Editor's Note - A ‘flipped classroom’

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By Tom McDonald

There’s so much that can be said about the state of our schools in Las Vegas. Controversy surrounds them at every turn. The recent school grades, the four-day school week, consolidation — seems there’s always something to wring our hands over when it comes to preparing our children for the future.

Today, however, I want to set aside such issues to introduce you to a different kind of teaching that might just be the future. I was introduced to it via a Time magazine article by Kayla Webley, which motivated me to try it myself. It’s an alternative to traditional education — and one that I think is worth exploring.

It’s called the Khan Academy, and it’s free and available to anyone with Internet access. Here’s how it got off the ground:

Salman Khan, a Harvard Business School graduate, was a California-based hedge-fund manager when his young cousin in Louisiana was struggling with her algebra. So he offered to help her online and eventually started making YouTube videos as a means of tutoring her. Others saw the videos and praised him for his simple-to-understand approach, and pretty soon he was creating more videos on a wider range of subjects — at first as a hobby, then as a full-time project.

Then, in 2010, the wife of a Silicon Valley venture capitalist saw what he was doing and donated $10,000, then $100,000 to his work. That helped get the attention of Bill Gates, Google and the CEO of Netflix, and the Khan Academy grew into a worldwide phenomenon.

“I’d been, frankly, frustrated at how little creative work was being done to use the Web as a core component of instruction,” Gates is quoted as saying. “And when I saw this, I thought — yes, he’s got it.”

Today, the Khan Academy has more than 3,200 video lessons posted, with more than 170 million lesson views. About 15,000 classrooms in 234 countries and territories are reportedly using its videos in some way.

My daughter Maya and I decided to try a few Khan lessons on our own. They all seem to fall into the 5- to 15-minute range, and we watched maybe an hour’s worth. We watched videos on probability (with LeBron James asking what are the odds of him making 10 freethrows in a row), the Bay of Pigs, the Big Bang Theory (not the show, the actual theory), the Bay of Pigs invasion, and what causes heart attacks and heart disease. Then I watched an introduction to algebra — my worst subject in college — and why math is considered to be the “language of the universe.”

All were interesting and informative. In fact, I wish I’d watched the algebra video before I even took the college class. If I had, I probably would still have struggled through the course, but at least I would have had more of an interest going in.

Khan thinks he’s bumped into a better approach to teaching — the “flipped classroom.” In the traditional model of instruction, the teacher delivers a lecture or lesson in class during the day, and the students complete homework exercises at night. Under Khan’s method, the students receive video instruction at night then do exercises during the day while the teacher helps those who are struggling to understand.

The approach has its detractors — Khan, they point out, is not a certified teacher — and there are some valid criticisms, such as the fact that a lot of kids don’t have computer access at home. But I think Khan’s approach is worth exploring, and I’d love to hear from any parent or educator who looks into this a little deeper and comes away with their own impressions, pro or con.

You can find the Khan Academy at www.khanacademy.org.

• • •

My campaign to kiss a pig in the Samaritan House fundraiser (see my July 16 column if you don’t know what I’m talking about) is gaining traction. Soon I hope to announce some important endorsements.

One is from Joseph Baca of KFUN fame, who says he’s bowing out of the race because of a scheduling conflict — he can’t be there for the Aug. 11 pig-kissing event.

Personally I think he’s stepping aside because of my qualifications for the job.

Tom McDonald is editor and publisher of the Optic. He may be reached at 505-425-6796, ext. 237, or tmcdonald@lasvegasoptic.com.