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Thursday, February 9, 2012

There's Nothing New Under the Sun: Not Even Khan Academy

There's a great post at the Mathalicious blog about how Khan Academy is taking over the psyche of many in and outside the education world. Many think it's "the" answer to the education challenge in the U.S. and around the world. But the truth is, as the author explains, it's the same type of teaching that's been done for decades, just via free videos. And, the free part may be its biggest limiter: it's free, so it might be determined to be "good enough" and restrict educators from seeing something better.

The author (and I) are not haters of Khan Academy (KA). I'm a fan, but see KA's short informal video lessons as part of a new vision for teaching and engagement. I agree that the KA lessons do teach, for example, the concept of slope, the same way my parents and I saw it taught. I don't think we need to toss that method out, but rather, use it as one way to introduce the key ideas. For some students that x,y axis, rise over run idea will make sense. But what about those for whom it does not?

The Mathalicious post got me thinking about how we teach geography and GIS. Was I taught geography the same way my professors and their professors taught them? I suspect the lecture, assignments, and tests, were quite similar. Do I teach my students the same way? I've certainly drawn on my teachers ideas, exercises and visions. But, I've been lucky enough to have quite a bit of freedom to determine the goals of my courses and the lessons and assignment in which my students participate to achieve those goals. In the era of online teaching I have something my teachers did not: the Web. I and my students have all of the resources of the Web and I try to take full advantage of those. I also have all of the resources shared by other educators (on the Web!) about engagement techniques. I far prefer my role online as "guide on the side" over "sage on the sage." Moreover, my students do, too.

I wonder if GIS is taught the same way it was when I learned ARC/INFO in 1992? This was at ESRI HQ. The three day course involved segments which included a short lecture with slides, then having students in pairs trying hard to key in command line text to follow the "recipe" in our workbook. At the end of the three days we were expected to do a project. My partner (from Danish Hydro, I still remember!) and I did not complete the project and I was left with quite a headache. Now, of course, the command line interface would include WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointer) so that part would be easier. But is the teaching itself be any different? (Esri cited some new techniques in 2010, but I've not heard any more on this effort.)

The biggest challenge educators may have in enhancing today's efforts is separating our vision of teaching from past visions. One of my instructional designers (thanks Khusro) was always prodding me to redefine any rules to better fit the goals of the course. "Just because every other course has assignments due on Tuesday night does not mean your class must." And so, we set a schedule for my graduate students such that assignments were due Fridays, Sundays and Tuesdays each week. Yikes! And yet, it worked!

We need to be brave and take chances and find what's new and what works, under the sun. And then, we need to share those best practices.