Years ago, when it was first making a scene, Khan Academy was heralded as the future of education, a way for the internet to intimately and deeply teach mathematics. Over time, as the group has expanded its offerings in subject and practice, public opinion on the concept has cooled. As close as one can feel with Salman Khan’s low voice and minimalist presentation, many argue, it cannot replace the immediate and personalized connection a student has with their teachers.
However, with each generation of educational content producer, I cannot help but feel that the downsides of these resources are overstated and that the benefits are not talked of enough. While Khan Academy can come across as a bit too dry and traditional at times, entities like Crash Course and independent creators like 3Blue1Brown truly raise the bar and have the potential to revolutionize the movement.
How important is a teacher, anyway? For younger children, who need to learn obedience and social skills as much as actual content, the role of teachers is justified. For people in high school and even college, though, material is king. The educator, then, is there primarily to make the material more engaging and accessible, as well as to clarify and assess when needed.
In some of these respects, online resources can be more effective than their real world counterparts. By having professional speakers and entertainers as hosts, programs like Crash Course are able to effectively keep the atmosphere light and attention grabbed. Meanwhile, having skilled academics and educators behind the writing ensures that there is more than a semblance of accuracy to the quips.
In terms of accessibility, it can be argued that the preplanned and visual nature of the video format results in clearer explanations than live teaching. Where Khan Academy was unable to break free of the traditional teaching methods, modern content creators are able to use high-quality graphics and edited scripts to keep the content approachable.
With many smaller creators, even the issue of live updating and teaching can be remedied. While the larger groups behind online education do not have the human resources to comb through all questions given to them, many smaller producers engage with their audience through YouTube comments and emails, aiding personalized, albeit not immediate, learning.
From my own experiences, I can attest to all of this. While I fell out of Khan Academy after some time, I remember in excitement finding videos visualizing topics for linear algebra. These have helped me to more deeply understand the processes that I complete with only numbers and symbols by representing them geometrically. Computer science, my other passion, is the poster child for online education. I am amazed by the wealth of information that my friends and Ihave found through various websites. Because much of this content is made by regular people in the field, it is also easy to receive clarification from them or others in the community.
Of course, this method of learning is not perfect. The two examples I gave encompass very objective material, stuff that is learned the right way or not at all. For topics that lend themselves to discussion, like literature and politics, having an environment in which students can interact, share ideas and be moderated by a teacher is imperative to comprehension and awareness. With these subjects too, the biases of online creators are also more likely to slant their coverage in a certain direction, although this can also be a problem in the physical world.
Regardless, technology can be a powerful supplement and even replacement for many subjects currently given to live instruction. By using the best educators from around the globe to teach (rather than just in the immediate pool of local teachers), students have the ability to gain and retain much more knowledge for their studies, at least at the intermediate and objective levels.
Peter Fenteany is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.