At The Answer Sheet, Valerie Strauss has spurred a debate over the definition of slope—not exactly the sort of detailed intellectual stuff we might expect in a newspaper.
The discussion of the finer points of mathematics is more akin to the nuanced conversations you may find in a university math department or a scholarly journal. But the source of this controversy is Sal Khan and his Khan Academy—which leads us to our need to pull back from the slope debate and address just why is there a controversy about Khan?
I don't know Sal Khan, and I recognize the inherent danger in making claims about anyone's intent. On the surface, Khan's drive to make educational videos accessible to more people has some elements of equity and social justice that I share, but those stated goals are deeply marred by the fact that the equity gap embedded in all technology appears likely to wipe out any access advantage Khan claims his academy offers.
This leads to one very important point about the Khan Academy: The problems with the Khan Academy are primarily couched in the many distorted and corrosive messages and assumptions that the Khan Academy perpetuates as well as how political, popular, and media responses to the Khan Academy deform the education reform debate. Here are the reasons for the controversy:
• Sal Khan directly and indirectly (through media messages about him and his videos) perpetuates a popular and flawed assumption that effective teaching is a direct and singular extension of content expertise. Khan's allure is in part built on the misguided view in the U.S. that anyone who can do, can also teach. Khan has neither the expertise or experience as a teacher to justify the praise and claims made about him or his academy. Khan is a celebrity entrepreneur, not an educator. [If Khan had created a series of free videos showing people how to do surgery, I suspect the response would be different, although the essence of the venture is little different.]
• The videos themselves are nothing more than textbooks, static containers of fixed content. Learning, then, is reduced to the acquisition of static knowledge. The videos reinforce that content is value-neutral (it isn't), and the videos allow teaching and learning to remain within a transmissional paradigm that is neither new nor what is best for the purposes of universal public education in a free society. Whether a video, a textbook, or a set of standards, fixed content removes the agency from the teacher and the learner about what content matters. While the videos are offered as substitutes for lectures, Khan and those who support the academy appear unaware that even lectures in classrooms are reinforced by discussions—content is presented and then negotiated among teachers and students.
• Inherent in the allure of the Khan Academy is the naive faith that technology is somehow offering teaching and learning something new, something revolutionary. The blunt truth, however, is that technology has been heralded for that quality for a century now, and it simply isn't all it is cracked up to be. Khan's videos are no more revolutionary than the radio, TV, VHS player, or the laser disc. Technology is often, as with the Khan Academy, a tragic waste of time and energy that misleads us away from the very human endeavors of teaching and learning. Technology at its worst is when it further isolates the learner and learning—already a central problem with traditional classroom practices.
• Sal Khan as a celebrity and self-proclaimed educator feeds into and perpetuates the cultural belief that education is somehow not a scholarly field and that education is a failure because of the entrenched nature of the "education establishment." Khan as an outsider hasn't thought of anything that hasn't already been considered by the many and varied scholars and practitioners in education. Does any field benefit from ideas and practices outside that field? Yes, that is not the issue. But Khan is but one of many of the leading voices heralded as educational revolutionaries (think Gates ad Rhee) who have either no or very little experience or expertise in education. The ugly truth is that if education is failing, that failure is likely because the scholars and practitioners in education have never had the primary voice in how education should be implemented. The great irony is that education scholars and practitioners (notably critical ones) are the true outsiders of the "education establishment." If you want to know something about math and how to teach it, talk with my high school math teacher, Karen Neal, first, and then you may be able to decide how valuable Khan's work is.
• The Khan Academy reinforces the misguided faith we have in a silver-bullet answer to complex educational problems. Education in the U.S. is not suffering from a lack of packaged content (in fact, our commitment to textbooks is one of the major problems in public education); education is burdened by social and education inequities that are far more complex than substituting classroom lectures with videos anyone can access (if that person has internet access and the hardware to view the videos). It is easier and less painful to praise the essentially empty solution Khan is offering than to confront the serious failures of U.S. society and universal public education.
Without the fanfare and hyperbole, Khan's quest to make content accessible online may have some real value—if Khan is willing to bring into that plan the expertise of education scholars and practitioners. Khan's plan would certainly benefit from a strong dose of humility; a first step to real learning is to acknowledge what one does not know.
But Khan and his academy are likely doomed because of the feeding frenzy around him. The public and media have an unquenchable thirst for rugged individualism, a thirst that is blind, deaf, and ultimately corrosive; and Khan appears to present a simplistic message about how to save a very important but complicated public institution.
The controversy about Khan isn't about the definition of slope, but the slippery slope of believing the hype because that is easier to swallow than the truth.
Note: See the critique by Christopher Danielson and Michael Paul Goldenberg for a more detailed explanation of problems I have identified above.