Technology

The Homework Comes First: Learning in the Era of Online Connectivity

By / Mar 11, 2014 (iStock/Thinkstock)

Khan Academy’s “flipped learning” educational model drew new attention last week after the nonprofit sealed an exclusive deal with the College Board. It reminds us that there’s still a ton of room for originality in online education.

Last week was a massive win for the Khan Academy—and a sign of how the seas are changing for the education process.

The well-regarded nonprofit startup, which offers video lessons in a variety of academic disciplines, earned a validation of its model from none other than the College Board. The Khan Academy plans to offer free testing materials to students taking the SAT, leveling the playing field on a testing model that had long favored higher-income students who could pay for expensive prep classes.

The nonprofit was already a great example of a startup successfully shaking up a traditional education model—but when I heard Khan Academy’s name come up again during a session at ASAE’s Great Ideas Conference on Sunday, I almost felt like I underplayed this angle in the story I wrote about the SAT changes.

Replacing an in-person lecture with an online one doesn’t add much value for some people. It just means you’re offloading the disengagement to a different venue.

Velvet Chainsaw Consulting’s Jeff Hurt—who also offered an intriguing take on Google Glass from a presenter’s perspective—explained the concept of “flipped learning,” a process in which learners are encouraged to watch a video or read some content before attending an education session. It may or may not be required pre-event homework, but, as Hurt noted, the result is that attendees don’t need to listen to the lecture to catch up—they’re already up to speed before they even walk in the door, and the in-person learning has the potential to be more engaging and therefore more useful.

In some ways, the SAT’s current model, while not exactly the same as “flipped learning,” could gain a lot from this mindset. Too much of how the current test works feels like it’s almost completely by chance—which was one of the biggest criticisms of the test by College Board President David Coleman. If the Khan Academy were just taking the Princeton Review’s really expensive test preparation course and making it free, it would be interesting, but not necessarily a big deal. But as TechCrunch implies, the new partnership between the College Board and Khan offers something more than that: The organizations are trying to change how students learn the material so that those who actually put in the work get something more out of it than strategies for filling in bubbles on multiple-choice questions.

This kind of thinking suggests that a lot of the potential of online education remains untapped.

Why Khan Works

I see the success of Khan Academy as proving something very important about online education in general.

See, many of the videos and exercises on Salman Khan’s site prove that much of the value in video education does not come from lectures. Many Khan Academy videos have a conversational tone, like the way you might learn if a friend explained how to beat a video game, step by step. The focus isn’t on the instructor’s face, but his or her actions. Likewise, the focus isn’t on telling students what to do, but enabling them to do something on their own. And even as the nonprofit earns praise for these approaches, it continually analyzes data in an effort to improve its offerings.

This approach understands something key: Replacing an in-person lecture with an online one doesn’t add much value for some people. It just means you’re offloading the disengagement to a different venue.

Reaching the Disengaged

This, to me, is a lesson that translates back to learning targeted at adults. There’s a good chance that people who attend conferences may find themselves checking out during long lectures. This is a problem, but it’s certainly not just our problem. When talking online about Hurt’s presentation, I got caught up in a little debate that brought the responsibility point home:

Let’s admit it. If the gears aren’t hitting for someone who’s looking half-asleep in a lecture, there’s only so much we can do. Ultimately, the attendee is responsible for what they get, or don’t get, from an educational experience.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be willing to experiment. There are limits to how far we can take online education, but there’s a lot of opportunity to turn learning into something more than the sum of its parts, to admit we can push ourselves to build more creative educational offerings.

Who knows—by treating the online education experience as a completely different beast from your average 90-minute conference session, a few of those great ideas might connect a little better with the people who might miss out otherwise.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now and a former newspaper guy. More »

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