It seems like Salman Khan knows everything, or does he?
He just might. Salman Khan, who narrates most of the instructional videos on the site, holds degrees in math, engineering, computer science, and business. And I use the word “narrate” because there is a distinct difference between doing a voice over while writing out a math problem in neon colors and actually teaching someone how to do the problem. Khan Academy offers thousands of videos on a wide variety of fascinating academic subjects, including math, science, history, and economics, but I’m not entirely convinced he’s really teaching in the true sense of the word.
My younger son, Marc is the one who first told me about Khan Academy. It was a typical uneventful Tuesday evening and we were sitting at the dining room table working on his math homework. I’m a history and political science professor, so I have to admit my math skills are pretty rusty. He was on the verge of tears as I explained, for the millionth time, how to add and subtract mixed numbers. “Can we just look it up on Khan Academy?” he whined. I had no idea what that was, but assumed it probably had something to do with the Internet. Although reluctant to admit I needed help with my explanations, I let him show me the site. He told me that all his friends were using it and that there was also a “practice” section that allows users to test their math skills. He then asked me if he could create a profile that would enable him to track his progress.
“How much is that gonna cost me?” I said as he clicked on the link to “login.” But to my surprise, all the content on Khan Academy is free. According to their website, the goal of the Khan Academy is to use technology to provide a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere without bombarding users with sidebars of advertisements. But, didn’t Facebook also start off that way?
I decided to look around the site and make my own judgments. This is what I found:
– Free access is always a plus in my book.
– Even though the website is open to the public, and users can ask questions and post comments, the interactions are respectful and on-topic. People aren’t cursing or posting links to porn sites (or at least their staff monitors that type of behavior and promptly deletes anything offensive).
– Covers wide range of over 3,600 subjects. It appears that you can learn about virtually anything, which is kind of amazing.
– The about page goes over how you can record your progress and instantly receive stats about your site usage.
– Videos also include subtitles and some are even in different languages.
– The practice feature lets you apply the math concepts you’ve learned by answering questions and then immediately getting the answer. The corresponding video is also there for you to watch if you need a refresher.
– The classroom data feature is useful especially for teachers who want to use the site in their lesson plans. Teachers can look at the class as a whole or look at a specific student’s progress in order to figure out what the class/student needs more help on.
– One of my colleagues, who just so happens to be one of the leading researchers and professors in organic chemistry, had a lot to say about Khan and his Academy. He said that while Khan is definitely a wiz in math and finance, when it comes to organic chemistry and history it literally sounds like he is reading out of a text book. These subjects, and many more on the site, are not areas he’s mastered and it is safe to say that he may not know all the facts.
– I did find the videos very simplistic and the handwriting small, which made it difficult for older people like me to read the screen. There are also drawings that are impossible to understand without prior background knowledge. The videos aren’t especially well-made, but I suppose that’s what you get when you opt for free content. Check out the picture below for a sample of what I mean when I refer to bad handwriting (and this isn’t even the worse one):
Some More Dislikes:
– Videos are made on Youtube, and sometimes freeze up. I also found many of the videos to be pretty low quality as compared to other sites I’ve looked at, there is distracting background noise in some of the clips, and Khan usually does a voiceover with no real person actually talking to you. I’m a little more old school and like to have a person making eye contact with me while they explain something.
– I also found that Khan academy isn’t much different than typing a subject into a search engine and watching that lesson on any other site. In that same breath, effective teaching requires more than a few minutes of research on Google. Khan teaches the procedure and he gives the most popular explanations, but not necessarily the best ones. I found myself questioning his training in education, if any.
– The focus is more on “learn about” not necessarily “learn how” and I’m not sure the site fosters true mastery.
– Lastly, I’m a stickler for organized web pages and think the feedback/question section under the videos is very congested and crowded.
Overall, Khan Academy is receiving high marks for its affordability, accessibly, and wide scope of information. If Bill Gates threw millions of dollars at this project it must be worthwhile, right? It’s hard to say. Just because an educational service is free doesn’t necessary make it accurate. If anything the “freeness” of it raises red flags. There are critics that believe the site only offers one element of teaching. There are even some people claiming that you shouldn’t use Khan Academy without watching this video first. I’ve offered you my likes and dislikes, but of course when it comes to online information and education, we must all judge for ourselves.