If you’ve been reading all the hoopla and criticisms of Khan Academy, you’ll know that Bill Gates referred to Khan as “the best teacher he’s ever seen.” This quote can be interpreted a couple of ways. Perhaps, it is a “dis” on the teaching he experienced at the prestigious Lakeside School in Seattle as a teenager. At the same time, we should remember that Gates did drop out of Harvard during his sophomore year, so perhaps he was not working with a very large sample size. In my view, Gates’ admiration for Khan can be understood by understanding their similarities.
- The Hobbyist As Professional: Both Gates and Khan started out as amateurs who were hacking around in their respective fields. When Gates started out playing with a computer bought by funds from his private school’s “Mothers Club,” he had little idea that this might turn into a profession, and to this day, almost all his knowledge is self-taught. Similarly, Sal Kahn never imagined his videos would become a worldwide phenomena; his understanding of teaching is based on his own experiences, with almost no attention paid to what is going on in the actual profession of education.
- Quantity, Quantity, Quantity: As any user of Microsoft’s products knows, Gates’ products have a tendency to skew towards the side of “feature bloat.” That is, a word processor is more than just a word processor: the current version of Word does everything from twisting type in all sorts of amateurish ways to reprogramming your toaster oven to poach an egg (okay, maybe not….) Similarly, Khan Academy offers over 3,000 videos which cover everything from how to multiply positive and negative numbers to the causes of the French Revolution. This is reminiscent of the Woody Allen joke about two Jewish women discussing the food at their Catskill resort: “Oh, the food here is so bad…” “Yes, and the portions are so small!” Sure, Word is a terrible word processor, and Khan Academy is boring and full of errors: but look at how much you get for your money!
- Lack of Elegance: The most prominent feature that both Gates and Khan share is the utter lack of interest in any kind of design appeal in their respective products. Anybody who has worked with both Windows and Macintosh agree that there is no comparison: Apple pays almost manic attention to even the finest details of the interface, from the fonts used in the file names to the organization of its icons. Windows, by comparison, is a melange of garish colors and hideous fonts that does nothing more than reinforce the notion that computer programmers are immune to something known as “esthetics.” Khan’s videos make Windows look like the work of the Frank Lloyd Wright: the narration is halting, filled with “ums” and “ahs,” which disrupt the coherence of thought. His handwriting is barely legible, and what he writes is often disorganized and incoherent. Nobody will ever confuse a Khan lesson with the one that was crafted especially for him at this 2011 TED presentation.
- Lack of Originality: We all know that Gates’s flagship product, Windows, was a blatant ripoff of Apple’s Macintosh operating system ( and whether Apples GUI was original is a subject of dispute, but let’s not get into that.) Khan is in the same boat: he is not the first to put lessons on the web; ever since the debut of YouTube, anybody with a video camera and an internet connection has been able to put up a “how to” video on the web, whether it is tuning a bassoon to brushing your dog’s teeth. There is nothing “innovative” about what Khan has done; Marc Chagall was innovative, and Sal Khan is no Marc Chagall.
- Reliance on Brute Force: In the same way that Windows become the dominant operating system by loading it onto any computer which had a hard drive capacious enough to withstand the bloat, so has Khan become the leader in online education by creating thousands of low-quality videos on things about which he has not much more than a glancing knowledge. Khan has triumphed by taking meaty subjects like mathematics and chopping up into tasteless nuggets that are easy to eat but ultimately have no intellectually nutritive value.
- Reinforcing Stale Paradigms: Both Gates and Khan share the distinction of reinforcers of current paradigms. Gates’ business model forced users to buy into his vision of what computing should be; that is, it came from a centralized power who called the shots about how a computer should look and feel. Khan also buys into an old paradigm, one of teaching as emanating from a central authority: his videos tell you what to think and do, without demanding that you actually question why things are the way they are. This critique of Khan’s lesson on multiplying and dividing positive and negative numbers is a devastating dissection of Khan’s tired old methodology.
In summary, it’s not hard to see why Bill Gates and Sal Khan are a match made in heaven; with Microsoft quietly slipping into irrelevance after 25 years, people who have actual concerns about the state of education in the United States can only hope that the Khan Academy fad will have a much shorter half-life. Of course, it will then be time for yet another educational fad.