The Wrath Against Khan: Why Some Educators Are Questioning Khan Academy

The Wrath Against Khan: Why Some Educators Are Questioning Khan Academy

Nice commentary on the Khan backlash, both from Downes and Audrey. The problem is that Khan solves the simple part of the problem (wonderfully well); but it seems like some people are making much broader claims of impact.

Why do people think that a set of screencasts will revolutionize learning? I’d say it’s based on a a misunderstanding of what tutoring is.

You see, we intuitively know that some of the students that fail would succeed with a tutor, so somehow a filmed tutor strikes us as a solution.

But the three things that separate the experience of being tutored from that of studying from a textbook — customization, conversation and feedback — they are all missing once you film a tutor and distribute it. Once you film it, it becomes just another educational resource, like a textbook. And we’ve had textbooks and worked examples, self-study guides and step by step instructions for almost as long as we’ve had mass publication — centuries. And, presented with these materials, some students learn to do stats, or physics, or algebra, and some don’t. Better textbooks help, cheaper textbooks help but they don’t solve the problem.

To the extent using Khan Academy frees up resources to do more tutor-like activity, either in classes, or MOOCs, or wherever — THAT’S where you’ll see the gains. And with things like the flipped classroom, that change is happening.But the gains here are not from Khan’s “tutoring” — he doesn’t actual tutor, he lectures. The gains are from the opportunities outsourcing that tutoring affords us.

CINAC: Correlation is not a Cause

CINAC: Correlation is not a Cause

Sue Blackmore on the one thing everyone should have in their cognitive toolkit that they don’t currently…..CINAC (Correlation is not a Cause).

One reason for this lack is that CINAC can be surprisingly difficult to grasp. I learned just how difficult when teaching experimental design to nurses, physiotherapists and other assorted groups. They usually understood my favourite example: imagine you are watching at a railway station. More and more people arrive until the platform is crowded, and then — hey presto — along comes a train. Did the people cause the train to arrive (A causes B)? Did the train cause the people to arrive (B causes A)? No, they both depended on a railway timetable (C caused both A and B).


The point is that once you greet any new correlation with “CINAC” your imagination is let loose. Once you listen to every new science story Cinacally (which conveniently sounds like “cynically”) you find yourself thinking: OK, if A doesn’t cause B, could B cause A? Could something else cause them both or could they both be the same thing even though they don’t appear to be? What’s going on? Can I imagine other possibilities? Could I test them? Could I find out which is true? Then you can be critical of the science stories you hear. Then you are thinking like a scientist.

Penile Length Leads to Little Economic Growth

Penile Length Leads to Little Economic Growth

Probably not going to use this one in my Stat Lit class, but it is a shame. It’s obviously a good example why identifying probable mechanism is important. Less obviously it’s a great example of cherry picking — if you click through to the paper it is the GDP growth from 1960 to 1985 that is tracked (why that historical segment?) and other indicators show different things (Raw GDP to penile size, for example, demonstrates an “inverted U” pattern, with average penile lengths predicting large GDP, and extremes on either side predicting low GDP).

On the Death of Borders

Scott Leslie asked me a great question a year ago that I never forgot. In the middle of a discussion about the decline of newspapers and it’s relation to the impending implosion of higher ed he asked me, since I was defending institutional relevance, to name one case where an entrenched industry made changes and avoided the hammer of fate. 

I think I may have replied that industries don’t dodge the bullet (players within industries do), but even then I was pretty hard pressed to come up with a compelling example of a true evolution in the face of something like the Internet.

I think we might have one now. Borders is closing all around the country. It’s bankrupt and it is done. 

While that might seem pretty counter to my claim, the point is that it signals to some extent the End of Days for the 80s/90s style bookstore chain is here. And yet Barnes and Noble is still around, to some extent, because of their embrace of the technologies Borders saw more or less as their enemy. 

Commenting on Borders’ farewell note, Ian Crouch writes:

Borders, of course, isn’t going to say that the book trade is fine and sound and that it simply blew it. Yet setting the “eReader revolution” alongside a “turbulent economy,” and branding it an “external force,” reveals a decade-long blind spot that goes some distance in explaining how Borders got to this point. It’s been said widely, but can stand repeating: e-readers and digital content are not part of some tidal force bent on destroying all that is fine and good about the written word. It is just another way for customers to buy books, for companies to sell them, and for people to read them. The recession has been tough on all booksellers (Barnes & Noble’s tight spot last year brought on many of the same reflections about the state of book retail) but the growth of digital reading has not been equally hard on everyone. Short of changing its name to Kindle, Amazon has done just about everything it can to promote its e-reader; Barnes & Noble has doggedly pushed the Nook. Borders, meanwhile, owned just over ten per cent of the Kobo e-reader, and gave the device prominent placement in its stores, but never managed to make a clear connection in customers’ minds. (B&N has since shored itself up enough that commentators were suggesting it as a likely tennant in many of the soon-to-be abandoned Borders locations.) The Detroit Free Press gets it right this morning by noting that the company lost “a battle with competitors, technology and itself.”

In he long run, I suppose, there will be no bookstores, but as I believe Keynes first said, in the long run we’re all dead. Short to middle run is what matters in terms of shaping the world and (hopefully) making it better. And in the short to middle term there are major, major differences between how institutions go about their business. The ones that, like Borders, understand Just-in-time learning, peer-to-peer networks, and open content as “external forces” are headed for dismal declines. The ones that see these things as just more ways of doing the stuff we have always been about will be OK (or at least more OK).

Maybe Barnes and Noble will be under in five years, maybe Random State College will be under in ten. I don’t think any industry should desire to live forever in its current form. In the meantime, differences matter, and the institutions that adapt get to write the next page of history.

Why Reform Through Institutional Abolition Won’t Work

From Lawyer, Guns, and Money:

So to sum up–being right about policy is often irrelevant unless you have a mass movement of people behind you ready to engage in collective action to see those policies enacted. And I don’t think left neo-liberals often understand that. This is why I get so outraged when, for example, left neo-liberals support education “reform” that weakens teacher unions. We probably all agree that there are bad teachers out there and it would be great to get rid of them. But by weakening the one educational institution that can best mobilize people to protect our schools from conservative attacks, these reforms often further right-wing politics even if they theoretically achieve a left neo-liberal policy point.

This is perhaps a leap, but I’d contend that if we are going to have an new kind of subsidized education that is not completely controlled by corporations it is going to have to come out of current institutions of higher education. There simply isn’t any other set of large organizations that can make the case for education reform while fending off the attempts to pervert it and profiteer from it. 

It’s frustrating, because change is like molasses in here sometimes. The temptation is to “route around damage” and not engage. 

But if you look at who has the staff that goes out to high schools and tells seniors what education looks like, if you look at who has the ear of the news media, of parents, of legislators; if you look at who has the unions — it’s the institutions of higher education. I think most sensible people would look at the massive amount of influence higher education has in these issues, and the way it acts as one of the last barriers to a corporate takeover of HE, and I would think rather than argue for HE’s irrelevance one would argue that if there is going to be any non-corporate change to education it is going to have to come from within HE. There’s not a set of structures of comparable size with the best interests of the students at heart…there’s just not.

Zombie Pseudoscience: 8 Glasses a Day

For those wondering, this blog covers two main things — stuff important to instructional design, and stuff important to my statistical literacy class. Here’s something on the latter…

Somewhere, somebody, probably employed by a bottled water company, said we should all get eight glasses of water eight times a day. Coffee doesn’t count, the water in your Hamburger Helper doesn’t count. Beer doesn’t count. It must be water, or something close to it.

That’s not remarkable, that sort of thing happens all the time. 

What’s extraordinary to me is how resilient the myth has been in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence it is nonsense. The BMJ just published an article on this, but back in 2002 an article in the American Journal of Physiology completely debunked it. Snopes looked into the history of the claim in 2005 and found some of the water-as-cure-all garbage came from the self-published 1995 junk science book Your Body’s Many Cries for Water, subtitled “You are not sick, you are thirsty!”

Since 2002 I have seen this claim repeatedly debunked or at least set aside as a not-so-helpful formulation. There is disagreement, but where you look at actual experiments (see here for a summary up to 2002) it’s pretty clear that:

  • People without special circumstances (such as working hot days, taking certain medications, etc) can just drink when they are thirsty and they’ll be fine.
  • The amount people need is highly variable anyway.
  • Caffeinated and alcoholic beverages consumed in moderation count towards your fluid intake, not against it.
  • Did I mention you can just drink when thirsty and you’ll be fine?

Basically the normal person needs to worry as much they are getting enough fluids as they have to worry they are getting enough calories.

So why does the myth stick around? I mean, if we can’t get people to understand that sticking 2 liters of water down your throat no matter what your activity level or food intake is not now, and never has been a requirement for health, what chance do we have with the Global Warming debate, where there are real stakes? 

I don’t really have an answer for that, except to hope that we can get people in the habit of interrogating research without becoming cynical (It’s not all opinion, right? Here’s a case where science just tells us the 8 glasses people are wrong). The fact that the “8 glasses 8 times” was so sticky in our public consciousness shows that we crave quantitative formulations. We just have to be more discriminating about which ones we embrace…