Science Fiction Classrooms

Khan Academy has long been of interest to me. I like it. I’ve used it a lot. I wanted to say that first because this post is going to sound sort of negative, but I’m talking more about general issues than I am specifically about Khan Academy – I’m just using it since we looked at it this week.

In certain circles, mostly the kind that discourage any study of the humanities and social sciences it seems, it is held up as some sort of paragon of learning. It is, of course, not that. Plenty of experts and veterans in the field of education have levied serious complaints against Khan Academy for fuzzing details, using technically inaccurate language and definitions, sloppy instruction, lack of planning, “gamification” gimmicks, and generally doing a lot of things that get called “bad teaching” in the classroom. Watch a lecture -> repeat what you saw. The Washington Post and Edweek both have interesting critiques of Khan Academy, as does Education Digest and other places. Sal Khan is a pretty smart guy but he’s certainly no educator. Some think that’s a good thing, others think it’s a bad thing. He’s not “killing the lecture” like one article I read suggested, he’s just putting it online. I often see Khan Academy hyped to almost unbelievable levels by other hype-masters like Bill Gates and the less-than-exemplary demographics of Reddit. My own experiences with Khan Academy have been mixed. Like almost any other “teach yourself” tool, I’ve found that if you use it exclusively, you’re going to come away with a flawed, but passable, understanding. I’m not against Khan Academy, of course – but I caution people with it. It is incomplete. It is flawed. Like any educational tool. If you want to learn math, you need multiple outlets to do it. One of the John Seely Brown videos I watched (about modern libraries and informational networks) stressed two things, and I think both are fairly in line with the basic tenets of Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

1. Diversification of learning topics and skills
2. Development of a resource network

Can we all agree that in the age of modern learning, these are two of the core necessities? I think so. Khan Academy certainly fails #1. A somewhat limited range of topics that is admittedly expanding, but if you’re not interested in STEM, specifically the “M,” you mostly need to look elsewhere. Inconsistent (and some would say flawed) pedagogy aside, Khan Academy certainly has a place in a developed resource network. However, it is “a place.”

Khan Academy’s not bad. CrashCourse isn’t bad. DuoLingo isn’t bad.  Coursera, Coursmos, Memrise, Busuu, audiobooks, podscasts, and the like are all not bad. I’m not trying to say any of these things are terrible and should be avoided by aspiring autodidacts. What I think is most concerning is that because all of these are flawed in their own ways, they always need to be supplemented, but a layperson has a very hard time distinguishing the “good” places from the “bad” places. If I were interested in learning, say, the basic history of philosophy, I wouldn’t necessarily know that the easiest jump-in source is one particular podcast, instead of, say, Wikipedia. That’s most people’s first choice, right? Unfortunately, Wikipedia is now often beyond a novice’s level of understanding. Go try to read any lengthy obscure historical page or something to do with valence shell dynamics. If you don’t already have a background in that, you can’t start there. So where do you start? I graduated high school in 2010. That wasn’t that long ago, and the basic structure of the internet has not changed that much since then. What has changed is the number of resources available on the internet. It’s skyrocketed.

Despite the abundance of resources, I think it is becoming increasingly more and more difficult to learn on your own. There are so many supplements that are required and there is often no good way for a novice to judge the quality of a tool. You don’t know what’s lacking. You don’t, for example, know that Sal Khan just kind of makes up his lectures as he does them so you don’t know what’s missing that could be important. You don’t know that John Green skips over entire cultures in CrashCourse World History. Supplementing becomes hard. Having 21st century skills  becomes almost more important than the learning. I sometimes feel as though I spend so much time developing my resource network that I have comparatively little time left to learn. As for Peer Instruction – well, if many of my peers are experiencing the same thing that I am, I am sure that we will help fill each others’ gaps, but that does little to rectify the resource-overload issue.

What I expect will happen in the somewhat near future is that we will see a second web phenomenon similar to the .com bubble burst. I was too young to remember that, really. What I do remember was that sometime in the early and mid 2000s, a relatively small number of websites rose to extreme prominence in the development of internet culture. I’m talking pop culture, of course, because I wasn’t super interested in learning Mandarin when I was 14. We see this in the fact that we now have certain websites which dominate the competition and have seemingly totally monopolies on certain functions. Nobody really watches videos on DailyMotion or whatever – YouTube is the video king. Same goes for Facebook, Amazon, Google – whatever. Competitors come and go, of course, and we’re talking about relatively short spans of time, but what seems to be developing are certain super-tools that seem almost too big to fail. I’m sure a lot of people thought that about the 90s and early 00s, so maybe I’m wrong, but it’s becoming increasingly more and more difficult to imagine an internet without Wikipedia. Right? It’s so massive, and there’s so much on it, and it fulfills its purpose very well, that it seemingly doesn’t need a replacement (yet) so it’s become “the staple.”

I can’t help but wonder if the failings of Khan Academy and other digital learning tools are going to eventually experience a similar phenomenon. Google “learn a language online” and see how many different tools you find. Most of them suck. Almost all of them suck. But some don’t – and they will, eventually, hopefully, rise up. I have grown up on the internet. I got online for the first time in kindergarten and my life has been tied to its development ever since. I come from what is probably the first generation of digital natives, and I’m not alone in thinking that the internet is slowly going to whittle down to a ton of “power players.” I think John Biggs over at TechCrunch recently wrote about this, if you want to look, but the general consensus is that the future of the internet will not be stratified into dozens of layers, but will probably have more like 2-3 layers. A huge dominating “web” on top with some more obscure stuff that 99% of people will never see. The 21st Century Skills people are right about the fact that students in the future will need to have a strongly developed resource network, but I’m not so sure that that network is going to resemble the resource networks we’re all working in right now.

This is getting kind of long, so I want to bring it back to one of our original prompts for this week. We were asked “Can you map a particular learning theory to Khan Academy or to Eric Mazur’s peer instruction methods? What theoretical principles support the use of game mechanics in learning?”

I suppose Khan Academy is somewhat connectivist. However, it  is not particularly diverse, it’s not really about seeing connections (it’s very process oriented, and obviously STEM-biased), and I’m not sure it’s overly obsessed with “currency” since it exists in modules to be worked through that you can “finish.” Does it let you know if something’s been updated? I’m not sure. It’s certainly got elements of behaviorism since it’s focused on repeating processes and the like. What I think is more likely is that, in the future, Khan Academy will be looked back at as one of the earliest examples of a new type of learning theory that we will see develop once the next bubble burst comes along. Picture it: a future where a students’ resource network is already mostly defined for them. No matter what they want to learn, somebody’s already come to the conclusion that there’s a generally accepted “best” starting point. That point will offer cross-references to other similar tools that cover similar topics. The network will exist and most students won’t need to deviate from it much. We already see this online with very niche communities and it works fairly well. Nobody will have to waste time developing learner networks because they’ll already exist and be easy to find. They’ll be curated by experts, differentiate by level, etc. It’ll take a while but, assuming we don’t get EMP’d, it’ll probably happen. Maybe within my life time.

Which leads me back to the final thing: gaming. Now, I’ve been gaming longer than I’ve been on the internet, so I always roll my eyes a bit when somebody mentions WoW or whatever in the context of education. I see things like this and kind of think I don’t want to “level up” my learning or whatever. It always seems very reactionary (oh my gosh people like being rewarded even if the rewards are technically meaningless) but I think Brown’s idea of literal virtual classrooms is very interesting. Eventually, we might come full circle – Oculus Rift virtual classrooms where you go from “room to room” and use tools like Khan Academy to learn math while interacting with other avatars via the Peer Instruction system. It basically becomes a traditional school but because of the size of the potential userbase you can eradicate many of the normal issues in education. Students have a literally infinite amount of options on what to learn, how to learn it, what levels to learn it at, who they can interact with, when they can learn, how fast they learn, how often they can recover or skip material, what extra materials they want to interact with, what their projects are, etc. It sounds a little science fiction, or Second Life, I guess, but it doesn’t sound too far fetched nowadays. Khan Academy isn’t a bad template to start from: it has choices, paths, etc. and can be easily supplemented. The problem is that you have to find those supplements, and your classroom cohort is either nonexistent or small. Eventually, I think that won’t be a problem. The 21st (or 22nd?) Century Skills involved here will mostly just involve learners needing to know what they need to learn. If they can do that, the possibilities will be endless: universities, job prep, job skills, technical skills, etc. The online education singularity. A post-connectivist ideology? I like the sound of that.

One thought on “Science Fiction Classrooms

  1. Hi Nicholas,

    Many interesting points. I’ll just pick up on a couple. Have you used Khan Academy and noticed their badges and points and levels and rewards? There are even little positive audio chimes when one gets a math problem right. I’m thinking behaviorism. If only our computers could spit out little jelly beans or something? 🙂

    I agree with your eye rolling whenever most folks talk about the ideal world of gamified education. But – is Khan approaching that ideal as much as possible given modern capacities? Would you ever implement game mechanics in a classroom or learning activity? What might be some best practices for using games in education today?


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