Technology and Learning: Move the Variable

I managed to catch the SXSWEdu wrap up today.  I purchased a badge to attend SXSW Interactive, but arrived in Austin a day early to sneak a peek at some of the Edu content.

The speaker lineup was eclectic: Mimi Ito was brilliant, and spoke eloquently about Connected Learning.  Goldie Hawn made a great case for her own education program, all based on Mindfulness and Brain Breaks.  Then Sal Khan took the stage, the unassuming, incredibly humble and very funny founder of Khan Academy.

Sal Khan said something so blindingly obvious, but yet so insightful.  He pointed out how learning in a technology environment works: it’s like a web.  He actually showed us the picture of the data visualization that represents the math curriculum on Khan academy, how each node, once mastered, has as it’s offshoots a number of possible next nodes that build upon that mastery.

Then  he talked about how school works.  How we take a group of kids, and we group them according to a somewhat random “birthdate” principle, and we teach them something for a set amount of time.  Once that time has passed (it might be a lesson, a module, or a school term), we measure the learning.  Some people get “80%” on these tests, some get “60%”, etc.  So we know the gaps: we know that some people don’t know 20%, or 40% of the material.  And in fact we know which 20%, and which 40% those particular students didn’t “get”.  But we say, good enough. Time’s up, you’re moving to the next lesson…or term…or grade.

In this model, the variable is how much is actually learned, and the set quantity is time. And when you think about it, that makes no sense at all.

In his model, or in fact in any technology-driven, personalized learning model, the variable is where it should be: on time.  No matter how much time it takes, and this can vary, no one is moved along until they get it.  100% of it.

I’ve heard so many people justify technology as integral to learning because “otherwise kids get bored”, or “It’s what they’re using at home”, and while these are both good reasons, they aren’t the main reason, the real reason, which was so simply stated by Sal Khan: technology moves the variable to where it should be.  Instead of the variable being how much kids learn, the variable is time.

7 thoughts on “Technology and Learning: Move the Variable

  1. Imaginum

    According to an essay in RE-READING AMERICA, a book of essays on America used in my Writing 101 class in fall ’94, the issue has long been economic class. Two women did a ten-year study of American educational systems based on economic class, and found that only at the top tier, $500, 000+, were the students taught in top-down fashion.

    The following semester I started music classes, and my theory instructor did teach this way, in particular in round-about fashion, sort of like James Burke’s Connections articles/shows. Problem was, most people didn’t think that way, at least because they’d never experienced it. I inherently thought that way, and was the only one who realised his method (even my instructor only implicitly thought it before I told him about it).

    So apparently there’s a genetic element to this. But surely, if kids in entirety were started out this way, people would be far smarter. Less work would be needed, and hence less done. Stuff would be better.


      What a timely post! We just held our once a decade garage sale, which necessitated parting with some…uh …stuff! I think it was easier for me than at any other point in my life. I am finally moving on to relative minimalism. Wishing the same for you too Trish!

  2. Leslie Wayne Harper

    You appeared topless in most of your shows, as a matter of fact I do not remember seeing you wear a hat in any of them! And I always thought that motor mouth would be the last one to let us down. Thank you for the fun of watching your shows, they were all uplifting.

    1. Thom

      Hey Christine,
      The other day my buddy and I were messing around with our phones asking dumb questions and my “Hey, Google” voice morphed into the Chef from You Can’t Do That On Television saying “He-e-y-y, Christine” … I’ve watched the show a few times, mainly on You Tube, through the years since it was my favorite show as a kid. You were my favorite on the show and I think you were actually my first girl crush, lol.


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