School & District Management

Digital Ed’s ‘Pied Piper’

By Liana Loewus — May 31, 2011 1 min read
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Steven Pearlstein at The Washington Post offers a lofty vision for the future of the U.S. education system, in which students do most of their learning through individualized online programs. It’s the same vision former governors Jeb Bush of Florida and Bob Wise of West Virginia are pushing for with the Digital Learning Council, as Ian Quillen reported in December.

But according to Pearlstein, the real “pied piper” of the digital education movement is Salman Khan—a “former math geek and young hedge fund analyst” (read: not a teacher) who five years ago began making videos to help his nieces with their math homework. The Khan Academy website (which we recently blogged about) now has 2,300 math tutorials that have been viewed more than 50 million times. The lectures are paired with quizzes that get harder or easier depending on how well a student has mastered the concepts. And all of the content is free and open to anyone.

If this “movement"—a foil to the for-profit education industry—continues, writes Pearlstein, fewer and only more specialized teachers will be needed. He goes on:

The disruption doesn't stop there. If students are allowed to progress through each subject at their own pace, they won't be second-graders or sixth-graders any longer, since at any time they are likely to be at different grades in different subjects. Indeed, the whole notion of a 45-minute "class," or the six-hour "school day," or even the August through June school "calendar"—the entire framework of the educational experience—will become somewhat irrelevant. And as Khan loves to point out, grading will suddenly become simple: Everyone gets an A in every course, with the only question being how long it takes each student to earn it.

It’s a lot to glean from one successful example. But as Pearlstein points out, Napster redefined the music industry with the introduction of file-sharing. Why couldn’t Khan’s site spark a digital ed revolution?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.