At a conference a couple months ago, I had the opportunity to hear Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, talk about the genesis of his organization and how his model of education differs from the traditional model. Khan Academy, for those unfamiliar with it, offers videos and automated exercises to help students learn a variety of subjects online for free. Khan Academy has also partnered with a few K-12 schools to make these online resources the central learning materials of certain classes.
Khan Academy has branched into other subjects, but it started with math and still tends to focus on STEM subjects. And one of the fundamental realities of learning math is that it’s cumulative; anything new you’re taught is based on what you’re supposed to have learned before. If there are gaps in your understanding of the previous topic, you’re going to have a very difficult time learning what comes next. This is true of other subjects too, but it’s especially true of math.
This is in line with my personal experience. I was always a high performer in math classes in K-12, until my junior year of high school, when I was out sick a lot over the course of a few weeks during a trigonometry unit. I tried to catch up, but after that, everything stopped making sense to me. I wound up getting a C in the class, and though I continued to show high aptitude in quantitative reasoning (bragging rights: I got an 800 on that section of my GRE even as a liberal-arts major), I never took a higher math class.
The problem, as Khan sees it, is that our education system keeps moving students forward onto new material regardless of how well they understand the last unit. The amount of time spent on each topic before moving on is constant while the level of performance of each student is variable.
When Khan Academy works with K-12 schools, that model reverses; since each student can work through the online videos and exercises at his or her own pace, the system can require the student to demonstrate mastery of a topic before moving on. Level of performance is the constant, and the rate at which students move through the material is the variable. This allows students who are behind the curve to spend as much time as they need to on a topic to truly understand it, but it also allows exceptional students to keep learning. There are no speed limits in this model—Khan reports that many elementary students were doing high-school-level math by the end of the year. (The problem with this model, of course, is that it makes the most sense if implemented institution-wide. For an individual instructor teaching a course that’s a prerequisite for other courses, you’re expected to to cover a pre-defined body of material no matter how well each student performs.)
So what do instructors do if the lectures are served in online videos and the assignments are corrected automatically? In a word, teach. One-on-one. To the students who need it, when they need it. Imagine a world in which 100 percent of instructional time was spent interacting with students or providing detailed assignment feedback. And how instructors spend their time interacting with students can be improved by technology as well. Khan Academy’s software provides detailed analytics of student progress to inform the instructor exactly where a student needs help. If a student is missing a lot of problems related to a specific concept, the instructor can intervene, re-explaining the subject, walking through additional examples, and more.
I think a lot of us would think that, now that the technology enables it, this model is more sensible. And there’s a more pressing reason to look for ways to spend more of your time interacting with students rather than lecturing. Your direct interaction with students is the main point of differentiation where we can offer value over the massively open online courses (MOOCs) that are growing in popularity.
So what can instructors take away from this?
1. Start to get out of the business of lecturing and grading objective assignments, because otherwise, you may soon find that you’re essentially spending all your time providing zero value over something like Coursera, which can do it at great scale and thus much lower cost than your class. Either start recording your lectures for re-use so you can flip your classroom, or find high-quality digital materials you can use in your course to substitute for your own lectures.
2. Your maximum value as an actual human being over the MOOCs and automated classes of the world is your direct interaction with students, whether that’s in the form of providing expert feedback on assignments, helping them with difficult concepts, or coaching them on how what they’re learning now will be applicable in the rest of their academic careers or in their jobs. Be prepared to do more of that.
3. Look for opportunities to require your students to demonstrate mastery before moving on to a more advanced topic. Give students a chance to retake online quizzes until they’ve gotten a perfect score, and don’t let them see the next module until they do. Don’t just make students write a proposal for their final paper—make sure they use your feedback and update the proposal before they go on to the module about research. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all method for doing this that will apply to every discipline, but there are options.
If you can combine rich digital resources, either created by yourself or leveraged from others, with a renewed focus on individual student interaction, plus methods to ensure students achieve mastery before moving on to new material, you can expect higher student performance.