Khan Academy Expands to Art History, Sal Khan No Longer Its Only Faculty Member

For a long time, Sal Khan has remained adament: he's the teacher at Khan Academy. He's made all the 2500 some-odd videos on the site. He's researched the material. He's designed the lecture format. The instruction -- it's all him.

But as he hinted when he spoke last week to Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, that control over instruction is changing. And now it's official: for the first time, Sal Khan is allowing someone other than himself to create content that will bear the Khan Academy brand.

In a blog post this evening, he announced that Khan Academy will be expanding to include art history, with videos provided by SmartHistory's Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. In fact, you'll find that the URL that once led you to SmartHistory's online open textbook full of wonderfully rich, interactive art history material now redirects to smarthistory.khanacademy.org/.

This also makes it the first move towards seriously including the humanities in the Khan Academy curriculum. While there have been a few odd history videos up til now, this is different. It's also the first real move to add other content providers under the non-profit's umbrella. "Acquire" is actually the wrong word here. It's a "real partnership", Smarthistory tells me, and it's an important one.

It's one that recognizes that Sal Khan cannot teach every subject, despite all the hoopla that the man will single-handedly educate the world. The cracks in that facade seemed most evident, I'd argue, when he appeared on the Colbert Report and confessed that when he goes to teach history, he uses Wikipedia as his main resource.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with Wikipedia. (And in his defense, Khan does say "I click on the footnotes" to which Colbert wittily responds "I'm responsible for some of those.") Wikipedia is an amazing reference tool. But it's not really the material you should lean on if you are going to teach a class on a particular topic.

Granted, having to turn to Wikipedia (or any other encyclopedia or research book) in the first place isn't something that Khan does when he goes to teach STEM or business subjects. After all, he has a bachelor's degree in math, one in electrical engineering, one in computer science, a Masters in electrical engineering and computer science and an MBA. His expertise on linear regression is hard to challenge.

But his expertise on the Italian Baroque? Um, yeah.

So, enter Smarthistory.

But I think this move isn't just about adding subject-matter expertise. The other thing that Sal Khan lacks is an education background. And so adding the Smarthistory team to Khan Academy means something else. It's the addition of teachers. Both Harris and Zucker have extensive research and teaching backgrounds, making them an important contribution to an organization that I've argued has been long on promises of "education disruption" but short on the actual pedagogical know-how on how to get there.

Nevertheless, I am very curious to see how this new partnership between the two organizations will progress. I've been a long-time supporter of Smarthistory (disclosure: I contributed to its Kickstarter campaign.) How do videos fit into art history? Will Khan Academy move away from its YouTube emphasis to include other multimedia resources? And how will curriculum in the humanities fit into the scaffolding process that Khan Academy has started to promote as part of its classroom-oriented platform? It may be easy for some people to see how Algebra leads to Calculus (although there are some educators, I should add, who are very skeptical of scaffolding's forced linearity). But it's less clear how an inability to "master" the artwork of the Renaissance should block you from moving forward to study the Reformation.

I'm also curious how badges and points and multiple choice testing works in the humanities. How will the Khan Academy system account for some of the nuance that comes with art appreciation and art analysis?

How will adding the humanities to Khan Academy curriculum (and adding humanities teachers) counter some of the problems educators have pointed to with the organization? Will it? Can it?

Does this indicate that Khan Academy is serious about covering all subject areas? What will be the next partnership we'll see it make?

With an ever-so-apt art metaphor here, I'd say this seems to be a "work-in-progress," but it's one that will be interesting to watch.


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