‘School doesn’t have to be the only place for learning’, says online education pioneer

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For years, education online was an underestimated topic – it seemed like chatting to people too optimistic about technology or just an option for those who couldn’t spend hours in a classroom. In 2020, everything changed: suddenly, the whole world had to discover how to learn science, mathematics and geography in front of a screen. The experience may have been frustrating for many people, but it shouldn’t be an indication that online classes don’t work, says American Salman Khan, pioneer of internet education.

“The way we are using online education today is less than ideal, but I believe that school need not be the only place for learning,” he says, in an exclusive interview with Estadão. Before it is said that Khan is a radical, he explains: there is no need to choose between technology and face-to-face classes – one can be at the service of the other. “It is possible to leave the lectures on the internet and enjoy the live time with interaction, communication and tutoring”, he says.

He has ownership in the matter: for more than a decade, he has led Khan Academy. Initially a tutoring channel on YouTube, the non-profit organization expanded to be a platform with basic education content (as well as programming classes) used worldwide by 18 million students. During the pandemic, website traffic, supported by foundations of names like Bill Gates e Jorge Paulo Lemann, rose almost 300%.

To Estadão, Khan talks about how he sees the current experience of education on the internet and how it can blend with face-to-face classes in the future. “Technology has to be at the service of teachers and students,” he says. He also discusses the importance of interactive education and proposes that having access to the internet and a device on which to type and attend classes will be just as important for a home as having water, electricity and basic sanitation. Below are the main excerpts from the interview.

Many people, in recent months, have had to use online education as their main tool. Like mr. evaluate the experience?

People associate me a lot with online education, so you might think I’m excited. But I am the first to say that the way we are using online education today falls short of what would be considered ideal. Because of the pandemic, distance education is not as good as it would be in a room with friends and teachers. Today, schools are doing a good job. Others, not so much, but there are good reasons for that. Replicating what happens in the classroom in videoconferences is not enough. You need to take advantage of technology differently. We know that globally there are many families that do not have access to the internet or quality devices. Sometimes, this is not enough, either: lack of support or even space to study at home. It is a complex period and I understand that many children are unable to engage in online classes. More than that: they are forgetting what they know, atrophying their skills. The pandemic will last yet another time, altogether it will be at least a whole year in which children will be away from friends, sometimes having to spend more time in far from ideal housing.

Much is said that the pandemic can accelerate digitalization, but is there a risk that online education will suffer greater rejection in the future because of bad experiences in the present?

I encourage people not to think about extremes. We have learned distance for centuries, as with correspondence courses. The important thing is not to think of technology as an absolute, but of pedagogical objectives. From them, you can understand what tools can be used. I believe that learning should not be restricted to time or space. It must also be linked to the needs and realities of students. 400 years ago, the nobility did this with tutors. This is too expensive. But online can help in that regard. I believe that school does not have to be the only place where learning takes place. An initial instruction on a topic, an expository class, can be done over the internet. And when bringing people together in a physical space, it is possible to have a more interactive class, the teacher can do dedicated tutoring for a student or a group of students. In addition, the internet can be useful for exploring interests or gaps: if you want to learn about Russian history or if you don’t have a good advanced calculus teacher in your region, why not use an internet teacher? In the meantime, a closer teacher can help to mediate this relationship.

Mr. do you believe that online education can replace face-to-face classes?

If I have to choose between an incredible teacher and incredible technology, I always stay with the teacher. For me, it is not a question of one being better than the other. We don’t need to make that choice. Technology can be at the service of teachers and students. Think of it with a grain of salt, of course. Ideally, a face-to-face class will be better than a virtual class. Is it possible to do a Socratic dialogue on Zoom? Sure, but live you see people’s reaction at the same time. In addition, there are intangible benefits in personal communication, when talking with a colleague between classes. Now, it is necessary to think the opposite: if you have an interactive online class, with a lot of people participating, it is certainly better than a face-to-face class in which the teacher spends an hour talking and everyone sleeps. The point is: what is boring live becomes even more boring online. We need to rethink online. Today, due to time and space limitations, teachers give classes of one hour, five days a week, to classes of 30 people. Isn’t it better to take a 10-minute lesson with five children? It is a personalized interaction, with the necessary help. Having 10 minutes of a teacher’s attention can be better than an hour of speech alone.

On social media, today we see many videos about teachers crying when children open their cameras. Which means that many children are not interacting with teachers. How much does this interaction matter?

In many places, I understand that the cameras are not turned on for connectivity reasons. But it is not always, of course. If the kids don’t have their cameras on, chances are they won’t be engaged. On the other hand, it is necessary to consider how these classes are being given. A live class at Zoom in which the teacher speaks for more than 3 minutes alone should not be live. It should be a recorded video. Live, students should be asked to participate, at random. The feeling of needing to be alert makes people pay attention – in meetings, we adults deal the same way, don’t we?

Khan Academy has basic education courses, but also programming classes. Like mr. explains its structure?

We created Khan Academy as a way to bring reinforcement to students. Many children go to school but find it difficult to understand a subject or prepare for an exam. We can give explanations, helping each student to learn at their own pace and at will. The platform can be used both individually and as support, determined by the teachers.

Looking at the Khan Academy website, I realized how much different content is taught in high school. It seems like a challenge to learn so much at the same time – and in a short space of time. What mr. think of that?

High school tries to cover many subjects and few children manage to retain much of this content. I am a fan of “less is more”. I believe it is important to focus on what people need to learn – and I think this is a valid lesson for the times that we are living in. For younger children, I believe the focus is on reading, languages ​​and math. For the older ones, I believe that deepening learning would be interesting. I am on the board of Khan School Lab, a physical school based on Khan Academy. I keep arguing with the teachers: why not take two classes with more time, that allow depth, instead of five classes a day? More time allows students to have a complete immersion in a topic.

In recent years, countries like Brazil have had a lot more people online, but this inclusion happened via smartphones. They are devices with limited speed and possibilities of use. Is it something that can limit the reach of online education?

At Khan Academy, we try to make things as accessible as possible. We have apps, because we know that a cell phone is the main means of accessing the internet in most parts of the world. But for learning, you need to have a good screen, so you can attend classes, type an article or even do visual work. I hope that covid-19 will be a catalyst for behavior change. Today, a house that has no water, electricity, heating or basic sanitation is seen as an unacceptable place to live, under ideal conditions. With the pandemic, I believe that we need and we will have a similar vision for places that do not have an internet connection and a device that you can fully type. It is not just an academic issue. It is a matter of being economically empowered, in the pandemic or not.


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