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What's happening in the world of digital learning?

  • Ashleigh Hull

Education Revolution

Updated: Dec 8, 2020

I recently came across this thing called the Khan Academy. It is not, as I initially believed, some bizarre Star Trek offshoot - it’s a non-profit educational organisation which aims for nothing less than to provide "a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere".

Turns out, I'm more excited about this than I would be about a school run by Khan Noonien Singh (as one would expect, really, I can't imagine his school being a place of joy).

I've had my own Khan Academy account for a few months now. Originally I signed up just to find out what it's all about - now I log in because I want to learn about black holes and supernovae, because I don't remember how to simplify an equation, because I have only vague memories from my school days of how atoms actually work and I want to really know again. I've got my eye on the Middle East section from the British Museum, and if I'm feeling adventurous one day I might even check out computer programming.

I don't just love this because of the range of things I can learn at the click of a mouse. I don't just love it because the learning is presented in YouTube videos typically no longer than 10 minutes each. I don't just love that I can be learning as much or little as I want, any time I want, whether that's at 3am or during my lunch break at work. It's not even the system of badges and rewards built into it, so that for every video I watch I gain energy points, and as the number of my energy points increases I unlock new avatars or gain new privileges - although that, I must admit, I really do love. No, what I adore about the Khan Academy is the vision behind it, and the things founder Salman Khan has to say about education.

His focus is on schools and children's education, but I've written this blog because in the end it's all applicable to our adult e-learning, too.

Walk with me. I'll show you.

Self-paced learning

In his book The One World Schoolhouse, Sal (yes, I call him Sal) says this:

"People learn at different rates. Some people seem to catch on to things in quick bursts of intuition; others grunt and grind their way toward comprehension. Quicker isn't necessarily smarter and slower definitely isn't dumber. Further, catching on quickly isn't the same as understanding thoroughly. So the pace of learning is a question of style, not relative intelligence. The tortoise may very well end up with more knowledge-more useful, lasting knowledge-than the hare." (p20)

I love this. I absolutely love it. Because he's right. People learn at different speeds, and faster doesn't mean smarter. So why does all our current education insist the opposite is true? Why do we stream kids in schools based on a single exam and limit the potential of the 'slower' ones for the rest of their school career? Why can't we instead let people learn at their own pace, and discover how smart those 'slower' ones actually are?

This is from Sal's 2011 TED talk, when he's talking about using the Khan Academy in schools:

"It's kind of crazy what happens when you actually see it in a classroom...five days into it, there's a group of kids who have raced ahead and there's a group of kids who are a little bit slower. And in a traditional model if you did a snapshot assessment you'd say, 'oh these are the gifted kids, and these are the slow kids, maybe they should be tracked differently, maybe we should put them in different classes'. But when you let every student work at their own see students who took a little bit extra time over one concept or another, but once they get through that concept they just race ahead. And so the same kids that you thought were slow six weeks ago, you now would think are gifted."

Well then.

Flipping the classroom

Again in his TED talk, Sal mentions getting letters from teachers about how they've flipped their classrooms - this idea of assigning the lectures for homework, and what used to be homework they now have the students doing in the classroom.

The YouTube lectures have obvious benefits. Now the students can pause the videos whenever they want, can repeat things without feeling like they're wasting the teacher's time or worrying they'll be asking stupid questions. They can learn at their own pace, review something they should have learned 2 weeks ago or 2 years ago whenever they need to.

But a benefit that is perhaps less obvious is that this actually humanises the classroom. No more one-size-fits-all lecture to 30 blank-faced students. Now the people in the room are actually interacting with each other. Teachers spend their time engaging with the students, students can work with one another, those who have grasped a concept helping those who haven't. The classroom is transformed from a passive experience into an active one.

Expecting mastery

Here's another thing from Sal's book. "...basic concepts needed to be deeply understood if students were to succeed at mastering more advanced ones" (p21).

This is not the way things currently work, inside our schools or outside of them. You'll have a snapshot exam - you might even do well, say you get a mark of 90%. But what was that 10% you didn't know? What happens when the next module you or your class is working on is built on this fundamental principle you never quite grasped? What happens when 3 years down the line you still have holes in your knowledge at a fundamental level, yet you're expected to grasp more and more complicated stuff?

In his TED talk Sal gives the example of someone learning to ride a bike. He says, imagine if you tell someone how to do it, give them a lecture or whatever, and then come back in a couple of weeks to see how they're getting on. They're struggling with left turns and having trouble stopping, so you say to them, 'you're an 80% bicyclist.' You slap a C grade on their forehead and then say 'OK. Now here's a unicycle.'

It sounds ridiculous - but it is exactly what we are doing!! Why don't we teach maths the way we teach anything else, the way we teach someone to ride a bike? "The traditional model penalises you for experimentation and failure, but it does not expect mastery. We encourage you to experiment, we encourage you to fail, but we do expect mastery." I assume I'm not alone in feeling that that makes a whole lot more sense.

Learning is for grown-ups too

So how does this tie in to the field in which I work? Why is this blog on an e-learning developer's website?

Because I think that everything Sal has to say about education in schools is true for adult learning, too. And I think we can see it happening in e-learning - which warms my heart, actually. Bravo e-learning!

With e-learning, we have self-paced learning. We have learning that is pause-able and repeatable and can be accessed anywhere, anytime.

We have the option to create this flipped classroom environment. Say you're needing to roll out compliance training, or company-wide briefings on changes to the way you do things. People can learn on their own, via e-learning, and then come together to discuss it - to argue about it, perhaps! - to get actively involved in what you're telling them. How much better would that be than sitting them down and droning your way through a PowerPoint while they zone out?

We can expect mastery in elearning. We can use all of the tools technology provides us with to figure out where the gaps are in people's knowledge, and fill them. We can expect people to grasp all that we tell them, not just some of it.

Elearning has a long way to go. It is often far from these lofty ideals. But it has so. Much. Potential. And I am so excited that we have people like Sal challenging and changing what education means to us. I'm so excited about what's to come.

Love to learn

Salman Khan is a man who loves education, who loves knowledge, who sees the beauty in science and maths and wants others to see it too. He is quite possibly my hero. And he believes in what the Khan Academy and initiatives like it can do.

"Can watching video lessons or using interactive software make people smart? No. But I would argue that it can do something even better: create a context in which people can give free rein to their curiosity and natural love of learning, so that they realize they're already smart." (p11)

The Khan Academy aims to provide "a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere" - "a mission statement that [is] both wildly ambitious and - with the help of readily available but absurdly underutilized technology - completely attainable." (p7)

Crack on, sir. We're with you.


Reference The One World Schoolhouse by Salman Khan, 2012 edition. Publisher: Twelve.

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