Salman Khan recently spoke with The Stanford Daily about his thoughts on the trials facing the current higher educational system and its potentially bright future. The two part interview (the first part was published last week, the final part appeared on Monday) hammers on the need for changes to be made to college level education, particularly in the face of increasing skepticism.
According to the Daily, 80 percent of the general public believes that “at many colleges, the education students receive is not worth what they pay for it,” and Khan ascribes most of this skepticism to the failure of colleges to truly educate. The Prussian model (where students are grouped by age and taught the same material along with their peers at the same time), creates a system where “knowledge is sprayed on the student…in the form of a lecture.”
The lecture-based education model creates its own problems. “The Prussian model ensures that you will have gaps in your knowledge. We’ve all experienced getting to a senior math class and [thinking], well, I should have paid more attention to [previous] classes. Because this model is based on everyone moving at the same pace on an assembly line, you have no way to fix those gaps.”
Ultimately, college has become less about learning and more about ticking the right boxes for employers. “Goldman Sachs only recruits at eight universities… I care about what Goldman Sachs thinks, I care about what McKinsey thinks, I care about what Google thinks,” Said Khan. Combined with a grading system that doesn’t necessarily measure aptitude, it’s very easy to see why a growing percentage of people don’t see college as a valuable use of their time.
Khan’s solution is to free education from the constraints of the age group model, using grades to recognize skills and holistic knowledge rather than specific topical knowledge and letting people “learn their own way.” Online education, of course, is a great way to do that—the Khan Academy’s pick-and-choose education model offers the kind of academic freedom that is sorely lacking in higher education.
I don’t necessarily disagree with Khan’s assessment that modern education is heavy handed with its structure, but a sense of realism gets lost in this bright-eyed idealism of a free online education system where students learn what they want, when they want. While some students will certainly be motivated to take learning into their own hands and may benefit from a free form system, the vast majority of college students in America need some structure to stay on track and accomplish an educational goal at all (I certainly did). While more rigorous and specific qualifications are a great possible replacement for grades, structured education serves an important role in keeping people on track. Even if it means they have to get up before noon to go to class.