News | Education

Solving The Equation Of Online Learning

OPB | Feb. 6, 2013 5:26 p.m. | Updated: Feb. 7, 2013 12:06 p.m. | Portland, OR

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Sal Khan

Sal Khan

Virginia Alvino / OPB

An education fundraiser in Portland Tuesday night drew three Oregon governors – John Kitzhaber, Ted Kulongoski, and Vic Atiyeh. But they weren’t the marquee attraction.

The star of the night was Salman Khan – the creator of the world-renowned online classroom, the Khan Academy.

Millions of people regularly view Khan’s instructional videos – like this one.

In this video, I want to familiarize you with the idea of a limit, which is a super-important idea, it’s really the idea that all of calculus is based upon.”

The formula is consistent: Khan’s voice and his drawings on a simulated blackboard.

Math – at all levels – is his forte.

Khan Academy addition video.

Khan Academy addition video.

“Well, let’s say I start with an old classic: ‘one plus one!’.”

Khan’s videos started as tutorials for his cousins. But other people found them, including Bill Gates, who invested millions in Khan’s fledgling non-profit. Classroom teachers – including some in Oregon – now use the videos, too.

And education officials here  anticipate growth in online learning. The Oregon University System’s departing chancellor, George Pernsteiner says the state’s education goals mean adding nearly 40 percent more students over the next 12 years.

“My guess is that not all of them will be served in a traditional classroom mode all the time. Darn near 10 percent of our credit hours are delivered via technology now. When you stop to think about it, that has crept by about a percentage point a year for the last several years. My suspicion is that will continue to be the case,” Pernsteiner says.

That question of how online learning will evolve was the center of discussion at an education event last night, hosted by Concordia University.

Edward Fields is the CEO of “Hot Chalk” – an online education company. He says at first, he was on a quest to revolutionize learning through technology.

“When I realized that that quest was doomed – the idea that you could create an education technology that could really unlock the universe of individual potential that education is really all about – I was shaken to my core.”

Fields concluded that the lessons his company and the Khan Academy produce can make big strides but aren’t the whole answer. “Teachers matter,” he said.

“My name is Bryan Hull and I teach writing and English.”

Sal Khan

Sal Khan

Virginia Alvino / OPB

Hull  resisted teaching online 15 years ago, when Portland Community College administrators first suggested it.

“I remember the thing that I said ‘none of my strengths translate over to the online environment, so I can’t imagine how I would teach in that environment’.”

But Hull says he has learned a few things. For instance, that a good online teacher has to use email and other tools to keep connected with students.

“They need it to feel as if you’re engaged, because they can’t see you. So that sort of obsessive quality, I would look for in an applicant. I don’t think we’re even talking about that – what kind of teacher would make a good online teacher. We’re nowhere near thinking about that.”

The Khan Academy website uses simple graphics to explain math concepts.

The Khan Academy website uses simple graphics to explain math concepts.

Hull argues online classes can also require more work in advance – because it’s best to have all the content posted before the course begins.

Salman Khan says online videos hold tremendous promise, but can be a lot of work.

(Hear his complete interview with Rob Manning)

In an interview with OPB, Khan says the videos are really only part of his preferred approach to education – and the smaller part, at that.

“The irony here, is you’re talking to someone who has sat down and made three-thousand videos, or 32-hundred now. But the most important part of the education is not the lecture-slash-video. The most important part of the education is doing problem-solving. In traditional classrooms, that tends to get squeezed out.”

Some teachers say the downside of taped lectures is you can’t adjust them based on how students respond. Salman Khan says the advantage to a taped lecture is that students can watch it again and again, if they don’t get something.

That flexibility – for students to watch and review lessons they’re not getting – excites teachers like Renee Anderson. She teaches math at Faubion K-8, in North Portland.

“Gosh, if I could get students to work at their level, and go at their pace, I think I would see so much more success in my classroom. Because right now, I’ve got a lot of students who just kind of tune out, because it’s over their heads.”

Oregon’seducation leaders say online learning is a big part of the future – though what that’ll look like is an active experiment.

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