It’s a Video Library, Not a Revolution

by Guest Blogger
November 17th, 2011

by Diana Senechal

Ever since the entrepreneur Salman Khan burst forth in 2011 with his
education revolution—a massive video library and proposal that the classroom be “flipped”—there has been no end to the euphoric roar from reporters. They delight in the idea that students could watch instructional videos at home, then come to school to solve problems, work in groups, and engage in discussion. That’s the flip, right there: the instruction takes place at home; the problem-solving, in school. Khan argues, and his fans believe, that such a reversal would “humanize the classroom.” But something about this humanization doesn’t sit well in the belly. Is it really so wonderful to make problem-solving a social activity, or to remove lectures from the classroom? Is the video as flexible a tool as Khan suggests?

Practical problems come to mind first of all. Who ensures that the students actually learn the material at home, or that the videos convey it well? Khan suggests that their activity should be electronically monitored, so that teachers know how much time they have been spending on each video and what they have been doing with it. But isn’t that a bit intrusive? Isn’t one’s study time at home supposed to be somewhat private? Moreover, what will students and teachers gain from such monitoring? Some will find ways around it: they will pretend to watch the videos while doing something else. Others will do the work yet need additional explanation. There is no getting around the difficulty of some material; it requires more than one mode of presentation.

The advanced students, those who already understand the material, have even more to lose. They may not want to solve problems among their peers, in the noise and chatter of the classroom. They might not want or need a teacher peering over their shoulder. During class time, they may need something that pushes their thinking further: a lively lecture or discussion or both. At home, they might need nothing more than challenging assignments and good books. Khan states that each student may progress at his or her own pace, but this goes only so far. Students ultimately reach a point where they need the insights of the teacher: not just a brief check-in, but a substantial presentation and discussion. Where will they get this, if the teacher must circulate from student to student?

Videos allow for thorough learning, proponents argue. Students may watch them repeatedly until they fully grasp the lesson. But who wants to watch an instructional video over and over, unless it is superb? Doesn’t a book allow for a more compelling sort of repetition? When reading a book, you can dwell on a sentence or paragraph as long as you want. If you need to find something specific, you can look in the index or flip through the pages. What’s more, you can hear the words in your mind and give them the emphasis or tone that seems right. A video can become a trap; though you may move backward and forward, you hear the same voice, watch the same gestures, and witness the same explanation in motion. The instructor seems a moving cadaver—unaffected by anything in the room, intent on repeating the same inflections and making the same marks on the board. This can get irritating, if not depressing.

The model has problems of principle as well as of practice. It implicitly downplays the importance of the lecture by taking it out of the teacher’s hands. Supposedly this “frees” her up for real teaching. But what sort of freedom is this, when the teacher is no longer supposed to present the subject? Lectures, even short ones, contain not only information but insights. Teachers and professors raise questions, take apart false conclusions, point to overlooked details, and leave the student with a keener view of the subject than he or she had before. A video—even a superb one—cannot do this as well as a teacher can in person, nor would many teachers want this aspect of their work taken away. Even when the lecture is purely unidirectional, there is subtle exchange: students’ facial expressions and gestures, the teacher’s tone of voice, and the anticipation of the discussion that will follow. A teacher, unlike a video, has the ability to enhance the instruction spontaneously—for instance, by offering yet another angle on a problem (“Here’s another way of looking at it.”). The “flip” model could turn out to be the opposite of freedom, as it would lack many of these subtleties.

In order to learn subject matter, one needs instruction, practice, review, reinforcement, and extension. A student listens to the teacher, thinks about the material, reads about the topic, thinks about it some more, works on problems, discusses the problems in class, and considers how the topic relates to those before and after it. Videos can play a part in this, but there’s no reason to flip anything at all for them. Why not have them handy and let teachers and students use them as they see fit? No grandiose terms, no education revolution—just a resource for those who need it.

But there is little glamour in a resource for those who need it. Khan started out with a modest vision—helping his cousins with school—but before long, it grew louder and louder until it reached the status of a momentous potential reform. Khan has some fine ideas: he recognizes the value of puzzling over material on one’s own, of repeating concepts until they come clear. But even a fine idea can be ruined when turned into a grand model. The challenge for the Khan Academy, and for much of education reform, is to offer something helpful without exaggerating its import. Those who do so will one day be recognized as wise.

Diana Senechal is the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield Education in January 2012.


  1. Not everything sellable can be sold through a vending machine. I’ve seen some of Khan’s videos; for straightforward concepts — especially in math — they seem to be suitable, at least within limits, in a way that seems analogous to the way that a standardized test can help assess up to a benchmark.

    For many subjects, especially literature and probably grammar — or any level of any teaching that is enhanced by interaction with other minds, they hit their limit almost immediately. I have no problem welcoming KA for what it can do, and ask that (as with standardized testing that some seem to want to use not merely for “proficiency” but also for assessing teacher merit and student capacity and other ludicrous overreaches) it not be expected to do what it cannot and should not try to do.

    Comment by Carl Rosin — November 17, 2011 @ 10:13 am

  2. I can imagine what Warhol would have done with this.

    Comment by Brad Miller — November 17, 2011 @ 11:58 am

  3. “But what sort of freedom is this, when the teacher is no longer supposed to present the subject?”

    Precisely. The “revolution in education” flacked by Khan has been commercially promoted by people who have no clue what happens in actual well-run classrooms–the blend of in-school and at-home learning constructed daily by teachers. In addition–teachers (who know their students and what they understand) have been creating their own instructional videos for a long time for no compensation, with no fanfare, and tailored to the kids they see every day.

    Thanks for a great piece. A video library is just that–a video library.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — November 17, 2011 @ 12:18 pm

  4. What weird and technophobic comments, indeed. I’m sure teachers in 1500 found books as uncomfortable as Senechal finds Khan, for many of the same reasons; and for the same reasons were idiots to presume one medium was enough, or, in Senecha’s case, that two are too many.

    Having taught both blended learning and didacticity (nice new word, that one), a good teacher uses whatever works with whichever student with whom it works, and in whatever subject the work takes place. In computer-driven courses, that means encouraging kids to solve problems as quickly and as accurately as they can (since that, after all, is the purpose of instruction in the first place). It means a different “window” for google, or, or whatever, to complement the course itself. In flipped courses, it means creating enough solitude that some kids can work in a corner without being pressed to join in everything. In “the wild” it means involving enough kids to make a lecture useful, or to listen rather than to talk.

    These precious distinctions that mean teachers know “everything” a student “must” remember for a test are frankly so naive and so arrogant they merit neither time nor further discussion.

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — November 17, 2011 @ 12:41 pm

  5. I see another big problem with this flip : the ones who will be the most harmed by it are children coming from families that do not or cannot put emphasis on studies. If a child have to take care of his younger siblings or to work (housework or else), if the environment at home is not suitable for studying (maybe really noisy or violent), if there is only one computer and three children (or worse : no computer or no internet access), etc. the solution becomes a problem. Making school obligatory for everyone was a way to ensure that everyone received basic education regardless of their situation. Removing the “instructiion” from school would go against that. It would harm the ones that needs it the most because they won’t have it at home. Internet videos will not change that.

    Comment by Jordan — November 17, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

  6. I can not help thinking that the person who has/will learn the most from the Khan videos is Khan himself. The process of creating these tutorials solidifies the concepts in his own head. If we learning anything from the Khan academies it should be the process of creating content that explains concepts is more powerful that just watching content. This is nothing new, has been doing this with his students for years…

    Comment by John Patten — November 17, 2011 @ 12:44 pm

  7. Some very insightful points in this paper. For me such websites are best conceived in terms of free knowledge dissemination – nothing more and nothing less, but this too in itself is a revolution for some as it challenges domination of the big publishers! I set up a kind of smaller version of Khan with which is for BOTH students and practitioners of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages \ Applied Linguistics . I provide my time for free and meet many of the costs out of my own pocket. Interestingly, when I approached the Khan Academy to link up and\or get some sponsorship I never even go a reply. Maybe that’s what happens when you go from small to big and become famous – perhaps it is modest revolutions that we need!

    Comment by Huw Jarvis — November 17, 2011 @ 12:45 pm

  8. @ Joe Beckmann

    It is not “technophobic”; it is a reminder that we can’t get rid of lectures in class in favor of internet videos, or books, for that matter. Ms Seneschal is aware of the usefulness of Khan Academy-like videos :
    “Videos can play a part in this, but there’s no reason to flip anything at all for them. Why not have them handy and let teachers and students use them as they see fit? ”
    It is one thing to say “if it is technology based, it can help teachers” and completely another to say “if it is technology based, it can replace a huge part of the teacher’s role”. None of them are technophobic, but if the second one is way too optimistic and simplistic, therefore dangerous for education.

    Comment by Jordan — November 17, 2011 @ 12:57 pm

  9. Me thinks Diana misses the point about all of the hype. It isn’t that Khan academy is the answer to all of our solutions. The point is that if one man can do all this on one web site, imagine what 3 million teachers can do together. Let’s face it, Khan’s videos suck. I don’t know why more people don’t mention this. But once we admit this we can go beyond and have better videos produced. We could have competing math teachers produce short videos on how to balance an equation for example. So your stuck? Try John Dough’s explanation. You don’t have to rewind. Also, why not have a ratings system where students rate the entertainment factor and the explanatory usefulness of each video. Slowly, the best videos an rise to the top.

    Honestly, I don’t know why this has not been done yet. We have millions of teachers all doing the same thing every day, if just a fraction of the best teachers were recorded imagine the boon it would be to students trapped in a boring teacher’s classroom. It is one thing to criticize Khan’s method but let’s face the truth – most teachers are boring and no amount of training is going to make the average teacher into Robin Williams. But what we can do is take the best, reproduce them and give all children access to them. The technology is there, Khan has proven it. And that is the point. Khan has showed everybody that the possible really is possible.

    Comment by Kronosaurus — November 17, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

  10. “Also, why not have a ratings system where students rate the entertainment factor and the explanatory usefulness of each video. Slowly, the best videos an rise to the top.

    Honestly, I don’t know why this has not been done yet.”

    It has, Krono, in Japan. They have a national repository of exemplary lessons on file for teachers to reference. It’s part of their “lesson studies” approach and also one of the primary reasons their kids and schools are so successful.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — November 17, 2011 @ 5:23 pm

  11. Thanks for all the comments so far!

    Jordan makes a good point: not all home environments are suitable for the kind of study that a flipped environment would require. Yes, students have to do homework in any case, but it’s a bit of a stretch to make the homework the actual learning of the content.

    And Nancy points out that teachers in well-run classrooms use a combination of resources as a matter of course (and tailor the resources to their students).

    A piece in Time titled “Salman Khan: The New Andrew Carnegie?” ( considers the effect of free online resources on elite colleges and universities. What will happen when people realize they can get an elite education without paying the tuition or even stepping out of their home? Will the elite colleges and universities go out of business?

    Well, my guess is no. It is great to have free online courses available. But physics is still physics, and calculus still calculus. These subjects take time to learn; it is difficult to pursue them on one’s own, on top of full-time work. Moreover, it would be difficult to pursue, say, an architecture major without the fellowship of other students; the professors’ presence, instruction, and guidance; the campus and cultural activities; and the overall atmosphere. When people pay for college, they are paying in part for the environment. No, it should not be so ridiculously expensive. But online courses, however fine, cannot replace this.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — November 17, 2011 @ 9:16 pm

  12. Salman Khan the new Andrew Carnegie? I’m embarrassed for my alma mater that my former colleagues at TIME would make such a leap. But what a sterling example of a modest reform becoming the thing that Changes Everything.

    We in education value education as an intrinsic good. But the reason that it will be a long time before free online resources supplant colleges has nothing to do with the education, and everything to do with the credential.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — November 17, 2011 @ 9:24 pm

  13. “What will happen when people realize they can get an elite education without paying the tuition or even stepping out of their home? Will the elite colleges and universities go out of business?”

    They won’t go out of business because a person taking a free online course won’t have a degree from Yale or MIT. Elite colleges are in the business of educational credentialism. See Geoffrey Miller’s Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior. A degree from Harvard signals high IQ…

    Comment by Seth — November 18, 2011 @ 9:38 am

  14. I think Ms. Seneschal really murdered her straw man. I mean, he’s a in a bloody (straw-y?) heap. Who says teachers using the videos can’t or won’t accommodate the issues she raises?
    I’d also like to point out that traditionally, Literature had been taught very similarly to this “flipped” model- students did the readings at home, at their own pace (or not at all) and then came to class for discussion and extension activities. It seems like a smart way to maximize class time to me, and the only reason I don’t teach that way is because I can’t get enough of my students to do their homework.
    Between this post and the online dictionary one, I think Ms. Seneschal has earned the label technophobic, and contrarion as well.

    Comment by Jillian — November 19, 2011 @ 11:12 am

  15. Technophobic? I worked in electronic publishing, and then Web software development, before the dot-com bubble burst. I have designed websites from scratch (without Dreamweaver or any such tools). At one of my former schools, I created an interactive database. I have spent many hours writing programs for fun. I am not an advanced programmer or tech expert, but I enjoy figuring things out.

    Nor am I saying these videos shouldn’t be used. I said clearly that they should be a resource. There’s just no need for a “flip.”

    Yes, in literature classes, students have traditionally been expected to do the reading at home and then come to class for discussion. But the teacher would still give presentations in order to put the reading in perspective, elucidate aspects of it, or set up the discussion. The same has been true for other subjects. The ratio of presentation and discussion time will vary from subject to subject and from day to day, but the teacher should still have room to teach.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — November 19, 2011 @ 11:45 am

  16. Seriously? This is by no means true for all kids in all subjects…why is education still designed for one size fits all? That is so…yesterday and last century…this is what bores kids beyond belief…

    You really believe this? “In order to learn subject matter, one needs instruction, practice, review, reinforcement, and extension. A student listens to the teacher, thinks about the material, reads about the topic, thinks about it some more, works on problems, discusses the problems in class, and considers how the topic relates to those before and after it. Videos can play a part in this, but there’s no reason to flip anything at all for them. Why not have them handy and let teachers and students use them as they see fit? No grandiose terms, no education revolution—just a resource for those who need it.”

    Comment by tim-10-ber — November 19, 2011 @ 12:54 pm

  17. If reading, listening, and thinking are “so yesterday and last century,” shouldn’t we be a little concerned?

    What I described can be carried out in many different ways; it isn’t restrictive.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — November 19, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

  18. As a teacher in rural New Hampshire, where some of my students have neither computers nor internet access, Khan is not the answer to our prayers. However, I do try to use periodic, optional online assignments in order to shore up skills I teach in class – particularly Latin, where repetition is the best way to reinforce memorization. Quia, et al are great for this. But to rely on Khan or his brethren for any significant portion of a child’s education is misguided. Technology is a great adjunct to education, not a solution to the need for talented teachers in the classroom.

    Comment by Jess — November 19, 2011 @ 6:49 pm

  19. G_d knows The Teaching Company has been a miserable failure as a business model…then there is and Someday people will come to realize that this is all just such foolishness.

    Comment by tm willemse — November 20, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

  20. There has always been a concern that the latest and greatest technology would undermine some cherished part of education. If I remember my ancient history correctly one of the famous Greeks philosophers was concerned that books undermined memorization. We do not know what impact online or video education will have. My guess is that we will loose some skill we currently deem critical, but will feel less so in the future. What I think may be more critical is for teachers to learn technology so they can embrace what works. Too often I see teachers that seem to hate technology or video or other types of innovation so amateurs like Kahn step in. A fundamental reality is that education except for the elite rarely favors the ideal. Most of us have to be satisficers and figure out how make things work in less than ideal circumstances. In many parts of the world, even our sub-par educational opportunity would be appreciated by kids. A lot more needs to be considered before this type of education is just dismissed.

    Comment by DC Parent — November 20, 2011 @ 8:30 pm

  21. @DC Parent: You are correct, Socrates was known for decrying the effect literacy would have on memory and the transmission/retention of knowledge thereby. I was very surprised to learn this (in the excellent book “Proust and the Squid”), but it does make sense, and some of his concerns have been borne out, at least to some extent, although the upside of literacy seems to have exceeded his imagination.

    I have to disagree with you about “teachers that seem to hate technology or video” — teachers are very busy making things work in the situations they find them in; developing and productizing a series of web-based videos takes so much time that a classroom teacher probably can’t get that done on top of his or her immediate needs.

    Teachers (it sounds like this includes Diana, and me too) may love technology without organizing ALL delivery around it, the way that Khan has done. It may work, it may not, but we should discriminate between means and end, and between innovative and effective. Innovation is not an end in itself.

    Comment by Carl Rosin — November 20, 2011 @ 9:25 pm

  22. It is not just about the videos – it’s about making class time more valuable, more interpersonal, more interactive. Discussion, debate, role-play, group work etc, require people to be together in time and space. A lecture does not. By automating the latter, you make space for the former.

    You can conjecture all you want about what may or may not be valuable. But those of us who teach in flipped classrooms just find the doubting somewhat amusing. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. I have watched my student’s grades increasing markedly, and their love of learning increasing even more so.

    My suggestion is to give it a try before writing it off.

    And in response to the comment above, teaching this way does not cost time, it saves time (after the initial learning curve, of course).

    Comment by Andrew Douch — November 21, 2011 @ 4:46 am

  23. I am not writing it off. I am questioning the notion that it is some grand innovation or that it needs to involve a “flip.”

    Classrooms have traditionally involved a mixture of activities and approaches, so this might be at most a 90-degree rotation–and might work better in some situations than in others and some times better than others.

    There is no flipping the teacher’s discretion and judgment. That should stay put.

    Glad to hear that it is working well for you–but I find it curious that you appoint yourself spokesperson of the flipped and amused.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — November 21, 2011 @ 9:00 am

  24. Is it me or is this screaming differentiated instruction? In most places now, schools have figured out that their is not just one type of student. Teachers have become facilitators of learning which means that we catered to those who have been brought into our classroom through the inclusion laws enacted by the IDEA legislation to those students who are gifted.

    In Georgia where I live we practice standards based instruction where the instruction takes place in the classroom and practice is done at home. Often times this practice is not even counted as a grade due to the fact that this is just an opportunity for the student to reinforce what they have learned from school. Don’t get me wrong, we are not lecturing and telling kids what they should know; we are guiding them to explore the outcomes that are possible and to use critical thinking skills to eliminate solutions until the reach our goal.

    To expect that students learn individually at home takes away from what school is for. If students could all learn from home why would they need 8 hours with teachers? Videos and other resources are great but who is going to pay for these extra resources? The parents who can barely keep their heat on, will they be responsible? Or will the responsible party be the school districts who can not even afford to put enough teachers in the classrooms leading to over-sized classrooms? Or will it be Khan who has developed that unrealistic idea……..

    Comment by Heather F — November 21, 2011 @ 7:37 pm

  25. As a dad, I love Khan academy. My child is progressing through a math education at her pace, not the pace the 33 other students in a classroom will allow. As someone trained in neuroscience, I know our brain has been evolving how to learn through seeing and hearing for more than 70,000 years while we have really only been reading for 600. As a teacher with that appreciation of neuroscience, I believe the quickest way to get simple information into the brain is through seeing and hearing videos. And, the easier I can get knowledge into the student’s brain, the sooner I can pursue higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. Here is a prezi on more thoughts ( and, of course, a video (

    Comment by D.J. Hennager — November 21, 2011 @ 11:21 pm

  26. [...] sich für diese kritische Sichtweise interessiert, kann den Blog-Eintrag unter nachlesen. Share this:TwitterFacebookGefällt mir:LikeSei der Erste, dem dieser post [...]

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  27. [...] Miranda • Khan Academy Is Not the Progressive Model You Are Looking For by Tom Barrett • It’s a Video Library, Not a Revolution by Diana Senechal • Content Delivered, Captain. Full Speed Ahead by SD36 Helping Teacher Amy [...]

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  28. [...] 15.12.2011, Ergänzung: Dieser Artikel wurde auch auf XING kommentiert und dabei wurde als Beispiel für das Konzept “Flipped Classroom” die Khan Academy genannt. Diese ist m.E. aber einfach nur ein Angebot an thematischen Videos, wie es auch Sofatutor zur Verfügung stellt. Ein didaktisches Konzept ist das nicht, sondern ein Service, mit dem sich offenbar gut Geld verdienen läßt. Einen sehr guten, differenzierten Artikel hierzu hat Diana Senechal geschrieben: It’s a Video Library, Not a Revolution. [...]

    Pingback by Internet Technologie & Learning « (Gar nicht so) Neues Konzept: Flipped Classroom — February 3, 2012 @ 11:00 am

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