Flipping the Classroom


I was scanning through iTunes for a podcast to listen to over the weekend and found an interesting one on TED Talks.  The one I finally settled on had an interesting title: Let’s use Video to Reinvent Education presented by Salman Khan at TED 2011.  Perhaps you might think that I found the title interesting because I work for a school district.

Not really.

I found it interesting because I’ve always been a self-learner.  Except my idea of being a self-learning was buying books and magazines and reading them.  Of course, more recently it has been e-books and Internet sites.  The speaker, Salman Khan talked about flipping the classroom.  In essence, he meant that through the use of training videos stored on U-Tube, students would get their lecture at home, not in the classroom.  In the classroom, they would focus on ‘homework’ where they could ask questions from their peers or the teacher when they got stuck on a topic.

What a concept.  How many of you have sat in a classroom listening to a teacher drone on in a monotone voice better suited for putting you to sleep than paying attention to the subject.  Or maybe you had a teacher or professor like I had in one of my college math class who wrote equations with one hand while he erased them with his other hand.  Most of us were so busy trying to write down everything he wrote on the board that I don’t think any of us remember more than two words that he spoke during the entire semester.

So I’m sitting on the living room sofa watching this video and thinking, ‘If only I had a tool available like this when I was high school and college.’  Imagine being able to pause your teacher when you just became so over-saturated with the words coming out of their mouth that they were beginning to blur into a dull background noise.  Now imagine hitting a pause button on your teacher to take a few minutes to digest what was said before continuing.  Or maybe your teacher introduced a topic today that referred to something covered last week, last month, or even last year.  Maybe you did not quite get it then, but you need to understand it now in order to move forward.  Just replay that old video and watch it again or maybe watch it several times until you do get it.  No one is counting how many time you re-watch the video. Imagine trying to do that to your live teacher.  On second thought, I’d rather not.  Once was enough.

At the time the video was recorded during TED 2011 the site: www.khanacademy.org had a little over 2,200 videos on topics ranging from math to science to history, but when I check the site last weekend, they said they have over 3,000 videos and even have videos on finance and economics.  They claim they have over a million students a month viewing their videos and that number is growing.

Of course this site would be great if you have kids currently in school even if only as a supplement to their regular class, especially to cover topics they are having problems with.  In fact, some school districts (not ours) are experimenting with using the videos on this site to replace or at least partially augment their regular classes.  But here is the cool thing.  Even adults like you and me can go out to this site and learn (relearn?) these topics so that when your kids ask a question, you might even be able to explain what an integral means or how to evaluate a polynomial.  You might even find some of these classes enjoyable for the sake of just simple self-enrichment.  Maybe you always wanted to learn a little about art history, astronomy, or perhaps you want to understand venture capital, the Geithner Plan or the Paulson Bailout.  Maybe you just want to get a basic understanding of banking and money or you just want to make some sense out of current economics.  I found some interesting and timely videos on how China affects our economy.

All of that is great, but there is another part to this site.  Students who take classes through this site can take tests.  But in these tests, the student has to score a perfect 10 questions in a row before they can move on to the next module.  Why?  Well, as Salman says, what happens when a student gets only 70% of the questions right, or even what happens to the student who gets 95% of the questions right?  If you guess that they get moved on to the next topic without any real attempt to fill in those knowledge gaps, you are right (and can move on).  The problem is this ‘swiss cheese’ approach to knowledge eventually catches up with even the best students as they need to understand 100% of earlier topics to master new topics.  (Imagine only knowing 95% of the alphabet.)  This would seem to make perfect sense.

Yes this system is self-paced and depends a great deal on the motivation of the student, but if conducted in a ‘class’ setting, there is also a peer factor that will create a healthy competative environment.  Reports are available for the teacher to identify which students are having problems with different topics.  The teacher can then spend class time either inviting other students who have completed a particular module to help other students who are struggling with it.  If it is a new module for all students, of course the teacher can provide that same mentoring.  The site also provides ways for parents and even non-parent volunteers to join the site and serve as mentors or coaches.  This means that you could be helping not just your own kids, but perhaps you could be helping someone on the other side of the world learn geometry.

I don’t know if there are other sites like this, but if any of my readers know of any, please post information about them in the comments for all of us to benefit.  Oh, did I mentions using the site is FREE!  So how does the Khan Academy make money to pay salaries and provide a site like this that handles hundreds of thousands of students a day?  Well I haven’t been able to find absolute proof of it, but based on the videos available about the academy, it appears that Bill Gates and/or his foundation are providing the ‘grant’ or investment money to get this concept up and running.  And if that is the case, then I have to give a big salute to Bill for supporting a very noble and worthwhile cause.

I’m going to end this post here because there are a couple of videos I want to watch about current economics.

See you all Saturday for our next weekly technical topic.

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