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School & District Management Opinion

And the Most Overhyped Edu-Entrepreneur of the Moment Is...?

By Rick Hess — June 10, 2011 3 min read
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I’m up here today at UPenn’s “NEST” gathering (Networking Ed Entrepreneurs for Social Transformation). Last night, after the opening dinner, a slew of interesting folks headed out for shop talk and Game 5 of Heat-Mavs. Given my knack for annoying my friends, I found myself wondering aloud about a question that a person of discretion really shouldn’t ask at a gathering of entrepreneurs: namely, who’s the most overhyped edu-entrepreneur of the moment?

Now, I always say that you can’t much blame the hypee for being overhyped. Any smart entrepreneur is going to take advantage of opportunities to extend their work, so they’re hardly to blame for taking advantage of a hype machine that’s mostly the product of lazy journalists, fad-embracing reformers, thrill-seeking philanthropists, and wishful thinking. Nonetheless, the disappointing reality is how often we’ve taken terrific ideas and turned them into disappointments by blowing them up into fads.

Folks had various thoughts on the matter. But I won’t put anyone else on the spot. Instead, for what it’s worth, I’ll share my own take. My answer? The Khan Academy.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Khan Academy is a smart, thoughtfully executed idea and what I’ve seen of it is impressive. Kahn has posted more than 2,000 lessons, and the one I’ve watched are terrific--certainly a helluva lot better than most of the lectures I’ve seen delivered in classrooms over the past two decades. The whole endeavor is necessary and inevitable. Why? Because it merely does for schooling what books did five centuries ago, which is take the rote exercise of explaining stuff to students and permit experts to do it in a more careful and painstaking fashion, while freeing them from doing it again and again. Rather than explain the same points to twenty kids at a time, over and over, it becomes possible to devote that time to exquisitely preparing a lecture that can be experienced by 20,000 or 20 million students at a time. Truth is, this is how most of us experience Pachelbel, or Mozart, or Springsteen, or Lady Gaga--we enjoy the fact that the music is available as audio files, allowing us to access the music we want, when we’d like, and in the comfort of our home or car. Khan Academy makes it possible for teachers to start focusing more on, you know, teaching and mentoring and engaging with students, rather than on having to tell them stuff.

The problem isn’t with the venture. The problem is that it has been quickly blown--by fad-seeking enthusiasts, Colbert bookers, overcaffeinated philanthropists, and groupthink reformers--into “the future of schooling.”

Sigh... Look, Sal Khan is clearly smart as hell, a Renaissance guy, and a terrific teacher. But what he’s done, more or less, is make a bunch of excellent lectures available on YouTube. That’s an excellent development, and a promising platform. In the vernacular of my Education Unbound, it’s a textbook example of a brilliantly executed 1% solution. Where I get lost is why the hype portrays this as so radical and newsworthy. We don’t see medical device makers on TV or in Forbes every time they devise a terrific new stent.

What Sal Khan has done is something that many have been calling for and that folks could’ve, should’ve been doing a few years ago (instead of filming and posting cute kitten videos). It’s something that could’ve, should’ve come from folks in ed schools or school districts--and Kahn’s energy and talent show just how pallid and negligent the edu-space has been when it comes to leveraging new tools and technologies. Kahn has a great story, is clearly a terrific lecturer, and the notion that students should listen to lectures at home and do their actual work in school is a sensible one, but it’s not real clear to me why Kahn is popping up on Colbert or being feted as a star at high-profile edu-conferences.

I don’t mean for any of this to be read as a critique of Khan Academy. I admire what Sal Khan has done and don’t know it well enough at this point to have any particular concerns about his venture. But we do have this ugly habit in education of taking sensible ideas, overselling them, turning them into fads, inviting backlash, and then slouching away when they inevitably fail to deliver on ludicrous, inflated expectations. And my hope is that we’re not revving up for one more go at that familiar treadmill.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.