Khan Academy’s Educational Theory

I see MOOCs in two lights at present:  the original, urMOOC as developed by Siemens and Downes, which embodied the connectivst (and often constructivist) principles of educational theory its content focused on; and the larger, institution-backed MOOCs as designed by Coursera and Udacity.  If my project is to compare the differences between the two (and try to determine where they came from…are they related, or did they both just happen to start at the same time, and why would that be and what does it mean for the future of ed), I need to understand the educational underpinnings of both.  And the MOOCs of today don’t spend a ton of time on that in their literature, nor do bloggers and pundits, focused on issues of access and university economics.

So looking at Class2Go and seeing a great deal of admiration for Khan Academy gave me a foothold in looking at the theory behind this incarnation of the MOOC.  Of course, Khan Academy does not sell its educational theory on its front pages, so again, more digging…and most of the lit out there is blog-based, research-light and content-shallow.  Luckily, ed tech writer Audrey Watters covered the discord between Khan Academy and Education researchers/theorists in a blog about a year ago, and it’s a great diving board into the work.  

For me, the lynchpin is in the discussion of Bill Gates, who has heavily supported Khan and his academy.  To Watters, Gates does not see qualified teachers as people who have had training in education; rather, qualified manifests in degrees in other subjects.  An understanding of educational theory or pedagogy is unnecessary (and you could wonder if it is detrimental, to Gates).  The slippery-slope argument of Khan Academy is that if these videos are doing the trick, why do we need the teachers…why do we need people trained to educate when we can have experts producing videos and let the videos train.

This is a tenant of behaviorism, a psychological theory stating that our persons are developed through conditioning and behaviors, and the positive or negative stimulus that comes from our reactions.  In education, this boils down to training…homework, quizzes and worksheets train people to retain and utilize learned content, and the consistent completion of rote tasks solidifies the information.  (Note…find a good ed theorist who boils this down!)  Behaviorism is by and large didactic learning.

This notion of education was abandoned by theorists and researchers over 30 years ago, but has made a comeback in schools today, in large part due to standardized testing and what is called student achievement.

For the MOOC, this would make sense.  The professors involved in these MOOCS by and large have training in their subjects, not education.  Large lecture halls are didactic repositories, so why would that change if we utilize technology?  If it is about the content and not about ensuring student comprehension and mastery through a more reliable, less easy-to-measure apparatus, the MOOC is the logical outcome.

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