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'Mystery Teacher Theater 2000' Contest Calls for Critiques of Khan Academy Videos

Critics say the videos are full of errors and emphasize procedures over concepts.

There's no denying Khan Academy has become an education juggernaut, reaching more than six million users every month. Founder Sal Khan recently pointed out that that's 10 times the number of all Harvard graduates since 1636. But while its "flipped classroom" approach has been touted in some circles as the future of learning, a growing number of educators are making the point that Khan's videos aren't a silver bullet. "Mystery Teacher Theater 2000," a contest sponsored by Justin Reich, a doctoral researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Dan Meyer, a teacher and current Stanford math Ph.D. student, wants to "bring a critical eye to the Khan series by awarding a cash prize to the best video commentary on a Khan Academy video."

The contest is inspired by the attention John Golden and David Coffey, two members of the math department at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, received after their recent Mystery Science Theater 3000-style critique of the Khan Academy video "Multiplying and Dividing Negative Numbers" went viral. Khan subsequently pulled down the error-filled lesson and replaced it with two videos that implemented instructional suggestions made by Golden and Coffey. They say that the goal of their satirical video "was to get a conversation started" since "many teachers have tried to engage Khan Academy in a reasonable discussion and present their case to the media about issues with this approach with little to show for it."

On his blog at EdWeek, Reich writes that Golden and Coffey "role model how teachers should bring a critical eye to educational materials." The contest is needed, Reich says, because although "Khan Academy is a terrific resource put together by a truly philanthropic spirit," the site's "videos also have some errors of mathematics and pedagogy, and there are very legitimate questions about whether the video series overemphasizes procedures over concepts."

Indeed, mathematician Robert Talbert, who also teaches at GVSU, writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education that Khan, "tends to ramble a lot and get sidetracked; he doesn’t use visuals as effectively as he could; he’s often sloppy and sometimes downright wrong with his math; and he sometimes omits topics from his subjects that really need to be there."

That may sound a bit harsh but Talbert says he's "not a Khan Academy hater." Like many educators, he and his colleagues simply don't want the videos, which are essentially lectures and "demos on how to finish mathematics exercises" to be seen as a substitute for classroom teachers or as capable of conveying "higher-level thinking skills that are so important for using mathematics in the real world."

To enter the contest, simply upload an "entertaining and enlightening" video critique of a Khan Academy lesson to YouTube before August 15, 2012 and tag it with #mtt2k. About a dozen entries have been uploaded so far. What's encouraging is that since Khan Academy has indicated they're open to the critiques, Reich has invited them to help judge the entries. While this contest probably won't stop some Khan proselytizers from overstating what the videos can do for a learner, if it improves their quality, that's a win-win for everyone.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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