Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Khan Academy and the Revolution in Online Free Choice Learning

Last week, I became completely intoxicated with the online videos of Vi Hart, self-described mathemusician. Her nerdy, entertaining videos about math evoke the power of free choice learning while poking gentle fun at the drudgery of how math is often taught in school. She's brilliant and funny and pushes people to get excited about higher math and the big ideas behind it. She would be the best science center educator ever.

But Vi doesn't work in a science museum. She was a free agent for a long time, until the beginning of 2012, when she joined the teaching staff of Khan Academy.

Khan Academy, the free, nonprofit online source for educational instructional videos, is a young powerhouse in the online learning space. Its multilingual videos have reached almost 200 million viewers since it launched in 2006. Its funding has skyrocketed as major foundations and technology companies have made multi-million dollar grants and investments in its growth. Founder Salman Khan started by sharing his own videos with a math and science focus, and in the last year, he has added new "faculty" including Vi Hart as well as Drs. Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, who are well known in museums for their excellent Smarthistory website and podcasts.

Khan Academy is interesting in itself as an online learning space. But the participation of partners like Vi, Beth, and Steven puts it in a new category for me. Salman Khan's videos give people access to good instructional content on standard (and often confusing or poorly taught) educational topics. How to solve a quadratic equation. How to titrate an acid. Test prep for the SAT. This is all fine, but it exists very much in the K12 and college framework.

Vi Hart's videos, on the other hand, are idiosyncratic, explorative, and a bit subversive. Beth Harris and Steven Zucker's content about art history is social and dialogue-based in format. These instructors aren't teaching you the equivalent of a high school course in math or art history. They are connecting you with knowledge and inspiration in more creative ways... the way the best museums do. It's no coincidence that Beth Harris' last job was as Director of Digital Learning at MoMA.

Does this mean Khan Academy is competitive with museums? Maybe. More importantly, it means that we should be looking to their model to push ourselves in how we think about delivering the most engaging, powerful content possible. We often talk about museums as leaders in providing substantive, essential alternatives to formal schooling. But museums are rarely seen as pursuing this promise in the innovative, aggressive, and highly publicized way that Khan Academy is.

I asked Beth Harris and Steven Zucker about their experience working at Khan Academy after years in academia and museums. When I asked them what's in it for Smarthistory to be a part of Khan Academy, they highlighted the extent to which Khan Academy represents a revolution in education and high quality online learning experiences. Here are some of the comments on the "why" behind their involvement:
[Khan Academy has] a hugely generous vision and commitment to rethinking education—our mission is “a world-class education, for anyone, anywhere”—not to mention brilliant programmers and staff. This is an epic moment in the history of education, who wouldn’t want to be part of it? We are finally leaving behind the 18th century model of education where groups of students are expected to learn at a standard pace. Every day we read about ways that teaching, learning and accreditation are being unbundled. New institutions and new, more personal modes of teaching and learning are being investigated. And we will soon know much more about learning, thanks to analytics, than we ever have before. 
They commented on the power of the learning community around the online videos (for example, check out this conversation about Leonardo's Last Supper):
Khan Academy is much more than a huge library of high quality videos, there are learning analytics, self-paced exercises, and perhaps most importantly, a committed learning community—even for art history! We have a great community of learners that ask and answer questions and our videos are being translated by volunteers all over the world. We are reminded of how much fun learning can be. 
They advocated for the power of online research and learning:
There is a huge appetite for knowledge about art that is not being met. We both come from higher education and it’s always seemed remarkable to us how little museums work together to support the study of art. Students around the world want to understand the history of art, not necessarily the history of a particular collection. We also wish that museums and universities worked together more closely not just for research, but for learning. Learning is increasingly global and fluid and the fact that cross-institutional initiatives such as the Google Art Project and Europeana are rare, points to how much work still needs to be done. We wrote about that in a recent blog post, Why the Google Art Project is Important.

Many museums produce superb lesson plans, curator interviews and artist interviews for the web. But there are other content models we can explore. Conversation has been key to Smarthistory’s success, and we’ve worked with several museums to facilitate the creation of conversation-based content. We’ve also done short technology workshops to enable content experts to create their own videos. In the era of YouTube, we don’t always need Final Cut Pro and expensive videographers.
And they talked about the difference between working for a museum and working for a startup nonprofit:
We both loved working for MoMA in different capacities. But as everyone knows, museums are not the easiest ships to turn. This is a period of intense change when nimbleness is a real asset; working for a start-up has allowed us to produce a lot of high-quality academic content. For the Google Art Project, the two of us recorded, edited and produced 90 videos in four months (with only a small amount of editing assistance). Obviously, museums produce fantastic content, but we wonder if their limited resources should remain focused on traditional print publishing. The principles of digital publishing—which is iterative, personal, prolific, and collaborative, could unleash museums as active centers of learning and engagement.

One of the things that baffles us about museums is that while they support scholars with deep expertise, they produce relatively little content for public consumption on the web. The focus remains on the high status, expensive and little-read exhibition catalogue, instead of developing web-based content that will draw more visitors, and help create a loyal web-community. An educator at the Met recently told us of a group of visitors from Japan that joined a gallery tour and promptly asked to see the works of art featured on Smarthistory. 
If we want museums to be pioneers in free choice learning, seen and funded as "hugely generous" and committed visionaries who are rethinking education, we need to push ourselves. Beth and Steven ended their email to me by quoting Salman Khan's new book, The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined, in which he writes:
What’s needed, in my view, is a perspective that allows us a fresh look at our most basic assumptions about teaching and learning, a perspective that takes nothing for granted and focuses on the simple but crucial questions of what works, what doesn’t work, and why. 
What would that "fresh look" mean for museums?

Thank you to Beth and Steven for contributing to this post. They wanted me to tell you that Smarthistory invites art historians and curators to contribute in the their areas of expertise. If you would like to contribute, please contact them at: and 
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