Why Khan Academy videos work

A Car Crisis

A few years ago my clutch gave out as I was pulling down the on-ramp onto the highway. Fortunately I was able to pull to the side sufficiently not to get pulverized by the onrush of traffic, but needless to say I was in a bit of a pickle. The situation was particularly frustrating as I was broke having just spent a bucketload of money to get the clutch rebuilt! I was not able to afford any new repairs. I got the car towed to a friend’s house nearby (I couldn’t even afford to get it towed to my apartment). There was only one thing to be done – we would have to get the car running ourselves. I’m not a mechanic and neither is he, but we had one super tool in the tool box – google. We searched online for the car’s model and clutch problems and within not too long we found text and video help spelling out exactly what we needed to do. We followed the instructions and voilà I was good to go!

Khan Academy videos also work for a variety of reasons I’ll get into later, but most importantly they work because they are designed to satisfy an immediate need – they are examples of “just in time” (JIT) instruction, just like the videos and instructions we downloaded to fix my car. Each of Khan’s video’s (particularly the first ones) answer the question “How do I …?” In fact the reason he created them to begin with was to answer his cousins questions about Mathematics when she was having difficulty with a course. Khan Academy has retained this ethos and has even added a new section “LeBron Asks…” where Lebron James, the basketball star, will ask a question and the Khan staff will build videos to answer his questions.

“Just in time” – so what?

What’s the big deal about JIT learning anyway, and is it even relevant to what we do in the schools? For trainers and human performance professionals, JIT learning or JIT training is nothing new. They know that workers are much more motivated, retain more and perform the learned task more efficiently when the right training is delivered exactly when it is needed most. In fact the definition for JIT learning is “getting the right knowledge, to the right person, at the right time,” (http://internettime.com/itimegroup/eglossary.htm). JIT learning is appropriate, personalized and timely.

These principles usually are not applied to academic learning, however. Academic canon mandates that all content must be taught from first principles and in 13 week segments, whether all that content is relevant or useful to the learner or not. Khan challenges that cannon. Why not give learners what they need when they need it? As Khan Academy has grown, they have created pathways and learning networks – maps that guide you through the videos and practice exercises if in fact you want to follow a learning path that resembles a traditional course. The fact remains, though that each video is a self-contained learning unit that answers the question why?, how? or what?

Is this a model for online learning of the future?

Apparently not. The founders of Udacity and Coursera have described Khan’s learning videos as models for the design of their courses, but they ascribe their success to the fact that they are brief and to concise. Both points are well taken, but those are not the only or even main reasons why the videos work so well. If you ignore the fact that the videos are designed to meet an immediate learning need, you miss the main point. You also ignore all the other good design principles that underpin the Khan videos, including:

  • Coherence – the videos only contain what is directly related to the subject to be learnt, all extraneous material is stripped away;
  • Temporal contiguity – the narration matches what’s going on onscreen;
  • Modality – words are presented as spoken rather than written text;
  • Personalization – words are presented in a conversational rather than an academic style

See Mayer, R. E. (2008). Applying the science of learning: Evidence-based principles for the design of multimedia instruction. American Psychologist, 63(8), 760-769 for a more complete description of the multimedia learning principles.

As I’ve said earlier though, the videos are successful mostly because they meet a need just in time.

Can “just in time” work for conventional learning?

Clearly not right away – colleges and universities are structured around the delivery of traditional courses. And that’s not necessarily wrong. In some fields of practice it is essential that learning follows a fairly subscribed path and that a series of milestones must be reached to signify the stages of learning. Some might argue that the study of law is like this – in order to understand dispute resolution, you must understand the principles of torts, and to understand torts, you must understand how to adjudicate conflicts of rights, and so on. Of course this argument can be countered by the fact that until recently (and in many countries this practice continues), law was not a field of practice learned in the classroom, but in rather in chambers through a rigorous and lengthy legal apprenticeship. This system continues today to an extent in both the US and Westminster systems.

Lessons from the beautiful game

In many ways the comparison of the two approaches can be summed up as “learning then doing” (traditional) versus “doing then learning”. A neat comparison can be made to the world football (soccer for those in the Americas). In Germany, they learn soccer from first principles in highly disciplined soccer academies taking advantage of all the most recent advances in athletic learning, training and coaching. In Brazil, on the other hand they learn by playing, as soon as they can walk, a mini-version of soccer on tiny “futsal” pitches in any free space available. In all-time world cup competition, the two highest ranked nations are Brazil (#1) and Germany (#2). Aside from the fact that Brazil got pasted in the World Cup last summer, given the historical success of both sides can we really say that one method is more valid than the other?

In education we know how to be like Germany. Is it time now to try the Brazilian approach in the (virtual) classroom?

4 thoughts on “Why Khan Academy videos work

  1. Quite agree on the points and analogies. Modern society has institutionalized teaching, but learning happens best, i.e., most efficiently, by doing as needed. Over the millenia humankind got to where it is today more by doing rather than discussing how to do. Nothing wrong with discussion, research, traditional schooling and the rest, and these are enjoyable and rewarding. But seeing how to do something when you need to do it is learning at its best.

  2. Couldnt agree more, Just in time does work and we can attest to that with more than 2.1M spanish speaking students learning math and science with our library of videos at tareasplus.com

  3. Although I agree with the JIT model in the abstract, in practice it has some potential problems. For one thing, it assumes that people know what they need to know and, at least in mathematics, that is often not the case. Secondary ignorance (when you don’t know what you don’t know) is rampant and often one of the main problems students face in trying to solve word problems. Although having a vast repository of videos that address all the tiny parts of mathematics can seem like the silver bullet education has been looking for, in reality in many ways it helps to further enhance the problem: that students approach mathematics as a set of discrete, often interchangeable, parts instead of a fluent whole (like a language). In the spirit of full disclosure, I will also post my opinion that a series of videos about my chosen professional field, mathematics education, that was created buy a guy with NO experience in either thing (mathematics or education) is fraught with danger and should be viewed as such. “Consider the source” is still apt advice. I will give Sal prop’s though for bringing Vi Hart into the mix… her addition along will improve his videos considerably… for one thing, the errors will probably be fixed now.

  4. Dr Perdue, thank you for comment. I too am a mathematics educator. I agree that Khan Academy isn’t a “Silver Bullet”, but I have seen students who have benefited from his videos. I think that the majority of people who are learning from his videos are students looking for extra assistance with things they are already studying. Can the JIT approach work as a method for teaching an entire field? I don’t know, but I think it is a question we should ask. Let’s face it Mathematics Education (at least where I’m from) is not succeeding, so maybe it’s time to try a new approach. I suspect the best approach falls somewhere in the middle, but we won’t know until we try.

    Your point about learning math like a language is well taken, but cuts both ways. Though we come to appreciate language as a fluent whole once we master it, language is most effectively learnt by doing – we learn discrete phrases and words as we need them and build our knowledge bit by bit.

    One way or another, it has certainly forced me to look beyond what I was doing before and re-evaluate what was working and what wasn’t for my students.

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