Can ideas and a little money be a bad thing?

I was having a conversation with someone recently about technology in education. I brought up Udacity as an interesting model for using video and interactivity for learning. My example was (expectedly) countered with Khan Academy. I shared my opinions about its strengths and weaknesses and we had a really great discussion about what its existence means. I felt good about being able to share some of the ‘other side’ of the argument that Time and CBS haven’t really covered.

One point that was brought up has stuck with me, and I want to explore it a bit. Here’s the basic idea with my own paraphrasing.

Here’s a smart guy with an idea. He sees a problem and wants to help, so he puts his own time and resources into solving that problem. Other people noticed what he was doing and thought it was a good idea, so they put money into his project. What could it hurt?

What could it hurt?

My focus has nothing to do with the fact that many people have benefited from Khan’s resources and his website. Many teachers have used the site as a tool to help their students in skill development. I also don’t want to focus on the fact that many learning professionals have questioned the pedagogy of Khan’s videos given the fact he has no teaching background. Many others have already fleshed out this line of reasoning pretty effectively.

The big problem I see comes from applying how business investment works – a business starting up needs investors so it can start getting what it needs to generate revenue. If the business is actually fulfilling a real need in the market, it will increase in value through the income earned and the equipment and intellectual property generated or acquired by the business. Venture capitalists research companies and their ideas to see which ones have potential to be successful in the market and then select those that, based on their experience in the field, are most likely to succeed. Often these capitalists invest in a number of different ideas to maximize the potential that one will be a real money maker – they understand that not every investment will actually be a winner.

Here’s why I see the hubbub about Khan Academy as an indication of a bigger problem: We get things backward when we see a major investment as a measure of its value, whether in an idea or a business.

So much has been made out of the fact that Bill Gates and Google have invested in the Khan Academy that people might thing it’s a good idea specifically because Gates and Google have done so. Don’t get me wrong – Google has invested in many really great causes (FIRST being one of my favorites) but they don’t always get things right. As I said before, this is the nature of investment though. Not everything works out. I challenge anyone to defend the content of the video below as really, honestly, being truly deserving of a major investment to help it be implemented in schools:


This is the Explicit Direct Instruction initiative that Google recently supported in the Mountain View school district. The manager of community affairs says in the linked article that EDI “…seemed like a really successful program that we want to continue to support.” Google wants to help solve the complex problems of the educational problem, and based on the manager’s assessment, it will continue to do so.

Why might this situation hurt rather than help?

The news story was all about Google’s generous donation in support of the initiative. A person reading this article might make the mental connection that if Google is supporting the idea, then the idea must be one that will effectively address an educational issue. Google’s donation (and subsequent coverage of the donation) have consequently turned it from a company that just wants to help, into a ‘player’ in the educational reform world. What was this originally based on? A manager that saw kids ‘engaged’ because they were compliant, which to her meant that learning was going on in the classroom. What does she know about education?

Many people think they are experts in education because they went to school and they know what worked for them. Salman Khan has been reported to be good at explaining concepts through solving problems – he has said himself that procedures are how he and everyone he knew learned. He makes videos that primarily show procedures, though there are some exceptions. Investors see this and contribute millions. The media picks up on this and says that because of these investments, school has been “rebooted” and education has been revolutionized by his contribution.

Money talks. If the money goes toward Khan, EDI, and other flavors of the week, a few things can happen. The media pounces and says that these ideas that have attracted investors must be what will revolutionize education. Not the genuine ways that many teachers have individually used technology to improve instruction in their classrooms. Not the ways teachers are able to have improved communication with parents and students about their progress. Administrators looking for quick solutions to achievement deficiencies in their districts might sink considerable resources into these ideas without consulting with the teachers responsible for implementing them. Parents can demand that teachers spend less time creating rich explorations and applications of topics in their classrooms in order to focus on this ‘innovative’ idea they learned about on TV or the internet. As I have said before, there is no silver bullet in education, not any one piece of technology, not a single pedagogical technique, nor a single textbook. Solutions to problems in a learning community must be influenced primarily by the parents, teachers, students, and administrators in that community, and not by what the news says is innovative because of a million dollar donation.

It is possible that the involved players can act with a bit more restraint. I know there are many administrators that do. We are so reactionary these days. We want a quick fix. The media’s tendency to hype, the power of the internet to exponentially transmit ideas, and the ability money has to set our priorities: these form a dangerous formula that could lead us to rapidly pursue options that really don’t resolve the issues we face. Hopefully we do not lose sight of what we really value in education. I don’t believe it is too late.