Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

An Open Letter to Khan Academy et al.

Disclaimer: I have no formal background in education policy. I'm just a dude who watched a PBS documentary and was deeply moved by it.

To Whom It May Concern:

I would like Khan Academy and other non-profit online education ventures to seriously consider working with community colleges, especially those serving the poorest Americans.

I just watched the 2005 PBS documentary Declining By Degrees: Higher Education at Risk (available on Netflix streaming) and was shocked upon seeing that:

  • Government funding for community colleges is shrinking, so they must raise tuition, overcrowd classrooms, cancel classes, and even turn away students who want an education.

  • Community college instructors are poorly-paid, overworked, and under-respected teaching machines.

I believe that Khan Academy and similar ventures can simultaneously solve both of these problems.

First off, why are these important problems? Because community colleges are the gateway to higher education and skilled jobs for millions of the poorest Americans. These institutions provide the least privileged in our society with the hope of upward social mobility.

Community colleges have a social responsibility to admit everyone who wants to attend; any admissions rate below 100% is unacceptable. Similarly, they should charge minimal tuition and provide adequate financial aid. However, with diminishing government funding, it is no longer possible for many community colleges to live up to their responsibilities. They are cutting costs by turning away applicants, raising tuition, overcrowding classrooms, canceling classes, and lowering the (already low) salaries of instructors. Thus, instructors need to teach more classes just to make a living wage, which diminishes both their quality of and enthusiasm for teaching.

If community college languish, then the inequities in our society will continue to grow. Even if we miraculously "fix" K-12 education, millions of poor kids will be left hanging when they graduate from high school and see that there is nowhere for them to go to get affordable higher education. Most of the hard-earned gains of K-12 education will be lost if we don't also fix community colleges.

So how can Khan Academy and friends help? By deeply integrating free online educational materials into community college curricula. Doing so enables more students to enroll and makes instructors more scalable.

Technology can keep more students in school. Community college students often work part- or full-time to support their families, and I suspect that many drop out or never enroll due to such rigid time constraints. Students who remain in school must often work grueling night shifts so that they can attend classes during the day. The flexibility of being able to learn online course materials on their own time has enormous benefits. And for those without access to an Internet-connected computer at home, one could imagine filling a community college library with low-cost computers and having students sign up for time slots.

On the other end, technology frees instructors from the drudgery of giving the same lectures on the same materials to multiple classes. Instead, they can spend class time acting as real human beings and mentors to students rather than as overworked lecturing machines. They will enjoy their jobs more, get better respect from their students, and actually get to teach for a living. They can manage more classes while feeling less overworked, which opens the doors for more students to enroll. Instructors can also leverage video chat and other online resources to reach out to students at mutually convenient times.

In addition, online educational materials can probably lower tuition costs, but I don't have the expertise to speculate on how this can be implemented. Perhaps crowdsourcing can be used to hire on-demand part-time instructors and graders at lower cost, alongside full-time instructors.

Targeting community colleges deflects two of the most common criticisms of Khan Academy and related ventures:

  • Pundits lament that online learning eliminates the "quintessential" on-campus college experience. Reality check: Millions of poor working Americans aren't attending community colleges to experience dorm sleepovers where they debate the nuances of French philosophy while sipping brandy. They're attending to learn basic concepts and to receive a credential that enables them to move onto either a full-time job or a four-year college. Nothing experiential will be lost by "Khan-ifying" community colleges.

  • Some educators argue that the sorts of "rote learning" that online tools offer can't lead to deep understanding or enlightenment. Reality check again: I doubt that there's much deep enlightenment happening in community colleges today, between overcrowded classrooms, overworked instructors, and ill-prepared students. Quality of teaching will not degrade by moving more of the curriculum online; in fact, it might improve since instructors are liberated to offer personalized mentoring in the classroom.

In closing, proper integration of Khan-style online resources and methodologies can increase community college enrollment, decrease tuition, make better use of instructors, and produce graduates who are just as prepared or even more prepared for the job market or a subsequent four-year college. The potential benefits for the poorest in our society are too significant to ignore.

Thanks for reading this letter, and please either act on it or forward it to someone who is in a position to do so.

Philip Guo

Created: 2012-03-13
Last modified: 2012-03-13