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Contextualizing lessons from the use of the Khan Academy

Michael Trucano's picture
at first glance things look the same, but upon further reflection there are some potentially important differences to consider
at first glance things look the same,
but upon further reflection there are some
potentially important differences to consider

Based on my interactions with educational policymakers, and those who advise them, it seems to be a truth (almost) universally acknowledged that there is insufficient research into models of educational technology use, the impact of such use, and related costs. This is not to say that there is *no* useful research into the use of technology in education around the world, of course. Online tools like ERIC and SSRN can help you find some useful studies; the popular press and the blogosphere increasingly reference such work (sometimes even in ways where you can actually track down the referenced studies!); there are of course a lot of academic, industry and professional journals dedicated to the subject; and a healthy amount of 'grey' literature circulates informally (including stuff commissioned by companies that is never formally published). Firms also circulate 'white papers' touting the 'impact' of their products and services, something which I tend to place into its own separate category, given the commercial and marketing imperatives that often animate such work. That said, just because a lot of 'research' is produced doesn't mean that such research is helpful to meet the practical information demands of educational policymakers, planners and educators.

Even if you *are* of the opinion that there is indeed a lot of useful, policy- and practice-relevant research out there related to the use of technologies in education, the fact remains that most of our collective knowledgebase has been constructed as a result of studying and attempting to learn from experiences in 'highly developed' (OECD) countries. While there is always danger when trying to draw generalized lessons from a research study that examines a specific context, it would seem reasonable to me that the difficulties when looking to draw lessons from experiences in Quebec that might be relevant to Kansas or Canberra pale in comparison to those when trying to extend such lessons to policymakers making decisions which will affect students and teachers in places like Quito or Kampala -- let alone rural Cambodia.

Thankfully, there are a number of promising moves afoot which hope to direct more energy and resources to investigate issues and circumstances of relevance to those exploring the use of ICTs in education in middle and low income learning environments and contexts around the world. (As such efforts kick off, and especially as related studies emerge, we would hope to feature them on the EduTech blog.) Until we start to see results from these sorts of efforts, however, the practical reality is that, in most cases, policymakers in middle and low income countries who wish to draw lessons 'from the research' in order to inform their policymaking related to potential educational technology initiatives will continue to try to contextualize results from research in higher income countries in the attempt to divine what lessons (if any) might be relevant to their own circumstances, even in places where contexts for use and typical use cases may be quite different.


A previous EduTech blog post, "Evaluating the Khan Academy", explores some of the lessons that have emerged as a result of research by SRI into the use of Khan Academy in a number of schools in Northern California. For those who don't know it: The Khan Academy is a widely known and much celebrated educational website which features thousands of short video tutorials on educational topics, as well as linked sets of over 100,000 practice problems and a 'personal learning dashboard'. Policymakers from a number of countries have approached the World Bank for specific advice and guidance on how they might make use of Khan Academy resources within their schools, and during the course of related conversations (some of which were catalyzed by a talk given by SRI's Robert Murphy at the World Bank earlier this year, which was discussed in a subsequent blog post) we have passed along and discussed the Research on the Use of Khan Academy in Schools published by SRI -- as well as a report that appeared a few months ago from EDC that looked at the use of Khan Academy in Chile. While individual lessons and insights drawn from an analysis of the use of Khan Academy content at sites examined in the SRI and EDC reports may or may not be more broadly generalizable to other contexts, examining the various usage models documented and explored in those studies may help raise *questions* that might be relevant to educators and policymakers who work in other contexts.


What are some useful questions that policymakers in middle and low income countries might ask as they attempt to contextualize insights from the use of the Khan Academy in California and Chile as part of their efforts to investigate and plan for the use of digital learning resources from the Khan Academy (and from other sources as well) within their own education systems?

Using video to improve teaching -- and support teachers

Michael Trucano's picture
smile and say 'PISA!'
smile and say 'PISA!'

Much of the discussion related to how new technologies can be used in classrooms in low and middle income countries focuses on the use of PCs, desktops and tablets. Less discussed, I often find, is the strategic potential of various so-called peripheral devices, which are (in my experience) typically only considered within the context of how they can be used to enhance or extend the functionality of the 'main' computing devices available in schools.

Many education systems (for better or for worse) have specific 'hardware' budgets, and, when they are looking to tap these budgets to introduce more hardware into schools, in my experience they often look to buy more of what they already have, supplemented in places by things like interactive whiteboards, or networked printers, as a complement to what is already available in a school.

When talking with educational planners contemplating how to use funds specifically dedicated to purchase computer hardware, I often counsel them to think much more broadly about what they may wish to buy with these monies, within a larger context of discussing things like how such equipment can be utilized to meet larger educational objectives, what sorts of training and maintenance support may be needed, and how the use of this technology can complement other, non-technology-enabled activities in a classroom. As part of such discussions, I often find myself attempting in various ways to challenge policymakers and planners to think beyond their current models for technology use.

One general type of gadget that I only rarely hear discussed is so-called 'probeware', which refers to set of devices which are typically used in science classes to measure various things -- temperature, for example, or the pH level of soil, or the salinity of water. Despite the increasing emphasis in STEM subjects in many countries, and what is often a rhetorical linkage between the use of computers in schools and STEM topics, I rarely find that World Bank client countries are considering the widespread use of probeware in a strategic way as part of their discussions around ICT use in schools. That said, one suspects that such an interest is coming, especially once the big vendors direct more of their attentions to raising awareness among policymakers in such places (much like the interactive whiteboard vendors began to do a half-decade or so ago).

While probeware is a new type of peripheral for many education policymakers, there is another peripheral that policymakers are already quite familiar with, and which is already used in ad hoc ways in many schools, but which rarely seems to be considered at a system level for use in strategic ways. Once you have a critical mass of computers is in place, and in place of buying one additional PC, might it be worth considering (for example) utilizing video cameras instead? Video can be put to lots of productive uses (and some perhaps not-so-productive uses). Considering three concrete examples from around the world may shed some light on how video can be used to improve teaching -- and support teachers.

Interactive Radio Instruction : A Successful Permanent Pilot Project?

Michael Trucano's picture

Despite their increased diffusion through rich and poor communities around the world, many people still have serious reservations about large scale investments in information and communication technologies (ICTs) within education systems.  Spirited and long-running related debates related to their costs ("too expensive", their critics say),  appropriateness ("students needs lots of things before they need computers") and impact on learning outcomes ("we haven't seen any") continue in many places, and reasonable people can (and do!) take different sides of such debates.  There is, however, a low-cost educational technology with a long history that has demonstrated postive impact in many developing countries -- educational radio, specifically what is known as interactive radio instruction (IRI).