educational media

A Litmus Test for Educational Technology


Even a cursory glance at the education press will shock (if not stun) the reader with the immense glut of high-tech proposals pointed in the direction of the classroom. Take your pick: the virtual classroom, distance learning, xMOOC, cMOOC, learning analytics, the flipped classroom, project-based learning, competency-based curricula, blended learning, eBooks, the LMS, social networking…. They all take a technological swipe at fixing some real or perceived problem with the way we educate each other.

Educational technologists are all too often cautiously taciturn when it comes to offering critiques or early warning signs of new technologies. Perhaps this is because they are customarily like expectant fathers, the very “last to know.” If you are lucky you might stumble onto a paper or blog post by a hoary-haired observer of the educational landscape who recounts a technology that promised some needed transformation but nevertheless fell woefully short. There are many in the annals of educational reform. Anybody remember the MORU? Anybody using television in the classroom?

Still, those working in the trenches of educational content creation and delivery have a nagging problem to address. Is there no simple test that can be applied to technologies to help fix a bearing on where they are headed? The task is not a simple one given the breadth of the scale. After all, the 2000-seat lecture theater and the pencil are both examples of educational technologies.

Thankfully one place to look is among the media theorists. Media are, by definition, things that extend us. Tools and prosthetic devices that enhance or amplify some ability or faculty are media. In this sense both the lecture and the pencil are media.

Media theorists Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman both wrestled with the problem of analyzing media. Marshall and Eric McLuhan fashioned the Tetrads of Media Effects for this purpose while Postman, who saw himself as a media ecologist, chose a set of six questions to flush out the qualities and effects of technologies. It is to Postman that we direct this post with the hope that it provides an example of how we might clarify the characteristics and effects of educational media. The interested reader will no doubt want to apply the Tetrad too since both approaches bring their own insights.

The first three questions that Postman raises help to clarify the inherent nature of a technology. The tone of the questions is somewhat sociological in tenor, possibly because Postman, like McLuhan, saw media as acting on and transforming environments and culture. Following Postman then, the first three question are (feel free to insert your favorite educational technology here):


Question 1: What is the problem to which this technology is a solution?


Question 2: Whose problem is it? (Who benefits from it and who pays for it? They are often different parties.)


Question 3: Suppose we solve this problem and solve it decisively, what new problems might be created because we have solved the problem?


You might find it almost impossible to resist the temptation to insert xMOOC in the above as the technology of interest, but if you prefer a warm-up in the “rear view mirror” try PowerPoint instead.

The last three questions are designed to provide focus on the preceding reflections. They are intended to be independent of political ideology and agenda.


Question 4: Which people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution?


Question 5: What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies and what is being gained and lost by such changes? (Think of the use and meaning of the word debate relative to the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 as compared to those of the last election.)


Question 6: What sort of people and institutions acquire special economic and political power because of technological change? (Exploitation of a technology always results in a realignment of economic and political power.)


Although not properly qualifying as a seventh question Postman urges us to keep a tight grip on this one:


“Am I using the technology or is it using me?”



Hayton, Darin, “The MORU as Precursor to the MOOC

Marshall McLuhan Biography (Wikipedia)

McLuhan’s Tetrad of Media Effects (Wikipedia)

Neil Postman Biography (Wikipedia)

Six Questions for Understanding Media (YouTube; see above)

Daniel, Sir John,  “Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility

Weston, Mark, E., “How Education Fails Technology (And What to Do About It)

Getting Out Of The Way In The Classroom

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and Inverted (or Flipped) Classrooms have been attracting a lot of attention in education and training circles, but two recent experiments performed far from the rarified heights of North American campuses and training centers, are causing many to stop and reassess what it means to learn and, more importantly, what it means to learn when we are devoid of formal structure. If you have ever spent time wondering how humans learn naturally or informally you might be obliged to spend some time musing over these findings. I refer specifically to the “Hole In The Wall” experiments of Sugata Mitra and to Nicholas Negroponte and the One Laptop Per Child’s adventure with solar-powered tablet computers in Ethiopia.

In the case if Mitra, Wikipedia provides a summary of the “Hole In The
Wall Experiments”:

“In an experiment conducted first in 1999, known as Hole in the Wall (HIW) experiments in children’s learning … a computer was placed in a kiosk created within a wall in a slum at Kalkaji, Delhi and children were allowed to use it freely. The experiment aimed at proving that kids could be taught by computers very easily without any formal training. Sugata termed this as Minimally Invasive Education (MIE). The experiment has since been repeated at many places, HIW has more than 23 kiosks in rural India. In 2004 the experiment was also carried on in Cambodia.” -Wikipedia

More to the point, perhaps:

“This work demonstrated that groups of children, irrespective of who or where they are, can learn to use computers and the Internet on their own using public computers in open spaces such as roads and playgrounds, even without knowing English.” -Wikipedia

Mitra has a couple talks at TED (see below) where he describes the experiment and some of the results. They are worthwhile viewing if for no other reason than the sidebar comments from Mitra on what the kids learned, the degree to which they took the experience and the feedback he got from them on the technology.

More recently Nicholas Negroponte and the One Laptop Per Child organization (OLPC) have published results of what they see as a promising experiment in Ethiopia where solar-powered tablet computers were delivered to remote villages, preloaded with programs, and left to uncover what kids do with them. The main point in this instance is that there is no teacher, curriculum, or syllabus, just some software and a device to run it. The goal is to see if illiterate children will/can use the device to learn to read.

The articles referenced below give background to the experiment and preliminary conclusions to what was observed. The gist of it is:

“Earlier this year, OLPC workers dropped off closed boxes containing the tablets, taped shut, with no instruction. ‘I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,’ Negroponte said. ‘Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.’ ” -MIT Technology Review

The results might seem astounding to anyone steeped in the dogmatic lock-step pedagogy of the classroom. Comparing results of earlier (some say failed) experiments by OLPC, a notable variation in this case is the conspicuous absence of a “teacher” in the process, leading many to wonder whether the secret rests in preparing the environment, creating opportunities to learn, and then simply getting out of the way:

“I believe the second experiment is working because nobody is there trying hard to figure out how the new technology should fit into the old model of teaching and learning.

And nobody is trying to frame the learning experience through superficial content that the kids just don’t care about.

…It’s letting the kids discover what’s in the boxes. And how to get it out of the boxes. And why the boxes even matter in the first place.

It’s setting a goal, establishing an environment to realize the goal, and trusting in the capacity of human potential. Student potential.

And sometimes, it’s just getting out of their way.” -Ben Grey, The Edge of Tomorrow

None of this calls for the elimination of teachers per se. It does comment on the overall design of a process many in teaching and training take as a given, and the role of the “teacher” in that process.

Wikipedia: Sugata Mitra
TED: The Child-Driven Education
TED: How Kids Teach Themselves
Wikipedia: One Laptop Per Child
Wikipedia: Massive Open Online Course
NYT: The Year of the MOOC – Massive Open Online Courses are Multiplying at a Rapid Pace
Feldstein, M., “Everybody Wants to MOOC the World
MIT Technology Review: “Given Tablets but No Teachers, Ethiopian Children Teach Themselves
Doctorow, Cory, “Illiterate kids given sealed boxes with tablets figure out how to use, master, and hack them
Wikipedia: Minimally Invasive Education
OLPC News: “Who is to Blame for OLPC Peru’s Failure? An OLPC Intern Viewpoint
Grey, Ben, “We need to think very, very seriously about this

Witch Hunt or Reformation?

It used to be said of teachers that they are the perfect products of the system. They might have technical concerns over a fine point of a course or doubts over the administration of a program but, in general, they are the true believers. It’s no wonder then that so many are starting to paint Salman Khan (the Khan Academy) with an apple and a serpent’s body, while posing Sebastian Thrun (Udacity) at the main gate of Stanford University ready to to nail his Ninety-five Theses to the door.

Prior to the rise of protestants like Khan and Thrun educators only had to occasionally fend off irate parents, bad student evaluations, intractable administrators, myopic government programs and gnostic home-schoolers. Now it seems they have to deal with other similarly perfect products of the system – renegade graduates from schools like MIT and Harvard who work in international finance and venture capital, some married to medical doctors or lawyers, others captains of industry – who are not only willing to voice their discontent about what is going on in classrooms but also do something about it. And what makes these folks more difficult to handle than the more normal educational John the Baptists that have come before is that they are well-funded, articulate, determined to make changes, not known to easily lose interest, and they have the full attention of the Media. They are known for their grit and for winning. And they represent the desires and interests of a staggeringly large percentage of educational consumers who feel that there is something very wrong with the ways things are getting done. Is it any wonder that so many orthodox educators are having such a hard time reading the signs and separating the medium from the message? Does the name Custer mean anything to educators today?

What we are seeing among reformers at present are the beginnings of a consumer-oriented reformation of the educational system lead by some of the most notable products of the system itself.

And by “educational system” one can take anything that involves learning, training and credentialing as subject to the ensuing shift so there is probably no place to hide.

Pro-consumer trends in education are growing and emerging in curious ways. Too many people who have been through schools, colleges, degree and training programs have emerged disappointed and dissatisfied. The experience is costly, time consuming, and often without personal or professional reward. Too much of what passes for education or training is merely a ritualized data dump, designed and delivered more for the convenience of the department, institution or instructor than for the benefit of the student. No meaningful design can be discerned, no compelling delivery can be expected, and engagement is not in the least a part of the program. Result: tedium, no real change, and the assertion by some that many degrees and professional certifications have become little more than educational indulgences sold to customers who spend the requisite time miming what was in another place and another time an authentic educational practice. Adding insult to injury, costs continue to climb even while training and educational producers attempt to resell the old wine in the new information-age bottles of online learning, virtual classrooms and massive all-you-can-eat open source course buffets. Bear in mind that some of these educational advances are brought to us by the same folks who championed computer-based training in the nineties and television as an educational medium before that. No matter. We’re all here for the show. Educational theater at its best.

Compounding the problem and accentuating the disconnect between educational producers and their “consumers” is the fact that learners come from an world of media and communications that undermine many of the basic assumptions of the nineteenth century classroom. They do not come from a world where there is a shortage of information. Furthermore, information is not sequestered in specialized silos of higher knowledge. The stuff is everywhere and the job of the instructional designer and teacher is to make it easier to get at and assimilate. This one simple gesture of service might be where Salman Khan excels the most and finds his greatest success. People like his concise and casual video tutorials. Many (perhaps most) use them voluntarily, spend time on the lessons and exercises, and report progress in their learning. The customer is voting with his attention. What should we as educational producers learn from this?

Learners have immediate needs and pragmatic goals in mind. They are not looking for long-winded linear expositions of subjects that start at postulates and end atop pedantic minarets of “higher” understanding. They want the chunk that fits today – right now – into the empty pane of their mosaic understanding. And it probably can’t or shouldn’t last for more than ten minutes, as Khan would attest. What this implies is that one of the first jobs of a teacher is curation. Teachers have to know the subject well both in terms of its theoretical underpinnings and history through to its applications. They need to “own the material.” And part of that owning is knowing which parts matter, how they fit and how to adjust the presentation to the audience.

Curation is key. Know what matters. Make it relevant. Make it meaningful. Make it fit.

The pedagogical emphasis is flipped in post-reformation classrooms (if classrooms exist at all). Control is handed to the student and there is no one right way to complete a course of learning. The nature of the reversal from the focus on the master to the that of the student (“sage on the stage” vs. “guide by the side”) is hardly new. One can find allusions and references to it in sources as wide ranging as the American mythologist Joseph Campbell and the media theorist Marshall McLuhan. By way of illustration, Campbell, a life-long teacher, noted that in the tradition of the East it is the student who seeks out the teacher with his questions and problems in hand, while in the West it is the teacher (the subject matter expert) who hands down the knowledge to the passive vessel and asks all the questions. No doubt a very different undertaking in either case.

Marshall McLuhan, a teacher and professor of literature, saw the “Orientalizing” of the West, and indeed the educational process, as a natural outgrowth of life in an electronic medium. The new learner does not enjoy the point of view and safe linearity of typography. The digital native inhabits an informational landscape more akin to an acoustic space that surrounds him isotropically, issuing updates at the speed of light. We are informational hunter-gathers roaming over expanses of data. Information overload, McLuhan observed, reverses into pattern recognition, another name for curation.

The other push coming from the educational reformation underway is the trend towards involvement. It will shortly become the new tacit standard for educational design.

This is right in step with what we know about life in the electronic world and the inclinations of the digital natives. Courses and presentations that focus on dumping disconnected facts are out. They’re old hat. The flipped or inverted classroom is in and showing signs of paying off.

Fostering involvement in the learning process means using new information while building new skills. Involvement means solving compelling problems and making things that have not existed. Doing and making are the new metrics of achievement. Knowledge and ideas are wonderful things. Knowledge and ideas transformed into a 3D object are better. We can all see it, feel it, touch it and assess its virtues (now and five or ten years later). Not so with most degrees and certifications from disparate sources.

This should come as a comfort to those who feel threatened or displaced by the likes of the Khan Academy or Udacity. The new protestants are going to move into project-based and experiential learning because they have to, but they are not there yet even if you consider the pioneering efforts of Peter Thiel and the Thiel Fellowship. It is, after all, where the highest order skills and thinking are displayed and they know it.

In the world of the academy the Ph.D. is the terminal degree in most disciplines. But in Silicon Valley and the world of the venture capitalist the terminal degree is the successful startup. Ideas, after all, are a dime a dozen. Implementation separates the great from the ordinary and is critical to success. Everything else is preparatory and sidebar to doing. This is right in line with the consumer-oriented drive towards relevance and real-world metrics. People want to do. And what’s more, in the process the consumer becomes producer in an act of complete involvement.

The Trouble with Khan Academy, by Robert Talbert.

Khan Academy: the Teachers Strike Back, Slashdot

How well does Khan Academy teach?, by Valerie Strauss

Why Corporate Training is Broken And How to Fix It, by Jay Cross

Sebastian Thrun Aims to Revolutionize University Education With Udacity, by Peter Murray

How Would You Like A Graduate Degree For $100?, by George Anders

PayPal Co-Founder Offers Students Scholarships To Leave College, by Robin Young, Here and Now

Peter Thiel Has New Initiative To Pay Kids To “Stop Out Of School”, by Robin Young

Thiel Fellowship Pays 24 Talented Students $100,000 Not to Attend College, by Ben Wieder

The Trouble With Online Education, by Mark Edmundsen

The Flipped Classroom Infographic
A new method of teaching is turning the traditional classroom on its head.

Academically Adrift, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa

Academically Adrift, review by Scott Jaschik

Academically Adrift, review by University of Chicago Press Books

Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids–and What We Can Do About It, by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus

Contingent Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids, review by Scientific American

How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — and What We Can Do About It, review at Education News by Jimmy Kilpatrick

From MIT to Stanford, college classes where a startup is the final exam, by Christina Farr

A Core Curriculum To Create Engaged Entrepreneurs, by Cathy Davidson

Paper vs Pixels – Do Ebooks Make Learning More Difficult?

Let’s be frank. E-readers and e-books are pretty neat. They can pack an entire library into a portable gadget allowing the reader free range over multiple tomes or ready access to the complete works of a particular author. Passages can be searched, annotated, high-lighted and shared with other readers. But immediate advantages aside, do you have a nagging impression that the experience of reading an e-book is qualitatively different than that from a paper book? If so, you’re in good company. According to an article at Time Healthland even notables such as Larry Page of Google are having doubts about the new technology. Common complaints about e-books include increased fatigue, lack of attention span (engagement) and reduced reading speed. Not a pretty list considering the high hopes the technology holds in education and training circles as a new medium for textbooks, workbooks, technical papers and course content. To make matters worse, decreased recall and increased time-to-learn are being added to the list as further broadsides against the general deployment of the new medium as an educational tool.

According to Time Healthland author Maia Szalavitz, cognitive psychologist Kate Garland at the University of Leicester in the UK has determined that print has some subtle advantages over pixels when it comes to learning new information. As reported by Szalavitz, Garland and her colleagues found:

  • More repetition was required with computer reading to impart the same information
  • Book readers seemed to digest the material more fully

Szalavitz goes on to say that Garland takes the process of factual recollection to be either instant recall (“knowing”) or search and retrieval (“remembering”). Subjects who learned via paper books seemed to “know” the material sooner than those who used electronic media.

“What we found was that people on paper started to ‘know’ the material more quickly over the passage of time. It took longer and [required] more repeated testing to get into that knowing state [with the computer reading, but] eventually the people who did it on the computer caught up with the people who [were reading] on paper.” – Dr Kate Garland as quoted by TimeHealthland

A possible explanation of why paper books offer an advantage might involve contextual and navigational cues that are missing from e-books. E-books provide fewer spatial and navigational landmarks to readers and in so doing might subtly affect recall. Author Szalavitz:

“Context and landmarks may actually be important to going from ‘remembering’ to ‘knowing.’ The more associations a particular memory can trigger, the more easily it tends to be recalled. Consequently, seemingly irrelevant factors like remembering whether you read something at the top or the bottom of page — or whether it was on the right or left hand side of a two-page spread or near a graphic — can help cement material in mind.”

Add to the discussion the vast array of sizes, shapes, screen types and software designs that come into play in the design of e-books and e-readers and it is easy to see that the research possibilities explode. Whether concerns over the effectiveness of e-readers and e-books applies to online and web-based training is not discussed but begs to be considered as well. Let’s hope that Dr Garland and others continue the work on the cognitive differences between print and pixels. Some quantitative comparisons of the technologies would certainly be welcome. No doubt the topic of e-books will need to be revisited from time to time as technologies and applications unfold and grow in popularity.



Do E-Books Make It Harder to Remember What You Just Read?

Larry Page, My Wife’s Lament, and Reading on Books vs. Screens

More Time With More Screens

The Fordham Experiment

The Curvilinear Classroom – Is Linearity Optional?

AllThingsD Early Adopters ran a quote in their Voices section from an article at PCPro that reads like a page right out of Marshall McLuhan. Echoing McLuhan’s return of acoustic space and the role of the mosaic in everyday life, Dr Rosie Flewitt of the Open University comments on how the modern learner might be shifting from sequential linearity toward a simultaneous gestalt:

“E-learning experts argue that withholding computers at a young age could actually deprive children of modern communications skills. ‘One area of literacy that’s changing is the order in which things are presented – it isn’t linear, it’s organised spatially, and often some meaning is carried in the design, layout, images, sounds, movement, subtle changes in colour in a game – it’s all part of what literacy is in today’s world,’ says Flewitt. ‘These are fundamental changes to operational literacy, the biggest since the printing press.‘ ”

Naturally some question is left as to whether this effect is limited to young children as a group or if one can detect a tendency toward acoustic involvement among younger participants in college classrooms and corporate training centers. The main point, however, is that linearity might already be optional in the classroom, where new and different styles of presentation and involvement might be called for in order to better reach the audience.

To contrast Dr Flewitt’s comment on linear versus spatial literacy, consider this synopsis of McLuhan’s acoustic space by Library and Archives Canada:

“The key characteristic of acoustic space is that it engages multiple senses at the same time. It does not demand that objects be dissected to be understood; rather, the multiple parts co-exist simultaneously. To understand acoustic space, you must perceive all of it, not focus on one part. In other words, acoustic space demands that you apprehend figure and ground simultaneously, that the senses work together. McLuhan believed that oral cultures existed in acoustic space since their primary mode of communicating was speech.”

In this interview with Nina Sutton, Mcluhan explains the rise and dominance of visual space from the phonetic alphabet forward: McLuhan on Acoustic Space.

As a sidebar it is interesting to note that McLuhan eventually dropped the use of the term Global Village from his work preferring the term Global Theatre instead. Apparently Global Village goes back to the advent of radio while the notion of the Global Theatre is more a part of Sputnik, television and modern global communications.


AllThingsD: Early Adopters

PCPro: How Much Tech Can Children Take?

Library and Archives Canada: Old Messengers, New Media: The Legacy of Innis and McLuhan

McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.

The Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhanPlayboy Magazine (©1969, 1994) by Playboy. Download here in PDF: (mcluhan-playboy).


Is the Internet Changing the Ways We Learn?

Is the Internet Changing the Way We Learn?

I like the infographic (see below) “How the Internet is Revolutionizing Education.” It presents an interesting timeline of developments in educational delivery and provides a handy reminder of some things that I’ve forgotten with regard to trends and current industry buzz. And yes, education in all its forms is an industry and has its buzz.

First, looking at the history of distance learning and non-traditional (i.e., non-lecture/classroom) modes of content delivery, writers rarely admit anything that comes before television. Frankly, I never see radio mentioned. Maybe that’s because to most, television is the first “modern” technology. But, that said, there is a long tradition (Boston, 1728) of correspondence education that rises through the Victorian Era (University of London, 1858) that seems important in laying the groundwork of several notable non-residential K-12 programs and even, I suspect, to the acceptance of modern online universities. Perhaps not surprisingly, the British Open University is the first school on the graphic to enter the fray in the early 1970s using television as its primary mode of disseminating lectures to the masses. Funny how television never really materialized as a great training tool. In retrospect, is that surprising?

This is the first of my jogged memories from the chart:

The UO (as it is known) makes perfect sense to me but when it was tried in the US it failed miserably (not so in the UK). You can read about it here. For those of you wondering, the flip side is also true in my case: Schools like the University of Phoenix (as they currently exist) do not make perfect sense to me and yet they are thriving in the US (scroll down the chart a bit), educational bubble notwithstanding. So much for my role as an industry pundit. In ancient times I would have been stoned to death.

Overall this graphic fosters a meme that I consider somewhat dubious: the Internet is changing the way we learn. I think you have to be careful with this one. First and foremost it is probably not the case that we are learning any differently than our forefathers. It is probably the case that we utilize new and different methods for obtaining information, gathering the rudiments of new skills and assessing our mastery of a subject or topic. But beyond that the need for engagement, practice, recall and synthesis seem to be standard among members of our species. As an example of some old wine in a new bottle masquerading as a new instructional form witness the Khan Academy. Is the actual process of learning  – that is, the embedding of new knowledge or skills – any different here? Does it have to be to be important? This brings me to the second reminder:

Given the explosion in alternate forms of content delivery, I don’t know anyone who would go to a traditional college or classroom as a first choice.

Isn’t that odd? I have to confess, if I had to bone up on linear algebra or differential equations, say, I’d go to the Khan Academy (note mathematics as the example) or the Open Courseware Consortium, not to the local college. What’s that tell you about: a) my prior experience at university, b) the reputation of quality of American higher/continued education, c) the role of technology in my lifestyle, d) my lifestyle, e) the cost and accessibility of higher/continued education in America, f) the fact that too many of us have (had to) become consumer-oriented with regard to our learning (in contrast to our “certification”). Take your pick.

Interestingly, given the apparent rise of e-learning since 1999, you would think that we have a viable alternative to instructor-lead training in online web-based tutorials. On the whole nothing could be farther from the truth. Sadly, even though traditional classroom instruction might be foundering as designers search for compelling new forms to save live presentations, it’s hard to find evidence that e-learning as a genre ever succeeded in a big way. Taken as a whole completion rates for online courses are and have been deplorable, levels of engagement minimal (possibly explaining the previous point), and even when they are completed online courses don’t often meet educational objectives except in the most superficial ways when compared to control groups. E-learning does have some notable traits that distinguish it in the pantheon of educational delivery methods: it is a cost-effective way to broadcast information to a population that might have geographical and temporal constraints; and, it does drive consumers to virtual and brick-and-mortar classrooms when provided as an option.

Frankly, if I were saddled with the task of saving e-learning, I would go to YouTube.

Maybe what that says is that even though Television failed as an educational panacea in the early days of distance learning, Son of Television is back, bigger and better than ever before. But does any of this change what I have to do to learn linear algebra? Enough said.

How the Internet is Revolutionizing Education


Learning from the Khan Academy

At first glance Salman Khan appears a most unlikely revolutionary. Although well educated (note: he is neither an educator nor a psychologist) he has nonetheless, and from most accounts, single-handedly ignited a revolution in teaching that any “real” educator, government administrator or instructional designer would be proud to lay claim to.

What started as simple private tutorials in math for his cousins – utilizing what he describes as about $200.00 in computer accessories and shareware – Khan drew upon his innate interest in education (along with perhaps his own personal frustrations as a student) to craft a series of screen capture how-to guides for solving high school math problems. As word spread among friends and family members, viral interest forced Khan to move his homespun videos to YouTube to service his burgeoning audience, completely for free. The rest, as they say, is history.

At present the Khan Academy (a not-for-profit educational organization founded in 2006) has served over 51 million views from a library of over 2200 videos. In addition to math and physics, topics now embrace history and biology. School districts and major corporations are attempting to use and develop his methods for their own internal applications. Donations from private sources and the likes of Google and the Gates Foundation have subsequently allowed Salman Khan to quit his day job and devote his energies full-time to the development of his Academy and the distribution of educational programs worldwide (“providing a high quality education to anyone, anywhere”).

Looking over Khan’s presentations on his methods you begin to wonder what makes the Khan Academy so successful. After all, this isn’t the result of a major educational research program, a sweeping government initiative, or a mass popular movement in educational reform. Further, what makes the Khan Academy even more interesting is that Khan’s tutorial method is not so much ingenious as it is ingenuous.

In several of his talks Khan is fairly straightforward in his assessment of what makes his method work. First and foremost, as Khan attests, each of the videos offers a lesson on a single concise topic (a “concept”) for no more than about 10 minutes. One key idea, cut in a bite-sized chunk, for a period not to exceed the boredom threshold of the average viewer. Given that the videos are recorded and stored online, the presentations can be played any time and repeated as needed by the student until he or she feels comfortable to move forward.

Another feature of the tutorials is the general tone they are given in. As Khan describes it, they feel like they are coming more from a friend than a teacher. You have a sense that Khan is there with you, sitting by your side, leading you through the problems with a pencil and paper. They are down-to-earth, enthusiastic and rigorous without a trace of giddiness, pomposity or pedantry. The student feels like “…there is an individual who cares about you,” Khan says. The student comes away with a sense that the instructor wants to help him or her over the obstacles in the landscape because he has been in the student’s place himself and sympathizes with the struggles that lay ahead.

Drilling down a layer into the Khan Academy’s unique style reveals even more about what makes the “secret sauce” special. Each of the bite-sized topics that are referred to previously are in fact carefully culled and curated learning objects. The trick, of course, is to first know the subject well enough to select which topics to present and in what order. Following that, the teacher must distill the concepts to their absolute essence.

This distillation process is, to all who have tried it, much harder than it looks. In fact, the ability to select and summarize complex material and ideas, rather than resorting to the indiscriminate slathering of a PowerPoint slide with bullets, might be one of the hallmarks of an educated mind. Clearly, Khan groks it.

Despite the thought and planning that goes into Khan’s presentations they can hardly be accused of being over produced. This is not Pixar doing technical training. If anything, the digital blackboard and colored chalk renderings show the human side of learning and mastery. The notes and diagrams often appear rough and awkward, but they are at the same time quite genuine, funny and sometimes – to the advantage of the learner – mistaken. As Khan explains it, he is often in the place of the learner and, in contrast to many schools and universities, has not rehearsed the solution beforehand, offering the student the patented procedure. Instead he lets the students witness his own thought processes as he wrestles with the problems and sometimes wanders down the wrong path from which he has to back out and start again – just like a real student.

Nowhere in Khan’s methods can be found any of the bells or whistles of modern post-industrial pedagogy. No Flash animation, interactivity, games, social networking tools, 3D graphics or monolithic learning management systems are to be found. In fact there is little beyond a virtual blackboard and some equally virtual colored chalk. You don’t even see Khan’s face.

The faceless almost tactile sketches and equations provide little distraction and promote focus on the material. This decidedly low-tech solution to training might harken back to ancient watch-me-do-it tribal methods but its effectiveness is not lost on Khan’s students, many of whom write to express thanks that they are not only mastering their classes for the first time but excited about the subjects as well.

Khan’s approach is to teach for academic competency. That is, he instructs in the methods and procedures that assist the student in passing standardized tests and formal exams. After the student completes a module, test problems are offered through a program that Khan designed himself that acts to monitor student progress and flag trouble areas for the teacher. The student is asked to correctly answer 10 problems in a row before moving to the next module. This final process closes the instruction, feedback and assessment loop in Khan’s method and further acts to eliminate the small voids in understanding that can multiply as the student moves forward. Interestingly YouTube assists in the process as well, offering statistics on usage and attention.

One of Khan’s own revelations about his method is telling: it’s so simple and effective that he does not see why anyone needs to give live lectures anymore.

Although he does not refer to it by name, Khan points to (and his method directly parallels) the use of what is commonly called the Inverted Classroom. In an inverted classroom recorded presentations impart new information prior to class while class time is taken up with teachers and peers solving problems (or “doing homework”) quite in reverse to what is traditionally done in schools and training centers.

The results of this method have so far been compelling. Both teachers and students benefit. Teachers benefit because more of their time is spent in directed remediation (particularly if they use Khan’s monitoring software), problem solving and exploration of the material. Students like the inverted classroom because it potentially transforms class time into something useful and interesting. In Khan’s case the testimonials from parents, teachers and students are hard to ignore. His academy and tutorials do work.

More needs to be seen to ascertain whether the Khan Academy represents the future of education as some claim. But what is clear is that it stands as a forceful reminder of what can be done to improve the instruction of certain skills and particular subjects while simultaneously improving the classroom experience for everyone.


Bill Gates’ Favorite Teacher

Salman Khan on Future Talk

YouTube Teaching as Guerrilla Public Service

Yes, the Khan Academy IS the Future of Education (video;

Yes, the Khan Academy is the Future of Education

Khan Academy Exercise Software

Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos

The Khan academy is Not that Good

We are Khan Academy, You Will Be Assimilated!

Can the Khan Academy flip a classroom?

The Face in the Mirror – Online Avatars Affect Outcomes

According to a study at North Carolina State University, the effectiveness of online training might be enhanced if online educational helpers, or avatars, closely match the student. Researchers Tara S. Behrend and Lori F. Thompson designed instructional avatars using a program called People Putty to match or contradict gender, race and teaching styles of 257 test subjects involved in an online training course. For example, subjects were asked “If you were teaching this course would you give specific directions on what to do or offer general suggestions?” Similarly, “Would you rate an individual’s performance based on how far a participant improved compared to where he or she started or relative to the performance of the entire class?” The avatars where then set in motion on the course, advising, guiding and assisting the learners according to their collected attributes. What the researchers found was a mixed bag of somewhat counter intuitive results.

“We know from existing research on human interaction that we like people who are like us. We wanted to see whether that held true for these training agents.” – Dr. Lori Foster Thompson

Measurements of enjoyment, engagement and effectiveness of the training suggest that each element has a different cause. Subjects reported being more engaged in the program when the avatar matched their race and gender. Learning, on the other hand, was enhanced when the online helper employed feedback and teaching styles more akin to that of the student. Whether this predisposition is strong enough to constitute an outright learning style remains to be seen. According the researcher Thompson:

“We found that people liked the helper more, were more engaged and viewed the program more favorably when they perceived the helper agent as having a feedback style similar to their own – regardless of whether that was actually true.”

Interestingly researchers found no link between enjoyment or overall success of educational outcome based on gender or race. Matching teaching style did, however, have a pronounced effect on performance on quizzes. What might come as the greatest surprise concerns the dominant factor affecting participants’ ratings of overall effectiveness and enjoyment. As it turns out the “perceived” similarity of the avatar is more important than the reality underlying its design.

“We found that people liked the helper more, were more engaged and viewed the program more favorably when they perceived the helper agent as having a feedback style similar to their own – regardless of whether that was actually true.” – Lori F. Thompson

What the study suggests is that perception might be more important than reality where avatar design and success of online training are concerned. In essence, if a learner believes that a particular online helper has been designed “specifically for people like you,” its effects will likely be beneficial to the outcome of the training. Regrettably from the point of view of the instructional designer and developer of the training, one-size-fits-all might be out the window:

“It is important that the people who design online training programs understand that one size does not fit all. Efforts to program helper agents that may be tailored to individuals can yield very positive results for the people taking the training.” – Lori F. Thompson


Tara S. Behrend, Lori Foster Thompson, Similarity effects in online training: Effects with computerized trainer agents, Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 27, Issue 3, Group Awareness in CSCL Environments, May 2011, Pages 1201-1206, ISSN 0747-5632, DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2010.12.016. (

Participation in Pedagogical Agent Design: Effects on Training Outcomes, Tara S. Behrend, A dissertation submitted to the Graduate Faculty of North Carolina State University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Psychology, Raleigh, North Carolina, 2009.

Boning Up on Online Instruction

(c) Peter Steiner, The New Yorker, 69(20).

Although online instruction has grown to be far from a fad, I’ve noticed something peculiar about it. Online courses are nobody’s favorite. Well, that might be going too far. They are clearly among the favorites of administrators and managers hoping to distribute “virtual classroom environments” far and wide without the encumbrances of airplanes, hotels and school buildings, but I’ve never heard of a teacher coming specifically to the profession with a burning desire to teach online.

So far – and it might be too early to see this – the online experience has not produced a teacher, instructor or (God forbid!) an instructional designer who has had a Road-to-Damascus experience online, where one minute there is an ardent but resistant learner and the next a flaming would-be pedagogue anxious to commandeer the reins of a class in order to lead others to a similar experience. Interestingly, two professions that always seem to have an element of mission in them are the clergy (naturally enough) and teaching.

On the flip side students don’t (yet) choose online courses above face-to-face instructor-lead classes – fancy hotels and travel per diems notwithstanding. The reason this is important is that on the one hand it’s unlikely that anyone in the education professions today is going to be able to avoid teaching through or writing for the online environment; and on the other, it might not be a preferred medium, leading one to feel a bit out of place, awkward or even bungling as an online instructor.

Fortunately help is at hand. There are many good references and guides for online training that can assist the new-comer in getting started or serve as a refresher for those returning to the virtual classroom after a hiatus. One resource worth noting is Dr Curt Bonk‘s collection of online video primers for e-Teaching and Learning. The 27 videos focus on planning and delivery of online instruction. The presentations are directed at the college instructor but most are equally of interest to corporate and government trainers. Each video is about 10 minutes in length. Topics include:

  • Planning Online Courses
  • Managing Online Courses
  • Providing Feedback
  • Online Interaction
  • Quality Supplemental Materials
  • Blended Learning Implementation
  • Online Visual Learning
  • Webinars and Webcasts
  • Podcasting Uses and Applications
  • Wiki Uses and Applications
  • Blog Uses and Applications
  • Hands-on Experiential Learning
  • Assessing Student Online Learning
  • Trends on the Horizon

The video primers on e-Teaching and Learning can be viewed here at the Indiana University School of Education Instructional Consulting web site.

Related Links.

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog

Video Primers in an Online Repository for e-Teaching & Learning

Curt Bonk’s e-Learning World

The World is Open

Visual Oxymorons: Nonverbal Messages in Design

I don’t think this is much taught in Instructional Design courses, but the design of a presentation conveys information in and of itself to the audience. This is due in large part to the fact that all the elements of a course or presentation (including the presenter) constitute a Gestalt that is projected to the audience.

Good design matters because good design leads to clarity. And clarity facilitates perception.

The design elements often constitute the ground in the figure-ground relationship of the medium, but the whole package conveys a message. The medium is the message.

As an example of how design sends nonverbal cues to the viewer, take a look at the short talk by John McWade of Before & After Magazine. Although taken completely from the design world the example captures the effects of font, color and shape passed as a subliminal message to the unsuspecting eye.

It is not hard to cite these effects in educational media and presentations. How often does a slide, presentation or workshop exercise say “boring” or “we don’t care” or “this is not important” or “this is hard to understand” to an audience? Media evoke reactions from the viewer and the reactions are often affective in nature. Connie Malamed at the eLearning Coach puts it this way:

“This has strong implications for learning, because of the impact positive or negative feelings have on motivation, comprehension and retention.”

We design educational media for a reason. Well designed media lower the barriers to comprehension and assist the mastery of new skills. Things that detract from these goals include boring and inept graphics, awkward symmetry and poor layouts, illegible typefaces, abrasive or boring color schemes, and too much information.

For more information on good design see:

Before & After Magazine

How Visual Clarity Affects Learning,” The eLearning Coach

Visual Language for Designers

Knowing Information When You See It

Despite the fact that we are quick to assert that we live in The Information Age and are swimming in all kinds of media, data and sensory stimuli, it’s sobering to take a step back and reflect on the fact that information is not always where the focus of attention is. Marshall McLuhan was fond of saying that “We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t the fish.” Information today is a little like that water and as teachers and instructional designers we have to pay attention to the differences between the medium and message if we want to be effective in what we do.

Right in keeping with this problem, the folks at MAYA Design have produced a really useful and (dare I say) informative animated short on the problem of distinguishing information from its presentational form. That is, in Gestalt terms, how to see the ground separate from the figure.

As an example of the problem of teasing information from its encapsulating medium, do you know what information is? Can you cite an example? What would you say if you were told that you can’t actually see or hear information? Would you be comfortable with the idea that neither the words on a page nor the numbers on a spreadsheet are information? In the words of MAYA Design, “Information has no form. It’s not made of atoms.

So, what is information? In MAYA’s view:

“Information is what allows us to confidently make a selection from a set of given or implied alternatives.”

And what is our job then relative to information design? Our job is to give it form. We write it down, verbalize it, draw it and act it out. All with the intent of communicating it. Take a few minutes and look here or below and get reacquainted with the differences between medium and message.

MERLOT – Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching


MERLOT: Putting Educational Innovations Into Practice

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