Khan Academy’s Salman Khan And Institute Of Play’s Katie Salen Find Technology Can Update Education

Salman Khan is the founder of Khan Academy, a not-for-profit that hosts more than 3,800 free educational videos online.

Salman Khan is the founder of Khan Academy, a not-for-profit that hosts more than 3,800 free educational videos online. Katie Salen runs the Institute of Play, which promotes games as educational tools, and in 2009 helped launch Quest to Learn, a Manhattan public school that uses technology and game design in its curriculum. Here, they discuss how technology can take education beyond the classroom.


Salman Khan: Our education system was constructed hundreds of years ago, and educators made some assumptions based on the technology that was available. They settled on a model that is mostly lecture-based and is, for the most part, students being shepherded in the same place, at the same time, at the same pace. You’re not really expected to remediate so that you get 100% understanding of basic ideas. What’s exciting for me is that with technology, we can now look at that same open-ended problem. We can say, “Okay. We want people to be educated. We want to do it economically. But can we do it better, given what we have at our disposal?” And we can rethink the assumption that every student has to work at his or her own pace. We can question whether class time should be used for lectures. In the current paradigm, students don’t need to review a concept until they get really deep mastery. Now we can move to a model like that.

Katie Salen: I would agree with that and extend it. The thing I’m most interested in isn’t the technology; it’s the social practices the technology enables. When I’m talking about technology, I’m talking about connected technology: things like the web, where you can have online communities with many people of different ages. Technology allows us to move away from a direct instruction model to a model where students are learning by doing.

Khan: I’d echo that 110%. A classroom does not just have to be 30 kids anymore. There’s no such thing as missing a class. If kids want to go deep on a subject, they can do much more project-based work. They can construct things and create portfolios of work. Even the way we assess a student changes. It’s no longer, how many questions did you get right? It can be subjective: What do other people think of this thing that you’ve created? It really opens up everything.

Khan Academy has brought tech to the GiveLight orphanage in Takengon, Indonesia. | Photo by Dustin Aksland

Salen: We always try to be very cautious when we talk about technology. It isn’t about replacing people, and in fact, social practices require more people to be involved. There’s also the equity agenda. There are an enormous number of schools that can’t even afford the basics for kids, like hiring enough science teachers. If they can’t afford that, it’s going to be very hard for kids who don’t have access to technology at home to stay in the game.

Khan: Access to technology is a huge limitation. That’s why I tell every politician I know, “Look, we need to get more people aware that these tools even exist.” Even if they’re aware of them, how do they get access? It is a resource issue, and obviously budgets are constrained across the board. But the tools are getting cheaper. You don’t have to get an iPad for every child. It could be a $200 refurbished PC for every six kids.

Salen: We also think about whether something is the right tool for the right task. So sometimes face-to-face interaction just beats technology. You don’t want some kind of device or online experience mediating that.

Institute of Play created a hands-on lab in Chicago to let middle-school kids experiment with computing. | Photo by Dustin Aksland

Khan: On my side, if you go to most traditional classrooms today, most of the students are not getting deep interaction with a teacher because other things are taking up class time. When teachers do interact, it’s often with kids at either end of the distribution: the kids who are doing really well and the kids who have behavioral problems. If technology can take some of that passivity out of the classroom, if it can off-load some of the stuff that the teacher has to do, it liberates the teacher and peers to interact with each other. The role of technology is, how can we free up that time? How can we facilitate that time in a world where three kids are working on a project and four kids are working on a core skill?

Salen: I think the solution to education is not just to focus on fixing schools but to be open to the idea of connecting kids to, let’s say, an online community that is based on their interests. It could be chess or StarCraft II, where kids are video-gaming, but they’re learning all kinds of stuff around strategy and how to really develop mastery. We can imagine ways in which schools can leverage those communities and learn from them. That feels like a real opportunity. But it does require opening up philosophically about the question of where education is happening. We have to move beyond thinking that school is the only place that owns the learning of young people.

Khan: My hope is that if you can knock out the stuff that is being measured today, it gives you more flexibility to measure in nontraditional ways the things that are more important. The ability to seek out information and take ownership of your own learning is far more important than any particular skill.

Salen: It’s early days. It’s very difficult. But unless people are asking questions and pushing, we’re never going to get out of the model we know doesn’t work for most kids.