31 March 2012

Khan Academy: Why the Flipped Classroom Won't Save Education

With 60 Minutes touting it as "the future of education," and backing coming from tech industry giants like Bill Gates, Khan Academy and the concept of the flipped classroom have been brought to the forefront of the education reform debate.  The Khan Academy does offer some great resources for supplementing and differentiating instruction.  It's this kind of content that will lead us away from the idea of digital textbooks and toward the idea of teachers curating content from across the web that is specific to the learners in their classrooms.   However, I don't think it's the "savior" in and of itself.  In fact, I think the idea of the flipped classroom is inherently flawed.  Here's why:

1. It's Still Consumption.  
How can initiatives like Khan Academy, the flipped classroom, and digital textbooks reform education when they are still presenting information for students to consume?  The future of education isn't a new way to consume, it's new ways of thinking about how students learn like project-based and collaborative learning.

2. Teachers are Accountable for Student Achievement.
The flipped classroom puts control of learning into the hands of students.  Not a bad concept, but it does pose a problem with the US education system as it is today.  Teachers are tasked with educating every student and are held accountable for proving it.  How can they be held accountable for learning that is supposed to be taking place outside of the classroom?  Before ideas like this can work, we must change the way we think about education as a whole.

3. Not Every Home can Support a Flipped Classroom.
My biggest problem with the idea of the flipped classroom?  Access to the flipped classroom is not ubiquitous.  With much of the country still without broadband internet, especially rural areas (link to PDF from FCC) and areas with high poverty rates, an overwhelming number of students in our country would not be able to access Khan Academy videos from home.  Those who could would only increase the academic achievement gap between high- and low-income families prevalent in American education.  Until broadband is in every home, the flipped classroom will disenfranchise a segment of US students.

Like I stated earlier, the Khan Academy offers some outstanding resources for supplementing and differentiating instruction.  These kinds of online resources offer opportunities to students and teachers that they haven't had in the past.  I just think it would benefit educators and non-educators alike to step back from the excitement of the idea of the flipped classroom and stop praising it as something it's not.

Yesterday, I saw a comic strip posted over on The Innovative Educator Blog that characterizes the way I feel about Khan Academy:

(Original can be found here)

Since posting this commentary, I've had a some conversations where I have been taken to task for my opinions on the topic.  Allow me to clarify: The point of this post isn't to bash Khan Academy--I love what they're doing, and I'm glad it has given teachers and students resources that they lacked previously.  The point was to step back from the glitz and glamor and examine the flipped classroom from another point of view.  The point was to shed some light on my concerns with the idea of the flipped classroom and open the eyes of some people who have failed to consider the negatives, especially to rural areas of the country.  The biggest of these concerns is access to broadband internet, which I will discuss at length in an upcoming blog post.  Feel free to post in the comments, positive or negative.  
Thanks for reading,


  1. You have a good point that watching videos at home is not a solution. Students without access to the internet at home can usually use school or town library computers. Worst case, I let students watch for 5 minutes at the beginning of class with headphones. 95% homework completion is the norm for my flipped classes, instead of 75% in the past.

    Also, I think that you underestimate the value of actively using the classroom time for project based learning and differentiated instruction. Having time to coach students during these activities let's me have a much better grasp of their progress.

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  2. Ultimately, learning is always in the hands of the student. Would it make any difference if a teacher uses the Khan Academy tutorials or creates his/her own tutorials? Flipping the classroom doesn't give the teacher any less control, but it does provide the teacher with more time to concentrate on helping those students who are not mastering the material and allowing those who are "getting it" to go on rather than holding them back.

  3. You're right, Chris. Learning is always in the hands of the student. Unfortunately, though, current legislation and educational mores don't accept that. We do need to allow students who are "getting it" to go on and eliminate age-based grouping and social promotion. They are underlying problems that need to be addressed, and flipping the classroom just puts a fresh coat of paint on a crumbling foundation.

    It also doesn't address the bigger problem of equity of access. Everyone should have an equal opportunity to learn. Everyone should have the ability to access the knowledge base that is the Internet. Until every student has access to the same material outside of the classroom, inequality will exist.

  4. You seem to limit your opinions on flipping the classroom to public k-12 schools. At least, here in Florida, these type of teacher evals are based on student performance. I think flipping the classroom is an excellent approach for college level classes, especially community colleges where adults often take remedial classes in English and math. The learning opportunity there can include video lectures, classroom lecture/projects/collaborative learning, and math/language labs for extra help. The good thing about the Khan approach is not just video lectures, it's that the system expects 100% mastery before moving on to the next level, instead of accepting a minimum percentage of incorrect answers on a snapshot test before a student is promoted to the next level. This less-than-mastery approach promotes students with less than mastery level skills to the next level. Khan describes this as "You can mostly ride a bicycle, so now we're promoting you. Here's a unicycle." Perhaps the real challenge is in how grade levels (k-12) and course levels (college) are approached. Instead of a community college with math 101 in semester 1 and math 102 in semester 2, the student's tuition should purchase a semester as a time block. Student A may take 2 semesters to master math 101, while student B may pass both math 101 and math 102 in one semester. 100% mastery is the goal for all students.

  5. Right you are, Reid. As a K-12 teacher, I tend to see from that point of view. I agree that it makes much more sense in a college environment or even a private school with a different student demographic. Thanks for the insight!

    1. Actually, Derrick, I think your insights are relevant to the community college setting as well. Access to technology is a critical variable for the flipped classroom, and a number of my students, in an urban area in Georgia, have many of the same issues with technology that you originally mentioned. As you point out, flipping the classroom is one part of the learning experience, one that could work in Honors sections and perhaps in more affluent areas of the state.