The biggest announcement in education, particularly digitized education, in January was … no, not that. Sure, Apple got lots of press and attention for its foray into textbook publishing but I think that was secondary to another announcement made a few weeks earlier on January 3rd. That was when the Khan Academy announced that Vi Hart would be moving to Mountain View and joining its team.
The Khan Academy, founded by Salman Khan (a former hedge fund manager), is a not-for-profit, online venture that is currently revolutionizing K-12 education. If you want to know how, here is the obligatory TED video. With over 4 million unique users each month, the Khan Academy is attracting high-profile attention, including funding from the Gates Foundation.
Vi Hart is lesser known but her engaging videos explaining mathematics have been viewed millions of times. Want to get a taste? Check out this story. Hart does not quite do what the Khan Academy does but she operates in the same space. Her interest is not in the standard K-12 curriculum but broader concepts of mathematics; the stuff students rarely see before college.
The fact that these two are getting together demonstrates something important regarding online education. Experiments are happening and the successful ones are complementary to one another. In particular, both Khan and Hart have evolved a particular style of video instruction. It is a style that removes the lecturer from the picture. Previous videos for educative purposes did not do that. Many universities, for example, spent a lot of time recording their lecturers and professors. Sometimes the results are incredible. But more often than not, the format was stale. Part of the reason is that giving a lecture is different from making a video. A lecturer has to have a sense of the room while moving back and forth from PowerPoint slides or a blackboard. It is hard to capture that on a video. Moreover, the same lecture spoken over the top of a slide deck won’t quite work on video. To see this, see this example of my own. It is fine, but somehow not very engaging.
The Khan Academy broke through this format issue by not making videos as if the student were sitting in a classroom but as if he or she were sitting next to them at a table. Indeed, that is how Khan started out — tutoring his nieces and nephews over Skype. So it is more personal but, more importantly, it is the sort of thing that is easy to pause, rewind, and review.
Vi Hart’s style is different. She is speaking to an audience, but a YouTube audience is not a classroom. What she does cannot be done in a classroom because she has to speed up the images relative to her speech. That takes work and imagination to get right. And Hart is not the only one who has developed this skill. Just take a look at this series of videos by C.G.P. Grey. The underlying technology is PowerPoint but it is accelerated beyond what one could do in a lecture hall. The result is incredibly engaging and compelling. It also manages to explain complex arguments without oversimplifying them.. Finally, 321 FastDraw has made a business out of accelerated doodling.
These developments stand in sharp contrast to what Apple has focused on. Making textbooks more interesting is a noble cause. Making them cheaper is something more important still. But in the examples Apple gave us, the materials were multimedia. The focus was the text, and out of the text lifted pictures, more interaction and videos that were documentary in style. The problem is that the textbook itself embeds a certain style of learning. For one, it is linear. A curriculum is supposed to start at the beginning of the textbook, build on chapter by chapter until the end is reached. The Khan Academy requires building but does not set out a path that all students must follow. Apple has built note-taking into its software, but when you think about it, when students have to take notes, you’ve failed to teach them.
But more importantly, the way a textbook is used in the classroom compels standardization in learning rates. All students are supposed to be “on the same page” so that an instructor can give complementary class material. The problem, as Clay Christensen has recently emphasized, is that students rarely learn at the same rate, let alone in the same way. Thus, in designing the interaction between teacher activities and either textual or online learning, the goal is to break free of the strict complementarity that compels step-by-step advancement of the group. Instead, online learning has to provide the means by which students can learn and master at their own pace. The idea is to unbundle the teacher’s time from the class. Instead of a teacher’s attention being broadcast, it needs to be divided up into smaller packages and doled out as needed by individual students or smaller groups. That is the promise of online or digital learning: allowing teachers’ time to become divisible rather than a block.
There are people out there, for the most part far removed from traditional education, who are experimenting and working out how to make modular, compelling content that can free teacher time. They are finding each other and that is great news for the future.
This post was originally published on HBR Blogs (23rd January 2012).