Monday, April 4, 2011

Kids teaching kids – my thoughts and response to a recent article

Once in a while I read an article that seems to illicit a response that I find hard to categorize.  When this happens, I let it sit for a day or so before making any judgments.  If after a few days (and a few more reads) I still fell uneasy, I consider writing about it.  This post is a result of one of those situations.

On March 29th, an article by Mr. Larry MacDonald, President of Edison Innovations, Inc.,  titled, Educational Technology Breakthrough: Let Kids Teach Each Other appeared on  In that article, Mr. MacDonald makes his case for supporting the use of student produced videos as a breakthrough in educational technology.  He references Khan Academy and Kids Teaching Kids.

Before I discuss some concerns I have about the article, I want to state up front that the field of education is well served by passionate people, like Mr. MacDonald, who care deeply about student achievement.  I am also a huge proponent of creative thinking and interesting ideas.  Mr. MacDonald certainly outlines a creative and interesting idea in his article.

On the other hand, I am compelled to point out a few concerns I have after reading.  For each, I will include the quoted item from the article (in italics) with my reaction below it.

“ In this budget cutting environment, a vast, valuable resource has been overlooked in the quest to reduce the cost of education: the kids.”

I guess I get somewhat uneasy when students are mentioned so obviously (and early on in the article) as a cost-cutting resource.  Not referred to as any experts or effective voice, the article begins with students in terms of dollar savings.  I know this is an emotional rather than logical objection, but it is an objection none the less.

“Kids Teaching Kids has developed a free service that will ultimately allow any kid with access to a cell phone or computer to watch a video teaching how to solve every problem in every textbook.

Does that sound impossible? Consider these statistics: YouTube now has two billion, views a day; every day 35,000 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube.”

It does sound impossible because I think there is an assumption that the textbook problems are static.  As textbooks are developed (I would also assume textbook providers are paying very close attention to the digital movement!), the information will be hard to keep up with.  The stats about YouTube are hard to correlate to the proposed project.  Most videos on YouTube are not necessarily “educational” and therefore the stats about their numbers or views do not quite match up in my mind.  I can’t see the connection between YouTube’s popularity and establishing videos that answer every textbook problem.

“For centuries adults have thought they were smarter than kids, and perhaps were, but now the kids are smarter than the adults. Have you tried playing the current computer online games? Good luck.”

Smart can be a relative term.  I’m sure that there are some kids who are “smarter” than some adults.  I don’t think using computer online games is a valid instrument to measure how “smart” anyone is.  Technologically savvy?  Maybe.  Smarter?  I’m not sold.  Also, the language is quite decisive.  “..the kids are smarter than the adults.”  Not necessarily true (and possibly insulting to the audience from whom he is seeking support).

“When all the educational material you ever want is available for free on your cell phone and computer, do you think home schooling will increase? Do you think teachers will become more effective given unlimited entertaining, multisensory teaching materials produced by kids for kids?”

Since he asks…the material is and has been available on the internet.  That is nothing radically different.  There may be a rise in home schooling in some areas of the country, but I doubt that the use of cell phones and computers is much more of a factor than anything else.  Will teachers be more effective, I don’t know.  What I do know is that teacher effectiveness is probably not going to be linked to how often they use student produced videos.

My Final Thoughts

I applaud Mr. MacDonald’s efforts and vision to place kids in a more formal position to help other kids.  I have seen great results with student tutoring programs.  Video lessons are becoming a standard tool for educators.  While video itself is nothing new, the availability and variety associated with the internet is different than the old VHS tapes.

On the other hand, I have too much respect for the training and commitment of good teachers to use the term “teacher” for a child who produces a good tutorial video.  Video is impersonal, learning is very personal.  Recent studies suggest that a major factor in student achievement is the relationship built between teacher and student.  Video cannot replicate that relationship.

Mr. MacDonald states that kids would rather watch kids than adults.  I think he is on to something there, but from the wrong perspective.  Kids want to watch and be a part of things that interest them – that are interesting.  Adults can be interesting when they engage in good teaching practices and instruct with the students in mind.  Simply being an adult does not make one boring – they way one teaches determines the degree of interest of students.

Video tutorials and lesson enhancements are good ideas.  I’m just not convinced that student produced ones are necessarily and inherently better – just different.

I am interested to watch this idea grow.  It certainly makes for a good research project – which Mr. MacDonald could use to help strengthen his argument.   

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