Khan Academy and Garage Science

This is the third in a series of posts on the inspirations for Garage Science. Of the many organizations setting out to revolutionize education, the Khan Academy stands out. Bill Gates agrees, as do TED. The Khan Academy’s mission is clear:

A free world-class education for anyone, anywhere.

To find out what the hype was all about, I had a look at their FAQ, their blog, and then  picked a random lesson from the list of over 2,100. For twelve minutes this morning I watched Salman Khan prove that sin(a+b)=(cos a)(sin b) + (sin a)(cos b). It was fun. It was clear. It felt like a good use of twelve minutes.

The Khan Academy’s secret is the use of short videos. Thus, your vision can focus on the visual elements (diagram, equation) of the lesson. Because visual elements develop in-place, you see differences clearly and don’t lose attention switching between diagrams. Add to this the fact that with a laptop, a smartphone or a tablet, you can learn anywhere and you have a good thing going. Besides, you are not taking up anyone’s time. There is no need to feel bad if you don’t understand something. Just press replay.

This means the Khan Academy way of teaching will probably become more and more widespread, which is great, but does have some limitations. Let’s focus on science teaching. Veritasium has pointed out one problem with the effectiveness of science videos: people’s misconceptions about science just get strengthened by videos, unless they are addressed directly.

Another problem with science teaching through videos is that it is limited to two senses: vision and sound. Many chemical reactions are exciting because of the smells they produce, and many materials and organisms are exciting because of their textures. In addition, advanced science practice involves very delicate techniques, and part of learning science is learning to master those techniques.

Videos can serve a crucial role in learning a new technique, but only if you can actually carry out the technique being shown while (or shortly after) the video is playing. TED’s curator Chris Anderson has an inspiring talk on this topic. With skills like dancing or DIY, all you need is a computer, an internet connection, and household items. However, if you want to acquire cutting-edge scientific skills, you need a lab. Or a Science Garage.

How is Garage Science like the Khan Academy? Well, it:

  • Aims to reach people all over the world
  • Uses videos to teach new skills
  • Tracks progress using sophisticated, dedicated software
  • Interfaces with well-known web platforms

How is Garage Science different from the Khan Academy?

  • Khan focuses on broader education. We focus on cutting-edge science.
  • Khan’s videos are accompanied with web-based exercises. Our videos are accompanied with doing, in the lab, what is being taught
  • Khan’s videos are based on his general knowledge. Our videos, at least in part, will be generated in the process of creating new knowledge, blurring the distinction between documentation and teaching
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