08 June 2010

The Khan Academy

The Chronicle of Higher Education online has a freely available article about Salman Khan, the creator of 1,400 short educational YouTube videos, and the "most popular educator on YouTube."  Some quotes:
[Khan's] unusual teaching materials started as a way to tutor his faraway cousins, but his lectures have grown into an online phenomenon—and a kind of protest against what he sees as a flawed educational system.
"My single biggest goal is to try to deliver things the way I wish they were delivered to me," he told me recently.
The Khan Academy explicitly challenges many of higher-education's most sacred assumptions: that professional academics make the best teachers; that hourlong lectures are the best way to relate material; and that in-person teaching is better than videos. Mr. Khan argues that his little lectures disprove all of that.
The article also contains insights from Clay Shirky and Jason Fried. I was particularly struck by this quote from Fried:
"The next bubble to burst is higher education," he said. "It's too expensive for people—there's no reason why parents should have to save up a hundred grand to send their kids to college. I like that there are alternative ways of thinking about teaching."
A link to Khan Academy is here.

My interest (at the moment) is not so much in whether Khan's alternative approach to education is a good one or a model for the future. In fact, I haven't yet watched any of his videos, although I'll probably watch one or two later today in order to get a taste of what he's up to. Rather I am especially interested in what his enterprise and it's popularity implies about the state of higher education and its institutions.

I've been known to say that the current model of higher education is unsustainable, and this is a theme I'll be returning to often in future posts. The condensed (and partial) version: Higher education as it currently exists is in many respects a vastly overpriced scam, which in fact largely does not serve to educate students, but rather serves as a cog in a vast "certification industry." In other words, you don't, by and large, go to university primarily to learn what you will need to know in order to do what you're going to do in life, professionally or otherwise. Rather, you go to university in order to obtain the degree that you believe you'll need in order simply to be hired. And that "gate-keeping" function of the degree-production system has allowed the growth of bloated administration-heavy institutions that are in it primarily for the money (not just universities, but also textbook publishers, educational testing companies, and so on). They are not (in spite of their own marketing) in it to dispense knowledge in an efficient, reliable, and affordable way.
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