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Thompson: Rocketship & Khan Academy Not That Impressive

Khan Larry Abramson’s two-part NPR series points a way towards the proper use of educational technology. I would feel more confident that online learning would not be abused, however, if its purpose was to either save money or improve instruction, but without attempting both at the same time. The new but much-admired Rocketship Education uses tutorials for basic skills to free teachers to do what they would rather do - teach kids to think. One way the computer lab saves money, though, is by staffing it with lower-paid or even unpaid labor. Abramson also reported that Khan Academy improved instruction at Santa Rita Elementary School by allowing some elementary students to master calculus while others work on mulitiplication of decimals.  It "dunks these students into a completely self-paced world."  But Santa Rita is 15% low-income and 8% black and Hispanic.  It is both a "California Distinguished School" and a "National Blue Ribbon School."  If we want online technology to help children in our toughest neighborhood schools, we should heed the research of Susan Neuman showing that it is not enough to simply provide access to computers to poor children.  We must spend whatever is necessary to integrate technology into a holistic learning culture.  - JT (@drjohnthompson) Image via.

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Thanks for questioning what few question: The "magic" of Khan Academy, which seems to stem from buzz (elementary students "mastering" calculus?) rather than solid, integrated learning practice.

No doubt that computer-assisted instruction can help kids learn some things. What bothers me is the narrative of "disruption"--who needs traditional f2f "batch" learning when you can individualize via machine? etc etc-- that accompanies these programs and builds hype more than thoughtful analysis of just what it is that kids are taking away from glitzy programs. I'd love to see students using computers to pursue their informed passions. But that's not what Khan and Rocketship are selling.

There's a difference between saving money overall -- i.e. cutting per pupil expenditures -- and using money in different ways that lead to better student outcomes. It's important to be specific because Rocketship is primarily about the latter case. And, your analysis is incomplete unless you talk about what they get in return for staffing the computer labs with lower-paid persons. Essentially, they differentiate roles and trade those funds for higher teacher pay, more overall learning time, and better student supports. It's an interesting set of ideas and so far, it appears to be working.

While we both share a fear of abuse of online technology,in this instance, you're letting your fears constrain the possibilities. Schools constantly make trade-offs and judgments about the best ways to use funds. Unless you think that we are using every single educational dollar in the best way possible, then there's no reason not to pursue new ideas about the best ways to use resources to improve student outcomes.

You draw a valuable distinction. It would be doubly valuable, however to keep your point in mind while in context of my warning that we need to be clear whether the key is saving money or improving performance. Saving money in the short run by cutting some labor costs is one issue. The biggest issue is risking damage to some kids in order to save money or to help others.

And why do we not hear enough about the research I cite?

This is where our big disagreement is. Having been in schools, I believe "do no harm" should be rule #1. I have no doubt that blended learning will help many kids. I suspect it will do far more harm - harm that it did not have to inflict - than good in the short run.

Think of how much more valuable these tools would be if we could have honest conversations about what are the best and most cost effective decisions. Think of how much more valuable these tools would be if this age of data-driven "reform" had not driven honest communication out of school reforms.

Khan Academy is only useful for older students using it for revision. ie college. In elementary schools it's usually the children that don't need it, that use it - and their achievments are advertised and promoted ie. 10 year old does trigonometry. I'd rather hear 'struggling kids improve attitude and results'. The Khan Academy assumes that children are robots. ie The same instruction for all when infact they are individuals where a classroom full of children have many different learning styles. Let's not thrust our children in front of the instruction of an entrepeneur. The risk is massive and results, I believe, will be disastrous.

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