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Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2011

A Hack Education Project

Khan Academy

This post first appeared on December 9, 2011 on Hack Education. Part 6 of my Top 10 Ed-Tech Trends series.

Khan Academy wasn't new in 2011, but oh man, was it news.

Sal Khan has been creating his own videos to teach math and science for seven years now, but the mainstream media discovered Khan Academy in a big way this year. You'd be hard-pressed to find a major news organization that hasn't covered the non-profit: Wired. CBS News. Fast Company. Techcrunch. Mother Jones. The New York Times. The Washington Post. The Charlie Rose Show. Inside Higher Ed. The Economist. KQED. Time. Al Jazeera. Slate. Business Week. The Colbert Report. Me. And so on.

Khan has received high praise, with the media labeling him the "Math Messiah." An "educational Moses." The new Andrew Carnegie." The guy who's going to "blow up education."

No doubt, Khan Academy is a great story: Sal Khan is an affable guy with 3 MIT degrees and an MBA from Harvard who initially just made videos to help tutor his cousins. A hedge fund manager, Khan quit that job in 2009 to found the non-profit Khan Academy, to focus on making the videos and to advocate for his larger vision.

Khan Academy now boasts more than 2700 videos, and all that content is free and openly-licensed (specifically, with an Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike license). That makes it possible for people to freely use and remix Khan Academy content, making the videos a good replacement or supplement for textbooks. (Coming soon: a post on OER in 2011.) The videos are on YouTube, but can also be downloaded from the Khan Academy website or accessed via BitTorrent. The attitude towards open accessibility and open-licensing for the content also extends to the platform's technology too: Khan Academy is an open-source shop.

Talk of Khan Academy tends to stir up strong feelings. (And pageviews. Holy Front Page of Reddit, Batman!) There's been pushback to the idea of Sal Khan as our math savior, with some educators questioning the Khan Academy approach to lecturing and learning. How can this really be the promise of personalized education, some ask, if everyone is just watching the same 5 minute videos?

And yet despite the criticisms, the idea of the "flipped classroom" has had a lot of play in education circles this year, popularized in no small part by Khan himself and his argument that he's not a replacement for teachers so much as a replacement for the lecture or the textbook. Assign the videos for homework, and use class time for more individualized remediation, Khan suggests. Of course, the "flipped classroom" is hardly something that Khan Academy invented (see: Karl Fisch), but it was something that Khan and others touted as part of the Khan Academy vision for reshaping the classroom.

But if you think that Khan Academy is just about the video content, then you aren't paying close enough attention to that vision. There was a lot of big news out of Khan Academy this year that had little to do with making free educational videos: a new exercise system, important hires, an announcement last month that the non-profit had received $5 million from the O'Sullivan Foundation (bringing its total funding to about $16.5 million), and plans for an summer camp and a brick-and-mortar school.

In May, John Resig, the creator of the popular Javascript library JQuery, announced he was leaving Mozilla and joining Khan Academy, enabling the non-profit to boast some pretty significant technical chops on its team. Resig was responsible, among other things, for the new exercise system rolled out this year.

Khan Academy certainly polished its technical infrastructure this year, not just with a refresh of the exercises and the website, but with new badges for students (sigh, gamification -- was that a trend this year?) and learning analytics dashboard. The engineering team at Khan Academy also began work refining the adaptive engine that underwrites the new platform for all this content, again with the hope of being able to deliver personalized feedback as the students move through the lessons and exercises. A good adaptive engine takes data, of course (data -- that was a trend), but with some 3.5 million unique visitors a month, Khan Academy does have a nice data-set to work with.

The Khan Academy team is definitely engineer and developer-heavy. And after hiring the rockstar Resig, I asked Khan about his plans to hire rockstar educators. At the time, I felt that Khan dismissed my question about bringing on board more educators (and/or education researchers), although he did respond that Khan Academy was working closely with the teachers in its Los Altos School District pilot program.

But in October, the Khan Academy officially expanded its faculty -- Khan is no longer the sole teaching staff now that SmartHistory's Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker have come on board. Their role is to help build out the art history and humanities curriculum (good thing since Khan's appearance on The Colbert Report indicated that teaching history was really not his strong suit). Khan Academy has also hinted that it plans to allow teachers to upload their own video content to the platform, allowing them to tap into the reporting features, exercises, and analytics that the non-profit is building.

There are a lot of companies that are working on content and analytics, as I noted in my data trends post -- Pearson and Knewton, for example. But they aren't non-profits. They don't have all this buzz.

That buzz is both a blessing and a curse, for Khan Academy, I think. Will Khan Academy be able to provide a strong platform? Will it be able to catch up to those companies that have already built a more robust adaptive learning system? Will Khan Academy live up to its reputation for disrupting education? Or will it just be a nice collection of free and openly licensed videos? Tune in in 2012...