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John M. Eger

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Digital Kids and the Kahn Academy

Posted: 10/24/11 05:18 PM ET

Kids have "grown up digital" as author Don Tapscott would say. They have computers, and cell phones and video games, Facebook, and Twitter and who knows the apps that will demand their focus next.

The question is how to use technology in a way that not only maximizes the learning experience but enables the acquisition of genuine thinking skills and habits that will sustain them for the rest of their life.

A fact of life in the 21st century is that technology has moved faster than anyone imagined. Unless we use technology to reinvent our current systems of education, we all will suffer as more and more people are left behind the learning curve, and left behind the mainstream of world economic development.

Matt Richtel writing in the New York Times not too long ago said, "Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters. But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning. Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks -- and less able to sustain attention."

Well here we are.

With budgets for education increasingly being cut, distance learning, blended learning, and generally, the use of technology is considered the best - perhaps only - alternative to classroom instruction.

It is no longer realistic to teach the way we used to - mouth-to-ear instruction is over. After 10 minutes, according to a major study by IBM some years ago, student's attention starts to wane. You hold their attention if you show pictures - which gives you another ten minutes. But learning efficiency goes off the charts when they begin to ask questions.

Computer technology, and the tools of social media - distracting as they can be - helps us create that kind of real time, interactive learning environment.

In the last few months, a lot of attention has been on the Kahn Academy, an educational website that, as its tagline puts it, aims to let anyone "learn almost anything--for free."

Students, or anyone interested can watch some 2,400 videos in which the site's founder, Salman Khan, according to Wired Magazine, "chattily discusses principles of math, science, and economics (with a smattering of social science topics thrown in)."

The videos are only 14 minutes in length with a voice-over by Khan himself, a math wizard. But math isn't the only subject. There are modules on biology, chemistry and physics, history and civics, astronomy and cosmology, economics, finance, money and banking.

Kids love the site. They are really learning things observers say, and teachers love it too. For students of all ages who need the personal touch - one on one instruction - this on-line system allows it. Because the class signs on to the site when time or circumstances permits, and their performance or difficulty is recoded, the teacher can follow student progress and give individual attention as needed.

As the Economist Magazine described it: " This reversal of the traditional teaching methods--with lecturing done outside class time and tutoring (or "homework") during it--is what Mr. Khan calls "the flip". A synonym for flip, of course, is revolution, and ... just might lead to one."

This may be the future of education that holds the most promise.


 
 
 

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