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reason: One of the worst things that happens now is when people say, “OK, we’ve got $1 million. Let’s throw iPads at everybody.” What’s the difference between a stupid use of technology and an enlightened use?
Khan: The stupid use of technology—I use a more euphemistic, more polite way of referring to it—has been around since technology has been around. Every time a new device comes out people say, “Oh, we’ll just use it in the classroom.” When I was a kid, [it was] PCs. The computer lab was empty, and we’d go in there and play video games and then leave. Or we’d learn how to put in a diskette or whatever. It wasn’t really integrated with the curriculum. You see the same thing happening now. An administrator gets excited about an iPad; all of a sudden we’ve got to get iPads in the classroom. And they get them there, but what are the kids doing? They’re maybe playing games, checking their email, who knows?
The key is: How do you leverage that thing so that it actually can affect learning? And not only affect learning but also transform what the classroom is all about. Right now when people talk about improving education, they keep trying to stuff more things in there; they keep adding more structure on it. And then they bring this technology, but it’s just going to be used superficially: “OK, maybe I’ll do a little exercise on this thing.”
What we say is: No, now that you have the technology, now that you can keep track of students in terms of what they know, what they don’t know, let’s completely rethink the model from scratch. Class time should be about interaction, self-paced. Do we have to separate classrooms anymore? Do we have to separate physics from calculus from chemistry? Do we have to separate Ms. Green’s class from Mr. Smith’s class? Can we have them happening together, and now Ms. Green and Mr. Smith can tag-team teach? They can teach to each other’s strengths, and they can mentor each other. That’s what I would call the more enlightened use of technology: actually rethinking the model.
reason: What happens to credentialing in your system? Completing K−12 is signaling to the next level of education that you’ve made the cut. College even more so. Where are your degrees from? They’re not from rinky-dink schools.
Khan: I have several degrees from MIT and another one from Harvard Business School.
reason: So what happens to credentials down the line when we get into a more individualized, personalized educational experience?
Khan: College is a confusing, muddled concept. There’s a learning part, a socialization part, and a credentialing part. The students and parents appreciate the experiential, the socialization parts, but they are paying that significant amount, if you really ask them, for the credential. If you went to students graduating at Harvard and said: “Look, I’ll refund all your tuition—you get all the experiences, all the friendships, all the learning—but you can never tell anyone that you went to Harvard University.” Would they do it? I suspect most will not do it. Which tells you that they were paying for the credential. The experience was kind of gravy on top of that. The universities think that the credential is nice but the main thing they’re giving is this experience. So that’s a huge transaction—a huge part of someone’s total lifetime income—where the person buying is buying something different from what the person selling [thinks he is selling].
What I believe should happen, and what I believe is happening, is you’re going to have decoupling of the learning experience from the credentials. So regardless of whether you went to Harvard or whether you went to the local community college, if you feel like you know something you could go to a third party—well-established, rigorous assessment, better than what happens at any school—and prove that you know that thing. And you might have learned it on the job, at community college, on Khan Academy, on EdEx, who knows what it might be.
If you do that, it also clarifies things for the university. You won’t have the strange thing where kids are trying to make sure they get an A+ in a philosophy class so that they can get an interview at Goldman Sachs or at McKinsey or Facebook. They’ll be there to learn. If they really care about [getting a] job, there’s another route that’s somewhat orthogonal to the first one.
reason: Change is coming to the educational establishment. The conventional public school monopoly is clearly breaking down. Charter schools are breaking out all over the place. People are opting out of the system. They’re doing homeschooling. What are the main impediments to increasing the pace of change? To what extent do they reside in the formal structures of school, and to what extent are they shackles in the minds of students and parents?
Khan: I think they are primarily in the mind.
There are structural things too. I’ve talked to teachers,
administrators who believe everything I say. They believe it’s the
way. They look at other schools that are self-paced. But they’re
like, “I got a state assessment test on this. And I got this
calendar that the state has told me to do.” So they have to do this
in-between thing, this
little dance where they pay lip service to the state, but they recognize that the kids have to learn at their own pace.
It’s this weird transition state. I’ve actually found very few people disagree with the principles. They say, “This is common sense. This isn’t really even under debate.” There’s a lot of cynicism about change. And there’s a lot of inertia and bureaucracy and all of that. But I actually think it’s happening far, far faster than people realize. In five or 10 years, it’s going to be completely mainstream. And for something as systemically important as education, I think that’s shockingly fast.