Michael Pershan’s winning entry: What if Khan Academy was Made in Japan?

The #MTT2K contest was a satirical curation project designed to encourage educators to closely examine the quality of open education materials and designed to encourage a broader discussion about new technology innovations in media discourse.

One of the challenges in imagining new futures for education is that people’s ideas of schooling tend to be quite fixed and constrained. For instance, the “metaphors we live by” in education, the structure and framing of our language, assume a model of physical transfer: “I delivered a lecture; I gave a lesson; this kid picks it up quickly; this kid doesn’t get it.” These deep seated ideas make it very hard, for both educators and non-educators, to imagine alternatives to our industrial systems of information dissemination. Another challenge is that, for whatever reason, the public is quite keen to read media stories about silver bullets in education; journalists feel strong pressure to write about the next savior, the next magic pill, the next revolution in education.

One powerful tool to disrupt these pressures is satire, which uses humor to expand people’s thinking and widen the range of acceptable arguments. So in the summer of 2012, I was quite pleased to see two math education professors borrow the trappings of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and create a Mystery Teacher Theatre 2000 video, a satirical critique of a randomly selected Khan Academy video. The video they find has one outright mistake, some imprecise language and notation, and focuses entirely on an algorithm to memorize and ends with “in your own time, think about why this might be true.” The math professors take Khan to task. Khan immediately pulls the video and replaces it with four new ones.

I have mixed feelings about Khan Academy (though I’ve written that I think every child in the U.S. should have an account), but I have unambiguous concern with the breathless media coverage it has received and the ways in which that coverage has the effect of discouraging educators from critiquing the materials. I had the sense that it might be a good thing if more math teachers spent some timing closely examining Khan videos, so with Dan Meyer, I started a the #MTT2K prize, which put up $500 for the best #MTT2K video to be made over the summer.

The contest helped provoke a summer of dialogue about Khan Academy and similar efforts. Over 30 videos were submitted to the contest. The winner (shown above) was a serious, well-researched examination of the limits of direct instruction. The runner up, was a funny riff on the role of expertise in education. The contest and critiques were discussed throughout major media outlets, including the Chronicle of Higher Ed, the Washington Post, Wired, and other outlets. Audrey Watters of Hack Education wrote a fabulous piece on The Politics of Laughter, addressing the role of satire in education politics.

By cultivating a space for satirical critique, the project opened up room for a richer dialogue about Khan Academy and similar efforts. As I said in announcing the winners:

Of course, the real winners of the competition are everyone who looked critically at Khan Academy (and looked critically at its critics) and developed a more nuanced view. If after reading some of the conversation generated about Khan Academy this summer, you have a stronger position that Khan Academy is [completely awesome/situationally useful/seriously problematic] then I’m pleased to have played a tiny role in nudging the conversation.