What do Salman Khan and Scott Walker have in common?

Q. What do Salman Khan and Scott Walker have in common?

A. Neither one of them seems to think that teachers work particularly hard.

Let me explain:

Like all good brands, Khan Academy has an origin story.  Here’s a 2009 San Francisco Chronicle article that gives you an early version of a narrative that Audrey Watters and anyone else who follows edtech matters has probably read several thousand times since it first came out:

It began with long-distance tutoring in late 2004. He agreed to help his niece Nadia, then a seventh-grader struggling with unit conversion, by providing math lessons over Yahoo’s interactive notepad, Doodle, and the phone.

Nephews and family friends soon followed. But scheduling conflicts and repeated lectures prompted him to post instructional videos on YouTube that his proliferating pupils could watch when they had the time.

Yet, right there in the same article, is the beginning of a contradiction:

In the long term, Khan believes his academy points to an opportunity to overhaul the traditional classroom, by using software to create tests, grade assignments, highlight the challenges of certain students, and utilize those doing well to aid their struggling classmates…

This would minimize the time teachers spend on menial tasks, untether them from the one-size-fits-all approach to education and enable them to focus on individual students’ particular needs, he said.

[Emphasis added]

One-size-fits-all approach to education?  As Audrey pointed out a long time ago, this strategy is the very definition of a one-size-fits-all approach to education:

There’s actually very little in the videos that distinguishes Khan from “traditional” teaching. A teacher talks. Students listen. And that’s “learning.” Repeat over and over again (Pause, rewind, replay in this case). And that’s “drilling.”

The tacit assumption that makes it marginally different is that after students watch the videos at home, teachers are supposed to be going desk-to-desk doing the real hard work of teaching – namely helping each student overcome their individual problems.  But remember why Khan started taping videos in the first place?  He couldn’t help all of his relatives and family friends at once, so he put his instructional videos up on YouTube.

Khan, of course, at that time had a day job as an analyst at a hedge fund.  The difference between Khan and ordinary teachers is that the ordinary teachers are earning a salary – indeed a salary paid by taxpayers –  in order to help their students.  If teachers can’t get around to help little Johnny in the back of the room fill out all of his xeroxed worksheets, then the teacher can damn well stay after school and help them.  Who cares if their class has forty kids in it?  It’s the teacher’s job to make sure that everybody in their class learns the material, and if they don’t (for whatever reason) the teacher will be held accountable. What will supposedly prevent said teacher from working themselves to death is all the time that technology will save them in other places during their day.

The notion that technology will save white-collar workers from menial labor is pretty common these days.  It’s kind of like the carrot that will lure us all uncritically into the rope noose that will leave most of us hanging upside down from a large tree branch before too long.  Unfortunately, as Nicholas Carr writes on page 227 of The Glass Cage:

It strains credulity to imagine today’s technology moguls, with their libertarian leanings and impatience with government, agreeing to the kind of vast wealth redistribution scheme that would be necessary to fund the self-actualizing pursuits of the jobless multitudes.

Instead, those teachers who are lucky enough to be left would have to work harder.

Which brings me to the situation at my alma mater, UW-Madison. I’m tempted to say that you’re probably living under a rock if you haven’t read this, but I’m sure that some of you don’t care as much about the plight of college faculty or the University of Wisconsin – Madison as much as I do, so here it goes:

[Governor Scott] Walker said UW campuses might be able to tap into their reserves to offset the cuts, but he emphasized “it will make them do things that they have not traditionally done.”

“They might be able to make savings just by asking faculty and staff to consider teaching one more class per semester,” Walker told reporters Wednesday in Madison. “Things like that could have a tremendous impact on making sure that we preserve an affordable education for all of our UW campuses, and at the same time we maintain a high-quality education.”

Here the implicit becomes explicit: “You aren’t working hard enough.”  Who cares if you have a forty+ hour week already? Most of that time isn’t being spent on your real job – which is, of course, teaching.

Honestly, I didn’t realize until I went back to dig out the original quote that Walker was talking about faculty in the entire UW system, not just Madison. So while the people who taught my graduate classes in Madison might be going from a 2-2 to a 3-3, I’m guessing that the people teaching survey classes at UW-Stevens Point will go from a 3-3 to a 4-4, while those folks at the 2-year branch campus in Rock County would be headed for a 5-5.*

What’s that you say?  You have other work to do all day besides teaching?  You want to see your kids once in a while?  Well, I hear that Khan Academy has some lovely videos available for you to assign as homework.  And then there are these things called MOOCs…

*  How much money would this scheme save? Not much. If tenured people took on an extra class, the only people who could be easily fired are the contingent teachers  who make ridiculously low salaries as it is.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Joshua

    Probably stating the bleeding obvious, but most non-teachers really have no idea what it is like to be responsible for a classroom. I’m speaking from experience, having only recently stepped into a teaching role and in the middle of discovering just how different it is from my prior expectations.

    So, ignore what Khan says about teaching and classrooms. That aside, the material available free on the web does have the potential to completely remake education, for a student or family willing and able to embrace it. How it works for a school or school system is a lot less clear.

  2. Rolin Moe

    Great as always. You follow Mike Caulfield (@holden) on the Twitter, correct? He has written about tech as replacement of menial labor before; the gist being tech replaces middle management labor because it is less expensive, so we have a narrative of tech as ease and economy but a truth much different.

    BTW, your mentions of me in your various blogs got me some street cred at my new institution. Thank you sir!

    1. Jonathan Rees

      Street cred? Really? As in “that guy in the resistance likes him so Rolin can’t be all bad?”

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