Killer apps and creative disruptionsMichael Horn: Tie funding to results
You’d have thought Salman Khan was George Clooney. After his keynote presentation and follow-up seminar at the California School Boards Association’s annual convention in San Diego on Friday, school trustees besieged him with questions and requests. A few sought his autograph; others mugged for a photo with him. Eventually, the event moderator gently reminded them, “Mr. Khan has family waiting for him in the hotel.”
Khan is the creator of Khan Academy, whose 2,700 online tutorials are viewed by up to 3.5 million people each month. Started four years ago as YouTube-based math help for his cousins across the country, they’re now being used independently, Khan estimates, in 10,000 classrooms. This year, following a successful experiment with two fifth-grade math and two seventh-grade pre-algebra classes in the Los Altos School District, the videos are being formally piloted with teachers in 16 California school districts as an element of classroom math instruction (see an article in today’s New York Times).
The growth of Khan Academy doesn’t surprise Michael Horn. He predicted phenomena like it in Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, which he co-wrote, after graduating from Harvard Business School, with Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen. Khan Academy is one piece of the larger shift to online learning that led Horn to predict that half of high school classes will be online within a decade.
“Khan Academy is a classic disruptive force. It has totally low barriers of access – it’s free – that make it a killer app” that will go viral, Horn said in a recent interview. “When you see that some kids in Los Altos are doing algebra in fifth grade, and you realize that those kids have a leg up to get to college, you’ll demand (Khan Academy), too.”
Khan videos are a tool, part of a strategy for individualized learning – the ability to “really create a student-centric education system where each child can learn at the pace and the path that makes sense for them, because every one of us has different learning needs.” (Go here for a video interview with Horn and here for a transcript of it.)
Horn, now executive director for education at the Innosight Institute in Mountain View, follows trends nationally and is supportive of efforts to break down the barriers to online learning in California. One of those is the California Student Bill of Rights Initiative, which would enable a high school student to take a college prerequisite course online anywhere in the state where it’s offered by a certified teacher in an accredited high school or college (see a commentary by David Haglund, a chief proponent of the initiative, elsewhere in TOPed today).
But Horn predicts that most online learning will be done in an existing school by integrating the virtual and physical classroom in a “blended learning” environment. Even those students who take online courses could be required to do so in a school’s computer lab, with advisers overseeing them, he said.
Rocketship Education, a high-performing elementary charter school organization with five schools in San Jose, has developed a blended model with a learning lab that students use 100 minutes each day. It has the added benefit of affordability: Rocketship employs one teacher less per grade and plows back savings to pay teachers more and hire academic deans to develop new teachers. Instead of cutting arts and physical education, districts could double down on them by using savings from a blended model, Horn says.
Changing roles of teachers
Teachers won’t vanish; their roles will evolve. “They’re going to be really important, but a group of them will be the mentors and motivators and facilitators of learning. A group of them will be content experts who can answer those content-heavy questions,” Horn said. “And a group of them will probably be case workers who help to fill in with the non-academic problems that have always held some kids back.”
Horn tempers his enthusiasm for online learning with a few caveats and a note of caution. In eliminating obstacles to online education, California should tie funding to student results. Florida to an extent does already, and now Utah will withhold significant reimbursements to online providers until the students demonstrate they’re proficient and have finished the courses. Accompanying that, California should eliminate seat time – the assumption that students cannot complete a course in less than a semester or a year. Money should follow students, based on however long it takes them to master the course.
“As it starts to walk into this, California has to adopt a very strong mindset that we’re going to be very concerned with student outcomes,” Horn said, and not repeat mistakes of states that have not focused on accountability.