Learning Online: Complement or Replacement?

Websites offering serious academic content, from arithmetic to organic chemistry, are proliferating and growing in popularity. Yet it remains to be seen if these sites will someday replace the traditional teacher-student relationship or simply complement it. One site, Khan Academy, contains perhaps the most significant potential for a new education model.

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The Khan Academy Model

Khan Academy is a not-for-profit website that offers education on a multitude of topics free of charge. The site uses video lessons, practice exercises and assessment tools to help users learn and master content. There are more than a few websites like it, but with over 3.5 million students watching its videos each month, Khan Academy is a leader in the online education movement.

Though it fostered a cult loyalty on its own, the site gained prominence in 2010 when Bill Gates noted that he uses it with his children. The site's founder, Salman Khan, has since been bolstered by a $2 million donation from the Gates Foundation and Google. That money will help Khan translate his site into ten languages and spread his online education revolution throughout the world.

Complement or Replacement?

Part of the appeal of Khan Academy is that it takes the classroom learning model and turns it on its head. In a geometry class, for example, students move through a textbook over the course of the year, learning concepts that build on each other and matching their progress to the calendar. With Khan Academy, students can jump from concept to concept, watching only the videos on topics they haven't yet mastered. Like a video game, students advance through levels at their own pace.

Khan has stated that his goal isn't to make teachers obsolete. But his approach challenges the convention of teachers lecturing to students in a passive, unimaginative structure. While a student in the back row of a class may be tuned out, he or she is less likely to get bored when controlling the lesson. At the moment, Khan and others like him may see their online education tools as a complement to traditional education. As Khan has argued, if a student fails to grasp how arcs and chords work in his or her geometry class, then an online lesson is there to help.

The Future of Learning

As tools like those at Khan Academy grow more sophisticated, students may wonder if class is truly worthwhile. If the goal of education is to teach students the material they need to know, then they may find that it's faster, easier and more effective to use a tool that moves at their own pace and challenges them with only the concepts they don't yet understand. If Khan and his peers continue to create better tools for assessing progress and responding to student needs, then online education may become the future of learning.

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