Exploring the Great Unknown

My assignment for this week’s blog is to select a course from a free Open Course site. I’m especially excited to review Open Course content. I’m amazed that there is so much educational content available throughout the internet. But the question is always how effective


are these learning experiences? Do open course educational systems provide the same quality education as traditional “pay-for-play” educational systems?

For this assignment, I selected an Art History course through Khan Academy. Khan Academy lists its mission as “We’re a not-for-profit with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere.”(Khan Academy, n.d.)

The link for the course I selected is:


For the purpose of this overview, I reviewed the general Art History overview then focused on one of the specific time periods for additional exploration.  I choose to explore the Industrial Revolution period (1848-1907) or the Pre-Raphaelite period.

Zemesky and Massy noted four distinct adoption cycles for e-learning (Simonson et al, 2011):

Cycle 1: Enhancement to traditional course/program configurations – uses basic level technologies (email, web, PowerPoint) without dramatically changing instructional strategies.

Cycle 2: Course Management Systems (CMS): Use of a SMS to offer course resources and activities in an online format.

Cycle 3: Imported course objects: Embedding electronic learning objects (photographic, slides, audio and video, animations) into a course.

Cycle 4: New course/program configuration: Course is reconceptionalized to take full advantage of technology and the Internet.

Using these definitions of e-learning cycles, I would say that Khan Academy is solidly in Cycle 3. The site seems to rely on the Linear-designed instruction model (Simonson et al, 2011). From my review, it seems that courses use the following components:

Text based course content

The course content is delivered through a text presentation. It’s easy to surmise that much of the content was in fact taken from a previous Art History text book and repurposed for e-learning. Still, there are some things Khan Academy does well and some real room for improvement.

The text content is divided into manageable “chunks” and arranged by topic. There is a navigable time line that allows learners to explore the text content and the individual lessons.  Each topic includes a brief introduction and a “why study this…” explanation.

There are no learning outcomes or objectives included with the lesson.

Video lessons

Videos are the main component of Khan Academy. In fact, the site currently advertises that it offers over 4,500 videos on a wide range of topics. The videos for this particular class involved length discussions over individual paintings. The narrators discussed the history of the painting, the cultural and historical implications of the artist’s country and background, the many ways individual parts of the paintings can be interpreted.  The video was extremely well-done, with high quality content and an insightful discussion.

Although I give the video high marks for the presentation and the content, I feel like it misses the mark. While I realize that Khan Academy is built on the premise of offering video lectures, I believe offering videos only makes the content too linear. As Simonson et al state, one of the fundamentals of on-line learning is to “integrate the power of the web into the course” (Simonson et al, 2011, p. 136). Students can certainly listen to a discussion of history and culture related to a painting, but they could also use a variety of tools to exp

lore on the web and learn more about history and culture on their own.  As Beldarrain states “Educational institutions must reflect on how their distance education program currently utilizes technology” (Beldarrain, 2006, p. 144).  The existing content misses an opportunity to provide links, allow exploration and involve the learner.

In addition, the video does an excellent job of looking at individual parts of the painting and discussing those parts and what they mean to the overall painting. Again, this could have engaged the learner far more effectively if it allowed the learner to select those parts of the painting to explore with links to video segments.  An example of an online site that allows this type of exploration is http://www.manchestergalleries.org/ford-madox-brown/fmb-page-one/

A final word about the videos included at Khan Academy: while Khan Academy is providing some excellent videos for courses, the site is also widely criticized for its video inaccuracies and mistakes. In fact, a recent review of Khan videos has prompted a YouTube spoof based on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=hC0MV843_Ng).


Each course seems to have some time of question review or assessment attached to the lesson. These assessments are often referred to as “Practice This Topic” rather than actual stated assessment, but it serves the same function.  Almost the entirety of these assessment questions could be described as the knowledge level of Bloom’s taxonomy (Simonson et al, 2011). Most questions encouraged the learner to recall from memory facts discussed in the text lecture.


My primary criticism of the Khan academy is few opportunities the learners have to engage with instructors or other learners. The comment section at the end of each lesson does allow the learner to leave comments, which may or may not be answered by the instructor or other learners.

These comments are hardly robust discussions. I believe a separate discussion area with questions proposed by the instructor would yield a far more interesting experience for the learner and the instructor.

Ultimately, I found the Khan Academy course to be adequately designed. It could be substantially improved if an effort was made to engage the learner in active learning. In my opinion, this site’s downfall is the reliance of one type of media (videos) to provide the bulk of the learning experience.  Our text quotes Peters (1998) as stating that those who believe a new, digital media will “supply the interactivity and communication lacking in distance education… cherish a hope here that will prove to be serious self-delusion” (Simonson et al, 2011, p. 175). With some effort and redesign, Khan Academy could provide an incredibly rich and engaging learning experience.


Baldarrain, Y. (2006), Distance Education Trends: Integrating new technologies to foster student interaction and collaboration,Distance Education, 27(2) 139-153


Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (5th Ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.


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