Salman Khan speaking at a TED conference in 2011. Photo: Wikipedia

A blended review of Salman Khan: The One World Schoolhouse

Rewiev. The online education resource Khan Academy is a global phenomenon. Anders Norberg reviews Salman Khan's 2012 book-manifest The One World Schoolhouse from a blended learning viewpoint.


Salman Khan: The One World Schoolhouse – Education Reimagined. Hodder and Stoughton, London, 2012 and Twelwe, Boston & New York 2012. 272 pages. ISBN 978 1 444 75577 0

The book The One World Schoolhouse is over two years old, and has been reviewed before. I have been asked to review and discuss it from a perspective of “blended learning”. I am not a researcher in math education, but am researching and problematizing blended learning and education logistics. Thus this task is an interesting one. I will begin with a shorter book review and then discuss the concept of “blended learning” in relation to Khan’s book and Khan Academy.

The Khan phenomenon

The website of Khan Academy is what it all revolves around, and most people in education and schooling know it: an impressive database website with about 4500 plain short videos in English currently, mostly in math and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects. The videos are about 10 to 15 minutes long and have a “no-frills” form. We never see Salman Khan´s face, we hear him talking and see him scribbling on a digital blackboard. He resembles a coach in his explanations of how math procedures work. If we believe the comments to any video, the method seems to work for many pupils. There are, however, comments to the contrary as well.

There are several functionalities added around the videos. A learner can use diagnostic tests to know where to start, a dashboard can show the progress, there are problem generators around the videos, and badges to hunt for and collect. With analytic tools a teacher can overview a number of students on graphs, and can also see which pupils get stuck on the same thing, etc. A parent can have his view over progress as well.

The Khan Academy website has no ads or fees; it is an OER, Open Educational Resource. Content is in English, but translations projects are proceeding in many countries, among them Sweden. The Academy is appreciated by many learners and highly praised in media, but also criticized for teaching only technical math procedures – not math per se – and for math mistakes in some videos. Khan himself has come under criticism for not having any teacher training and not being a didactically conscious math teacher. The question also comes up if he is only fragmentizing and digitalizing the lecture culture he also criticizes.

The book

The book title “The one-world schoolhouse” creates questions and expectations in connection to the author and his work. It can even be perceived as presumptuous – does Khan claim that his website fixes global problems of schooling with a web site? Is this some version of the meme “Education is broken” and the belief that “Silicon Valley is going to fix it”? It will show that Khan has a proposal, but that he does not want to abolish schools or teachers. Sure, he wants to change a lot –and Khan Academy and similar resources are a part of his bigger concept, but not a substitution. The Academy adds, or blends or integrates into his bigger schooling idea.

In the book Khan is starting his narrative of how all this came to be – which is expected and an easy autobiographic reading. He has a solid education background from Massachusett´s Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University. He writes how he by accident stumbled into general questions of education in 2004 by helping his 12-year-old cousin Nadia to overcome some math problems; she was stuck in unit conversion. From there the math coaching expanded to more cousins and other pupils needing help. He scaled up his work by uploading videos on Youtube, programming math problems generators for practical purposes – and then left his job, got funding from Google, Gates Foundation, Sullivan Foundation and other sources, and Khan Academy grew into a not-for-profit company with a number of employees and an increasing number of videos.

Khan found Math and STEM coaching interesting and stimulating. Every coach or teacher knows the feeling. He got so much positive feedback from students, that he, naturally, began looking for the bigger context he was working in. Why did students become so easily stuck in math? Why did they need him? How did the mathematics classroom teaching work and not work? Why is school satisfied with anything less than mastery of a math procedure before proceeding? Could math teaching and learning be changed?

The book proceeds to question contemporary practices in schooling and education, such as what he calls the Prussian model of schooling, the lecturing culture, the cohort at same-pace idea, the fragmented learning in scheduled parts of the school day, the testing and grading culture, the homework pressure, summer vacation – and a lot that we usually bundle with the idea of education, but probably can and ought to question and possibly change.  He is sometimes categorical in his sketching of education history, and makes references only in connection to the idea of master learning.

It is important to critically pick up piece by piece that what we call education and question it – but a reader easily gets the impression that all formal education follows all these old models, which of course not really is the case. Salman Kahn is not the only school reformer nor experimenting teacher around, but I think he may be excused for expressing and generalizing what he sees from his viewpoint. Among these is “Swiss Cheese Learning”, individual gaps in mastery of math and other subjects, which become very frustrating and time consuming later on, both for students and teachers. Khan is not satisfied with decent average results for a class, but wants nothing less than individual mastery for all, which he sees as irrelevant to grade. Here I think he is occupied with the knowledge structure of the procedures of math, which possibly can be defined, structured and assessed more explicitly than, for example, political science or arts. But he has something to say on these subjects as well later.

Khan goes on to outline his vision for future schooling. Although in his videos he fosters a personal and friendly coaching feeling, he proposes big, multi-age groups in a school or rather learning space – resembling but upscaling the old one-room schoolhouse with all progressing at their own pace, assisted by peers and a team of teachers. Pupils use self-paced digital learning materials only for 1-2 hours per day, and thereby free up time for creative learning projects. There is not much relevance for one-size-fits-all-lectures in this concept – it usually is a waste of time. This is interesting. Khan is not the math nerd I expected, he wants to make math easier to learn, so focus can be on other things.

Khan thinks his proposal has relevance also for developing countries. It takes some of the lecture burden off teachers and frees them up for actively helping pupils with their actual problems and projects and it can, he believes, work well even with not-so qualified teachers, which is a reality in many parts of the world. He imagines that one cheap computer, tablet or DVD player for four students can be enough for taking turns during the day. The book ends up with a discussion on the need and place for creativity in school.

I think it is an interesting book and a good read for anyone in education. It is not an academic book, but written by a person who wants to coach people in learning, and have developed such services. It gets more interesting as it progresses, in questioning our current model of schooling, and proposing something alternative. Nothing is totally new, and he does not claim that either, but he combines ideas in an interesting way.
What I personally miss in this book is more reasoning on student motivation for learning. Is it only the ambitious, but temporarily stuck, pupils that can be helped by these strategies and tools, or rather all pupils, independent of motivation? Or do students become motivated along the way by using a good learning material?

Apparently Khan thinks it is often possible to motivate pupils just by showing that there is a way forward that is workable. The learner has now more agency within the school structure of math learning. Khan Academy has also some gamification functions as well – pupils can see their progress and work for obtaining badges. In the end, I don´t think this is a long-term solution for motivation. Challenges and badges are temporary motivators, they wear out. But then again, who can claim to offer a solution to the problem of non-motivated students?

Blended learning

I will now move on to discussing “blended learning”, in the context of Khan Academy. Blended learning (BL) is a pale expression, but popular. The term itself is easy to criticize and ridicule. “Learning” is not something to be “blended” usually, the metaphor seems to be a category mistake. Moreover, if learning can be blended, it is in the literature mostly about organization of teaching (Oliver & Trigwell, 2005) or possibly obuchenie – the interactive teaching and learning activity Vygotsky (1978) tries to focus on. Furthermore, BL does not rest on any “blending theory” of how a blend of two or more components should be able to interact and dissolve into one another. Very little in the BL literature is about “blending” as such. There is no unity either about what components we are supposed to blend – learning environments (classroom and online), learning media (analogue and digital), pedagogies (always wondered how that would help!), types of communication (oral and digital written), etc.

The mysterious thing is that in this lack of any hidden wisdom in the term BL itself, teachers seem to intuitively think they understand the term, and they get ideas of how to change teaching and apply them.

Sharpe, Benfield, Roberts, and Francis (2006) recommend, after having investigated and reviewed about 300 UK projects and papers about BL: “Use the term blended learning” (2005, p.4) in part because it “allows staff to negotiate their own meaning”. There is some kind of unity around a future positive value seen at the unclear horizon, and people fill it with quite different meanings and works differently for promoting it, but seem to somewhat agree anyway. (Laumakis, Graham & Dziuban 2009).

I believe that the easiest way to think of BL is “ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) integration into mainstream education”, as there once was a process when printed text was integrated into education and eventually profoundly changed it. How should we understand BL as integration of ICTs? One way is that ICT makes a sub-process, within a traditional frame, more effective. New uses of technology often first have that kind of applications. With ICT in education, it has earlier often been understood, especially within adult education, that it is for transport of education services, “distance learning”.  BL would then become “half-distance learning”, but I think the transformation power of ICT is more profound. I believe contemporary BL is a step on the way to “the new normal”.

When we have integrated the use of ICT into our teaching and learning mainstream models, we will probably no longer think of teaching and learning as blended – but as historically developed (Norberg 2012). My own take on BL is to think of it not merely as a technology-enabled blend of places, as classroom and online, but as a blend of the synchronous (happening at the same time) and asynchronous (more time-flexible) modalities, prioritizing time over place as a frame. We have of course had that pattern in schooling for a long time; school day in class, homework in evening, lessons next day again, etc.  ICTs offer tools for both synchronous and asynchronous settings, for the shift between them and for managing parallel worklines more conveniently.

For the synchronous modality we have classrooms and classroom-enhancing ICT tools, but also video-conference, desktop conference, Internet telephony, chats, telepresence robotics, etc.  For the asynchronous we have books and assignments as before – but also learning platforms, recorded lectures, simulations, forums, mashups and whatever. And we can make good shifts between these modalities more easily by continuing a synchronous discussion in an asynchronous forum, turning in a question or two on texts which should be read asynchronously before next synchronous meeting, etc.  ICT does one or the other thing more effective.

Likewise, web-based online education is often thought of as “distance” education, but we should not thereby think of categorizing BL as any “half-distance” education. ICT unbundles conventional services into components and bundles them in other ways, so BL can both be used in classrooms and without them, if we think of the function of ICTs as enabling both synchronous and asynchronous modalities and the shift between them in a teaching/learning process.

How then, can Khan Academies´ materials, functions and strategies be integrated into mainstream schooling? First we must ask, what kind of materials they are. Are they courses, modern learning materials or “learning objects”? Is it a coaching function? Or even Education?

The concept of “granularity” is helpful here: The larger and more complex a shared learning object is, the more valuable it is to find if it suits a teaching need perfectly. This is seldom the case because of the size – schools and teachers like to design courses themselves. The smaller a learning object is, the more generally useful it is, but also easier to make on one’s own and sometimes hardly worth the search. If it is for example only a demonstration of an addition with whole numbers, a teacher can as well make it himself.  Khan Academy´s objects are plain, but good and many, covering a lot and easy to find. I see Khan Academy as both a source of learning materials and with a coaching function. When blending this into mainstream education, I think we have five models, explained below.

A. Individual student blend. What Khan thought of doing from the beginning was to support individual learners with problems in following the teaching process of math in their class. He did not have ambitions to interfere with school in any other way than individual coaching to close learning gaps. This we can call Blended Learning – as it was action on the learners’ own initiative, part of a subjective strategy. The learner is blending himself by new tools and personal strategies, irrespective whether the teacher knows this or not. It is good enough that he now can follow the teaching in school better. For the learner, this can promote self-confidence and motivation to go on. Oliver and Trigwell are “arguing that the word ‘learning’ be rightfully returned to the learner” (2005 p.24). This blending has also a social form – students helping one another with the help of ICT communication and resources independent of the teaching design. This communication is now also being connected to the teaching design with new tools (ELI, 2010).

B. Blending in the classroom. Khan discovered after a while that some math teachers used his videos in the original classroom setting, replacing some activities of what they would have done themselves earlier: math procedure demonstrations at the front of the room. Youtube-Khan was lecturing in the teachers’ place. Not much of an innovation, but perhaps freeing up the teacher for other things – for example tutoring the weakest learners or stimulating the “over-performers”. Teacher lecturing is overvalued according to Khan. It kills both student interest and valuable time, which could have been used better for both teachers and students.

Khan explains to us his own study strategy at MIT: to skip lectures and use the time wiser. We may have some kind of teacher identity crisis here I think, at least if we talk about higher education. Lecturing is teaching. If a teacher plays lecture videos instead, he is not a real teacher – before he can construct another identity, that is – if he is permitted. This is something that would have been analyzed already when print entered the classroom hundreds of years ago: is it still necessary to read or tell students what´s in the books if they can read themselves? Can´t time be more effectively used when we have new tools available?

The recorded lecture is now doing an unexpected comeback – just because it is so easy to distribute online. For a more detailed discussion of models for blending in the classroom, see Christensen, Horn & Staker (2013) where they list four models of blended learning in basic education – some using the classroom, and some disrupting it: Rotation model (Station-, Lab-, Flipped-, Individual- rotation), the flex model, the á la carte- and the enriched virtual- model.

C. The flipped classroom. Khan writes about flipping – the conversion of types of learning activities in relation to places. In its simplest form: the learners homework is to listen to recorded lectures, and the classroom work is practical learning (problem solving, discussions, projects), done in a helpful social setting and with a teacher at hand. Khan Academy´s videos provides an easy DIY solution for the homework lectures in this kind of blend, but can also assist with the learning material in the classroom. This model is only crystal clear when lectures are perceived as a necessary part of the teaching concept, and the rest is bundled to “non-lecture-learning” – and these units can switch places. A sustainable flip thinking has to be more complex, but is basically posing good questions for any kind of BL: For which learning activities or phases do we really need a synchronous face-to-face classroom? Which other activities can be at learner convenience at home with help of ICTs? How do we combine these in a working process?

One modification to add here is that for education of children we must use a classroom or similar space to keep surveillance over children, because their parents are at work. For adult education, this room is now a teaching and learning tool, when and if we need it, and not a definition frame for education itself. For overview of flipped classroom research, see Bishop and Verleger (2013).

D. The accessible blend. In contrast to blends that always have the classroom as one of the components of BL, access to education is discussed very little. Access is more associated with synchronous or asynchronous “distance learning”. BL seems to be more about using ICT for quality and effectiveness purposes than for widened access in place and time. BL as a process emphasizes the synchronous-asynchronous tension instead for integration of ICT, as Michael Power (2008) with “Blended Online Learning” and Norberg, Dziuban and Moskal´s “Time based blended learning” (2011). BL concepts can also be used to place the blending design on the learners’ conditions and convenience, by having the same course to work simultaneously for campus and flexible purposes, such as “Multi-access learning” (Irvine, Code & Richards, 2013), and “Hyflex learning” (Beatty, 2007). Digital material and functions, as Khan Academy, will work well here over time and place limitations.

E. Large-scale flexible environments, or Khan’s “one world schoolhouse”. We are back to Khan’s concluding idea, vision and final blend. Some learning, as the math curriculum, is progressive and linear and contains threshold concepts – school must ensure that a learner masters thinking and procedures for A before proceeding to B. Other learning stuff has a more complex organization. That is why Khan wants a kind of station system within this large learner group, guided by a team of teachers. Only a smaller portion of the day, 1-2 hours, is needed for math and similar theoretical system skills, the rest of the time goes to good creative art and technology projects. We can widen this idea. Professor Sugata Mitra, most known for his discussed Hole-in-the-wall experiment, has proposed a SOLE, “Self-Organizing Learning Environment” or “School in the cloud” (see Dolan, Leat et al 2013). For adult education, SOLE-inspired campuses can be the next thing. The idea is that all students have a good physical and social environment in common, but study different things with help of MOOCs and with other strategies, and are also free to develop knowledge, projects and initiatives with help of coaches and peers. One US attempt to do this, the Black Mountain SOLE, seems to have temporarily halted.

Concluding thoughts

The One World Schoolhouse stimulates one to think about present and future schooling, where ICT is becoming normal. The book contributes to our critical thinking about what education is and what it can become. I am quite positive about the transient character of all that is called “blended”. It will soon just be called teaching and learning again, and come out from a hybrid state. The information philosopher Luciano Floridi asserts that “we are probably the last generation that [draws] boundaries between online and offline…[these] will be blurred and “we shall be living in an infosphere that will become increasingly synchronized (time), delocalised (space) and correlated (interactions)” (Floridi 2007, p.61).

I read him as if we are not supposed to just wait for the future, but instead work to construct this new integrated environment. It is our responsibility. We are many kinds of stakeholders, architects and craftsmen in this building of new environments for learning. Innovators are welcome.


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