Tag Archives: Sal Khan

What is College All About?

What is a university for? This comes up quite a bit when my wife and I discuss the future of online education. I am a bit more bullish than her, but being the common sense person she is, I know I have to pay attention to what she says. She is not against online classes per se, but wonders how they can replace the university because she thinks the university is as much about learning as it is about socializing and learning how to communicate with people. As generally is the case, she is right.

When David Brooks attempted to answer the question in a New York Times piece, he mentioned technical knowledge and practical knowledge. Both are important for sure, but the picture is somewhat incomplete. A more complete answer comes probably from Sal Khan (Alex Tabarrok of the Marginal Revolution fame has argued a quite similar point here.) In One World Schoolhouse, which I reviewed here, Khan argues that the university primarily performs the following three functions:

  • Teaching/learning;
  • Socialization;
  • Credentialing.

Notably, research is not on this list. Khan does acknowledge that research is an important function for the society, but he implies, correctly, that it doesn’t have a first-order impact on the student. This especially rings true these days because most star researchers don’t even teach classes anymore. This is simply a result of misaligned incentives. Outside maybe MBA settings, you don’t get much by being a rockstar teacher and your time is better spent on producing yet another paper. The teaching is mostly left to adjunct professors, lecturers, or even PhD students. Let’s look at this from the perspective of the student. Does the student really care, or does it benefit him in any way, that the faculty is home to five Nobel laureates? Not really, unless the student takes a class with them, which is generally not the case.

Now, having those star researchers on the faculty is certainly good for reputation. But this already manifests itself in the credentialing function, and its natural extension: signaling. Once you have a degree from that university, you indirectly benefit from the cache of that university. Research, then, is arguably a second-order benefit for the student, even though it is still a first-order benefit for the society as a whole.

Now, Khan’s vision is that teaching/learning and credentialing should be separated. In the world Khan envisions, credentialing is not necessarily a function performed by the university; instead, it is accomplished through rigorous assessments, which Khan calls microcredentials. Khan is quick to point out that this does not eliminate the need for the university, instead it makes it optional like an MBA. Khan also notes an unemployed adult can use these assessments to signal that he has the necessary skills.

I think he is spot on with this vision and this may be a path to solving some of our broader problems, such as the long-term unemployment. There is some recent evidence that a person who has relevant experience but has been out of the long force for more than six months may be skipped over for someone who has been employed even without relevant experience (If you are so inclined, read the original research here). This may be rational for the employer, but bad for the society as it creates sustained long-term unemployment.

To be clear, the problem does not have an easy solution but Khan’s vision would be a good first step in that direction. If a prospective employee can signal his competency through these assessments, that could increase the chances of him getting hired. At the college level, it provides a sustainable path for the student who doesn’t have the money, or connections, to get into a good school. More than anything, what the society needs is reassurance that the American dream is still alive, and meaningful long-term change can come through successful unbundling of the functions of the university.

Do Away With Summer Vacation?

In One World Schoolhouse, which I reviewed in a previous post, Sal Khan proposes an interesting concept: No summer vacation.

Before you boo, let’s give this some serious thought. One of the fantastic points in Khan’s vision is that education should prepare us for real life. Am I suggesting that real life should include some work on weekends, too? Absolutely. Before your boos get louder, allow me to qualify my statement. If you truly do what you love, it will not feel like work. I am a big fan of work becoming play and people following their passion and finding ways to monetize it.

That’s not how the dismal science, economics, models it. As Steven Landsburg claims in The Armchair Economist, we don’t care about labor, only fruits of our labor. Is this true?

When I put my economist hat on, it is hard to disagree with that statement. The theory is pretty simple. Workers choose between work and leisure. Leisure is fun, but it is costly, the cost being the lost wages you earn by working.  Each of us, then, decides how much we should work given the wages.

Even though this is pretty standard theory, I am not at home with this. It makes me uneasy because deep down, I disagree with the notion that we don’t care about labor and only fruits of our labor. I want my hobby to be my work. I simply want to do what I want to do; and if I get paid for doing what I love, even better.

Some people argue that following your passion does not necessarily maximize your income. This is generally true in the short term, because you may have to provide for your family, have other responsibilities, switching costs may be high, you may need to be re-trained etc., but in the long term, you are better off by following your passion, financially and otherwise.  Call me a romantic but I really think your lifetime income is actually maximized by doing what you love. If this is true, it would create somewhat of a paradox – I do what I love to maximize the fruits of my labor, but that means my labor was not that costly in the first place, because it is what I would have done in my free time, anyway.

This study found that almost 80% of the people are not passionate about their job, so maybe the economics modeling is simply a reflection of reality. That, however, doesn’t make it the ideal scenario. Work and play should be one and the same in adult life, and if we agree on that, then Khan has a pretty good case. It goes like this. People should do what they love when they grow up, education is supposed to prepare us for real life, so kids should do what they love without having an artificial divide winters and summers, which really doesn’t exist in real life.

Book Review: The One World Schoolhouse by Salman Khan

We already knew that Sal Khan is a really good educator. What we didn’t know was that he is a really good writer.

Before I started reading, for some reason I was under the impression that Sal wrote One World Schoolhouse to create some promotional materials around his YouTube videos that made him a celebrity and landed him on a Forbes cover. Ahh – how first impressions can be misleading. It is the other way around: Khan Academy is promotional material for his book, or more specifically, for the vision he outlines in his book.

Sal managed to be bold, yet humble, serious yet witty. These are delicate balances and Sal achieved them masterfully. Who would have thought that I would laugh out loud when I am reading a somewhat academic book on a very serious subject. His vision is unmatched. As he also acknowledges, he does not have all the answers, but I think he has all the questions. Naturally, his book is a great conversation starter at the national level. Certainly, the future of education is a conversation that we need to have.

As with any good idea, his vision makes intuitive sense. Nurturing our kids’ (and our) passion is the most important thing we can do in this world. What were we thinking when we moved away from that? (yes that was kind of happening 1000 years ago). Khan carefully walks us through why the model we have today may have made sense 100 years ago, but he convinces us that it doesn’t anymore.

He is also spot on when he discusses the relationship between education and real life. If we don’t teach our kids to be responsible, how in the world can we expect that they become responsible adults when they grow up? If we don’t nurture their passion, how can we expect them to follow their passion? A determined few would, but most simply won’t.

The “follow your passion” literature, and its close cousin “rebrand yourself” genre may be oversold, but I have not yet seen a book that takes a step back and actually starts drawing an achievable path to those goals. Khan’s book is that rare gem. Ignore it at your own peril.