Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Still the Sage - On a Different Stage

I recently watched a 60 Minutes piece on Sal Khan and Khan Academy. The piece portrays Khan as a hedge fund coordinator who falls into an idea that is "revolutionizing" education. He started his non-profit site by initially trying to give his niece some help in math. Khan creates teaching videos by recording his voice and capturing his ideas on a tablet connected to a computer. Teaching, but using a different delivery method. Although the news piece portrays him as an exceptionally good teacher, he downplays his ability to relay a concept to his audience. If you have ever viewed a Kahn lesson, you would agree that he is engaging in his own way and his voice is distinct.
Strong terms like "revolutionary" and "game-changing" are lightning rods when it comes to education. If you profess to have the next best way to educate our youths' - look out because you are going to get some criticism coming your way from the traditional classroom teacher. The teacher that will tell you that it has been tried before and it is just another fad that will go away. They believe that the only way to teach our students is to present information in an engaging way in a classroom, with the teacher in front of some type of presentation medium. The term "sage on the stage" is now commonplace in the world of educational jargon.

In the last few years, technology has changed every traditional business model that we can think of. Education, on the other hand, has been slow to jump in. You might think that a technology professional in education is just there to show off the bells and whistles and what could be accomplished using technology. I find myself trying to battle fear more than anything else.

Everybody has an opinion about what Sal Khan is trying to accomplish. The negative opinions focus on his inability to teach and the discussion surrounding what makes a good teacher. His delivery methods are traditional and his style is straight forward but Khan has found a way to deliver information to a digital audience that is consuming it at a surprising rate. He really does nothing special in terms of his delivery, he is just one of the first ones to convert to a new digital delivery system. Khan is someone who has hit upon an idea that may work and his value is that he was one of the first ones to do it. He is still a Sage but on a different Stage.

I relate this transition to the birth of the motion picture industry as compared to the theatre culture in the late 1800's. The birth of a new idea that will kill another cultural phenomenon. Last I looked, Broadway was still doing fine and the motion picture industry seemed to be doing pretty well also. Why? Because no matter what the delivery method, people who are successful at their craft will continue to engage the masses.

Khan's new digital delivery system will make good teachers better teachers. Your crowd just went from the 15 - 20 kids in your class to a mass market of students. What if, as a teacher, you could capture the feeling of the best class you ever taught? That day when you were "on" and every student in your class seemed to be clicking and learning. The ideas you were trying to present seemed insanely clear and concise. All the right words came to you and every student was engaged. You capture that moment in time and share it with more students than you can possibly imagine.

The new delivery system is just a new stage, a new platform, a new vehicle by which good teachers can excel at what they do. Don't look at what Sal Kahn is doing as threatening the nature of how teachers teach. As far as I can tell, he has no background in education and has never taught in an actual classroom setting, yet he is seen as a very good teacher. What happens when we take trained professionals who are adept at helping kids learn and give them a better, more engaging and wide-reaching vehicle? A vehicle that Khan has proved will work.

We are now ready to see the other side of educational creativity. We have long been witness to the theatre style of teaching where you had to be there to experience. Technology advancement has allowed us to change stages and create experiences with many students with a medium not too dissimilar to the motion picture camera. We can plan, create storyboards, add engaging content, film and film again if need be - all with the goal of making the best educational experience.

These two methods are not mutually exclusive. If I wish to see a Broadway show - I still have the ability to do that. I can continue to experience very talented individuals at their craft entertaining people in a live setting. If I wish to see a movie, I can experience that as well - once again, taking witness in talented artists doing what they do best. If Sal Kahn is the Charlie Chaplin of the new medium, who will be the next Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese?


  1. Great post! You are right. Every industry is experiencing market disruption from the digital age we're entering, and the classroom will also see radical change in the coming years. It's inevitable. I'm currently taking Stanford U classes online for free, as a guy who could never get into a school like that. That's a radical change. Encyclopedia Britannica announced just yesterday that they are throwing in the towel. Wikipedia changed their market. The post office is closing locations, and libraries, I would argue, are in equal danger. Teachers will be doing themselves and their student a service by remaining open to change, and remaining curious about how these new and powerful tools can be used to make teaching better, easier, faster, and more comfortable from both sides of the desk. It's likely that teachers who remain close to the leading edges of this new world will be the ones who discover how to best incorporate technology in the classroom, and become the Spielberg or Scorsese of modern ed.

    1. Hmmm - The name sounds familiar... Thanks Paul for your comments and your insights. Stanford for free sounds like a great experience. Many are already taking MIT classes as well for free. The next interesting mode to change will be the idea of a degree from an institution. Will it continue to carry weight in the job market or will the actual mastery of a topic that one can present be more useful for businesses looking to hire.

  2. Very intriguing, exciting, and, yes, scary to some. But not for the reasons you may think. The public education system is so strapped by budgets and continually being told to cut the fringe that it is scary to get really excited about something new he when the technology may not be there to support it. It would be really nice if the two worlds could coexist peacefully. We can only hope that one day a Kahn or some other Sage can help us to figure that out so that the educators can just focus on the craft of educating through whatever means reaches those in need. Just a thought before my morning cup of joe....back later for more.

    1. The cost of educating our youths is always a major concern when it comes to public education. There are schools across the country where the funding is generally low but they seem to instill a priority level on the child's education. Although the pieces I talk about deal with technology, the ideas are ones that translate over any new vehicle that teachers decide to use. In my mind it boils down to priorities and access. Could any kid have access to all the Khan Academy has to offer? yes and it can be done right in the school system. Another post coming on that topic - I promise!!! Thanks for your post...