Spare me the Drudgery

There has been a great deal of buzz about the Khan Academy and how it might have an impact on education.  On the one side, we have seen the thoughts from people like Bill Gates on the matter.  On the other side, we read the thoughts of passionate educators.  One of the most passionate and scholarly approaches was presented by Sylvia Martinez in a series on the Generation Yes blog.  I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking about this myself lately.

As with many things, I find that it’s helpful to take a personal approach to these things and then try to extrapolate to the bigger picture.  I also don’t think it’s fair to make a judgment without spending time investigating personally.  So, it was with some interest that I spent some time poking around anonymously and then by logging in to the Academy.

If we go on sheer numbers, the size of the Academy is impressive.  There are hundreds of videos covering all kinds of content and when you logged in to work through the exercises the choice is massive.  So, as I took in the videos (which is no small feat since I don’t have the fastest internet and  get a lot of retraining), it was like sitting in the front row of a lesson watching a think aloud lesson.  As I went into the exercises, the experience reminded me of flash cards and the sorts of questions that one would find in a mathematics textbook.  You probably remember the drill – do the odd numbered questions of page 37 for homework.

In fact, it looks like a faithful reproduction of the classroom experience that I had – decades ago!  While I enjoyed the mental math exercises, I did grow weary after a short while and started to look for something else.  The accountability of having homework done was there, I suppose, as the academy does some tracking and offers suggestions when it determines that you’ve mastered things.

I then reflected on what I would call “real learning”.  There’s no question that the content here addressed the snippets well and the volume is enough to choke an educational horse.  What was missing?  In my mind, the “real learning”.  I think back to the great teachers and professors that I’ve had.  It’s tough to imagine any lesson that didn’t bring in the anecdotal comments and experiences, the application of concepts, the jokes to keep us on task, divergent learning that happened, the differentiated approach that was needed to try and reach everyone in the class.  In fact, the only time that I can remember lessons that were totally about content was during times that we had student teachers who were doing their best to cover the content and hadn’t developed the self-confidence to loosen up a bit.

I put this type of learning into a personal context.  As noted in a couple of previous posts, I’ve recently attended edCampQuinte for some personal, professional learning.  The actual content that was covered could probably have been found in a collection of videos on the internet.  But, for me professional learning isn’t just about sitting and covering content.  That’s real Educational Drudgery.  When I attend sessions, I want to talk and interact with my neighbour about the subject to be sure, but I want to have a conversation and I want to brainstorm with someone smarter than I am.

So, while at Belleville, I did learn some content.  For that, I’m grateful for the presenters who spent the time to put together and share their thoughts.  However, in addition to the topics, the learning was enhanced by all of the things that I learned just by asking and answering questions.  In addition to what I learned at the edCamp, I learned so much more about the community by taking a drive around and pestering poor Kent over breakfast about what I had seen.  The added value was in the conversation and the fact that we had driven to get there.  We explored parts of the library during breaks and some of the handiwork on display was phenomenal.  The whole experience was far more than the sum of its parts.

On a personal level, I did share some of my learning about QR Codes.  There’s nothing that makes you know your content more than having to share it with others.  Even though I had documented my learning, I dug deeper than ever before knowing that there might be some probing questions coming from the audience.  I also wanted to make the audience interact with me and push my thinking.  And they did!  Even on the drive home, my mind was spinning about new thoughts and ideas that I was inspired with by the participants.

I also started to think of professional learning without actually being there.  I could have summed up my thoughts in the form of a video and mailed it in.  I could have “covered the content” and felt like I’d contributed.  I’m glad that I didn’t.  The conversations and divergent ideas put the experience over the top.  I don’t think I could ever justify my professional learning as something that I just log into from at home and watch a few videos and do a few exercises.

In that context, I look back at the Academy.  It covers the content, to be sure.  But, if that’s all that we want from an educational experience, then count me out.  It pre-supposes that everyone has the same entry point, learns using the same sort of modality, and hopefully exits with the same sets of skills and knowledge.  I deserve better; our students deserve better.

Having said that, I wouldn’t ignore the content completely.  In fact, a short video is an interesting enhancement to a lesson.  It could provide another voice in the classroom.  It could provide a nice refresher on the concepts for a student working at home.  But, it’s not the whole deal and that’s what I’m fearful when people talk about this as the solution to all of education’s problem.

In totality, the Academy has provided a very complete menu of content.  You cannot deny that.  But, just as I learned so much more planning for my presentation, I’m sure that putting together the script and the design had the bulk of the learning at the developer end.  As I sit at my computer as a consumer, I get to relive it but I don’t get a chance to ask a question or to talk to the person sitting beside me.  Maybe the real value is to use this as a model for students researching and creating their own videos on a topic to share with the class.

Personally, I couldn’t sit through video after video and the drudgery that one way expression of ideas follows.

1 thought on “Spare me the Drudgery

  1. Hi Doug,
    I love this post. It’s such a great analysis of Khan Academy, and I think it carefully and thoughtfully outlines how repositories of information, no matter how good, are just that. They aren’t the dynamic learning places that we need for deeper learning, but can perhaps be a part of the picture.

    I’m hoping that @peterskillen will chime in here, because we often have conversations about how wonderful these instructive types of resources can be if the learner is in the driver’s seat.:) When teachers spend the bulk of their time developing a supportive community of learners who are delving deeply into relevant inquiries, it’s nice to know that students can find this kind of content ‘just in time’.

    I like what you say about ‘real learning’ being so much more that just covering content. Perhaps there is a place for resources like Khan Academy, but it’s about balance, and it’s not a replacement for the dynamic learning community.



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