Khan Academy and Implications of Teacher Control

This is post one of four about the recent SRI Study about Khan Academy; post two can be found here. Among the challenges in implementing blended learning into existing schools is that, in most cases, teachers view their classrooms as their domain. Keeping Pace research suggests that successful blended learning implementations are almost always at the school level (or higher, e.g. district level or consortium level). The school-level approach to blended learning, however, collides with the view that teachers own what occurs in their classrooms, because school-wide blended learning implementations often select content, technology platforms, end-user devices, instructional models, and other elements of instruction that teachers are often accustomed to controlling within the classrooms.

Larry Cuban’s recent blog post “Business as Usual in Corporations and Schools” makes a similar point, within a larger (and well worth reading) discussion of power, status, and hierarchy in companies and in schools. Cuban is not an uncritical advocate for technology in education, and often questions people who suggest that online and blended learning are already having a large-scale impact on teaching and learning. He is among the realists who see things as they are, and not as they wish them to be. Speaking of power and hierarchies in schools, he says:

“With all of the rules and hierarchical levels from classroom through the state superintendent of education, teachers have one thing in their power to do: close the classroom door. They are (and have been) gatekeepers for student content, skills, and attitudes…”

Although the end of the quote above may be a slight overstatement—because content is selected and skills determined by schools, districts, and states—it captures the view that teachers do expect a high level of control over their classrooms.

After a brief discussion about “the talk of moving to project-based learning and shifting the teacher’s role from the sage-on-the-state to the guide-on-the-side,” he concludes with this:

“On occasion, some of the reforms have stuck in some schools where teachers weathered criticism and supported one another through cascades of hype and criticism. In these scattered instances, teachers kept their doors open and built a stable school culture supporting…instructional reforms…[including] rich student-centered activities. But not most teachers who returned time and again to practices that worked better for them than the “new” reform simply because they could close their classroom doors.

These are (and have been) abiding features of public schools and companies that no amount of talk and hype about doing business differently has changed.”

Cuban’s comments came to mind when I read these sentences in the SRI report on Khan Academy implementation:

"Even though Khan Academy is primarily known for its video library and has been associated with the “flipped” classroom model (i.e., teachers assign students videos about new concepts to watch as homework, and use class time to extend the video lectures with discussion and interactive activities), teachers participating in the research were more focused on exploring how online, personalized practice opportunities for students could be incorporated into their existing instructional activities." (emphasis added)

Khan Academy is widely used (10 million unique users per month as of February 2014, with about 65% of users from the United States, according to SRI), and it is undoubtedly helping many of those students. But whether any of the school-level implementations of Khan are game-changing has not yet been determined, as we will discuss in forthcoming posts. To the extent that usage in schools continues to be built around existing instructional activities, there is reason to doubt that outcomes will be significantly improved.