The top post on Hacker News as I write this post is Khan Academy: It's Different This Time, a scathing and well-argued attack on the Khan Academy and (in the author's opinion) the danger it represents to math education.
I had never heard of Mathalicious before, but this is how they describe themselves:
Mathalicious is transforming the way math is taught by providing middle and high school teachers with the most relevant, engaging, and effective math lessons anywhere. We do this by designing lessons around real-world topics that students care about, from sports to technology to health & wellness. This contextual approach helps students make sense of the math, and develop both conceptual understanding and procedural fluency.
I'm a little wary posts from one organization wanting to "[transform] the way math is taught" attacking another organization with many of the same goals (though Khan Academy seems to have wider ambitions). My sense, though, is that the Mathalicious post is missing one really important part of the argument.
The post scoffs at Khan Academy's use of the Gates Foundation's money to hire programmers instead of K12 teachers.
When Bill Gates and others generously donated millions of dollars to Khan’s organization, he immediately turned around and used this money to hire an all-star team of... computer scientists. Of the twenty people who work at Khan Academy, none has ever taught in a K12 classroom in the the United States. Zero. For Khan Academy, fixing education isn't a question of better teaching. It's a question of better engineering.
First, the part about better teaching... I've listened to quite a few Khan Academy lectures on calculus, and I learned a lot more about calculus than my high school calculus teacher managed to impart. I'm not going to say he's the best lecturer in the world, or that my (rather bad) high school calculus teacher set the bar particularly high, but I think just on his ability to deliver a "standard" math lecture Sal Khan is above average.
Second, the idea that better education is an engineering problem... well, what if it is? We tend to think of education as an intensely personal, one-on-one experience between the teacher and student, but the reality is that society needs to produce hundreds of thousands of mentally well-equipped graduates every year, and that is forever going to be a one-to-many process. Teachers must be able to scale out to, as best as possible, meet the demands of each and every one of his or her students, and he or she simply can't do that without help. Technology offers a pathway toward achieving that goal.
There are a number of problems with this argument. For one, proponents of educational technologies — laptops, tablets, interactive whiteboards, etc. — have been making similar claims for years, yet student outcomes are as bad as ever (if not worse). Not only that, the budget cuts he seemed so giddy about invariably mean fewer teachers, and to argue that this is somehow beneficial to learning is to argue against years of research and practice.
It's ridiculous to argue that fewer teachers would lead to better educational outcomes, but throwing real, big data driven adaptive learning together with "laptops, tablets, interactive whiteboards, etc." is equally ridiculous. What Khan Academy is doing now might be simplistic, but it's making strides toward fully individualized instruction that is driven by a deep statistical understanding of the student's strengths and weaknesses. Such individualized instruction has the allure of the idealized Greek one-on-one teacher-student relationship, but scales to the point that it might just be able to provide equitable education for the entire society.
After all, industrial farmers have made incredible leaps in bioengineering, while thousands of families across the country struggle to make ends meet. Still, it doesn't follow that McDonald’s is therefore the solution to the hunger crisis.
No, but industrial farming has allowed humanity to stave off a Malthusian nightmare for longer than once thought possible. Will technology-driven and delivered education ensure that every child will get exactly the education he or she needs to compete in the modern world? Probably not (but maybe!), but it will almost certainly be an essential part of the solution. Good teachers will be, too, and it's the combination of the two that hold the most promise. I've never seen Sal Khan suggest that Khan Academy would replace teachers — it has always been promoted as a platform for making a teacher's job better, and for inverting the classroom experience so that teachers can focus on helping students overcome problems and gain deeper insight while they're in the classroom, rather than on delivering lectures.
How is that not a great boon to teachers?