious. It seems that most schoolchildren don’t enjoy math or even that most hate it. The truth is more nuanced than this. According to a Gallup up, math was by far the MOST liked subject in school . My source is http://www.gallup.com/poll/12007/math-teens-favorite-school-subject.aspxIt is also a straw man fallacy to claim that KA doesn’t promote conceptual understanding or will be counterproductive to conceptual understanding. A large part of KA is project-based learning, which media sadly don’t report on. For info, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=AkSGR_oj0rg andhttp://www.khanacademy.org/about/blog/post/6844033473/bringing-creativity-to-class-time-by-sal-khanGiven the proven effectiveness of project-based learning, a well-implemented KA curriculum will almost certainly work. Compared to the inconsequential and low-level projects normally implemented by many, KA projects (as seens in the above links) are more genuine, interesting, and meaningful. They promote interdisciplinary connections between math, computer science, engineering , economics, and the arts (see Vi Hart, who is in charge of this summer’s Discovery Lab). Failing to ignore these projects and the vision of KA as an tool to foster interactive classroom experiences is failing to understand what KA really IS. By only evaluating the website, a great disservice is done. Sal speaks about his ideal classroom experience herehttp://www.khanacademy.org/video/year-2060–education-predictions?topic=talks-and-interviewsYour claim that KA will prevent something better to come along is also wrong. It is through KA that people like Vi Hart and Brit Cruise (http://www.youtube.com/user/ArtOfTheProblem) are able to devote their careers to developing not only conceptual math/sci videos, but projects as well as part of the KA summer camp. From Khan’s vids, this summer camp will be a springboard to distribute meaningful and engaging math/sci projects over the web. Also, considering that KA’s plan is to open up the website to customization and production of videos/exercises, this will allow more materials to surface are be distributed. Expect more Vi Harts-type educators in the future and an outlet to share meaningful projects-based curricula.

  • edgycation

    Thank you for the comment Purav,
    I’ll have to check out the Hart and Cruise videos.
    This is the way education is moving and it’ll take a fair bit of training for teachers and some open minds to make the transition go smoothly.