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Khan Academy & Cultural Understanding

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
Last Fall, CFM and The Henry Ford convened a group of educational practitioners, reformers and funders to explore how museums could become more deeply embedded in K-12 education. The report from that gathering–Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Ecosystem–will be released soon. Meanwhile, here is a teaser: one recommendation made by attendees was to put more museum content on existing platforms that have a broad and growing reach–platforms such as Khan Academy. Today’s guest post is by Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, deans for art and history at Khan Academy. They have both taught art history for more than 20 years and each has worked at The Museum of Modern Art. Prior to joining Khan Academy, Beth was Director of Digital Learning at MoMA and Steven was Chair of History of Art and Design at Pratt.
During a recent talk at Carnegie Mellon University, Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, noted that if you went back in time 400 hundred years and asked a member of the clergy in Europe what percentage of the population was capable of learning to read, he likely would have replied, “well if you have a really good education system, then 40 or 50 percent.” Sal continued, “we now know that’s wildly pessimistic; the answer is pretty close to 100 percent.” Sal then challenged the audience to consider what blinders we have on today—what if a world-class education was freely available to everyone? Might we all be able to understand quantum physics and contribute to genomic research?
Let’s take this utopian vision to the world of art and design. What would it mean if nearly 100% of us understood the architectural vocabulary that shapes and gives meaning to our streets and public squares? What if nearly all people understood the ways in which human beings in different places and times have used images to give expression to their most deeply held beliefs and most profound questions? What if people around the world better appreciated the meaning and beauty of each other’s visual heritage? What would it mean if nearly every museum visitor was visually literate?

How can we use technology to help make cultural understanding universal? In an inspiring talk at a recent TED conference, designer and engineer Bran Ferren shared a moving story (“To create for the ages, let’s combine art and engineering”) about a visit he made as a child to the Pantheon in Rome that changed the course of his life. That day, he realized that the worlds of art and design were not incompatible with science and engineering.

His point was that it wasn’t simply the technology—the Romans’ advances in the use of concrete—that made the Pantheon possible. For Ferren, concrete, like the internet, is simply a tool. Hadrian’s building resulted from an “unprecedented creative vision,” one that still connects us to our aspirations and to one another. So, to extend Ferren’s metaphor, can the internet be the tool we use to offer a free world-class education for everyone, everywhere? Could it enable us to achieve a cultural literacy rate of near 100%? Such an outcome would profoundly impact our cultural institutions, our efforts to fund the preservation and understanding of our shared cultural legacy, and enrich our visual future.
So, how can those of us committed to making art and design accessible use the web to leverage our collective knowledge and teaching expertise to reach a vast new global audience? Here we use the term “web” as shorthand for numerous resources and tools: image collections, essays and video but also MOOCs (massively open online courses), as well as platforms—like Khan Academy—where analytics are used to fine-tune learn-at-your-own-pace experiences, and where an active community and game mechanics make learning fun and engaging. Our staff of 60 reaches more than 10 million unique visitors every month.
Smarthistory at Khan Academy is used by museum visitors, independent learners, professors, teachers and their students. There are nearly 600 short-form art history videos created from conversations recorded on-site (in urban spaces, archeological sites, museums, churches and mosques), as well as hundreds of essays on art and art history. We’ve begun to partner with museums to bring their formidable expertise to a global audience (often by simply repurposing pre-existing content). And we are working with over 100 art historians with deep knowledge of content stretching from Ancient Egypt to contemporary art in sub-Saharan Africa.

This art content is visited by learners in more than 200 countries (with translations into dozens of languages). We will reach more than four million learners this academic year (with growth near 80% over the previous year). Most importantly perhaps, we are reaching an audience that, just like Bran Ferren on his family vacation in Rome so many summers ago, is not necessarily interested in art—yet.

There is still a lot to figure out and we look forward to working with the museum and academic communities to make this happen, but it’s clear that we need to think beyond the boundaries of individual institutions and collections. And we also need to think very differently about scale (Michael Edson’s blog post and Slideshare deck on this subject are inspiring).
It took nearly four centuries for the potential of the printing press to be exploited for public education (on a broad scale). Let’s not wait that long for the digital revolution to inspire a new way to educate the globe about one of the most fundamental aspects of our humanity—our history of making art. Think of the millions of learners that can’t travel and don’t live anywhere near a museum. Let’s use the web to foster a love and appreciation for the visual arts and their history. If we do, we’ll create a vast new audience who will want to see that art and who will appreciate all the incredible work involved in preserving, exhibiting, and researching it. How many young Bran Ferrens are there waiting to be inspired?
Here is how Sal ended his talk:
“the potential here is…a once in a millennium opportunity, where you have this thing called education, this thing that has always been the key determinant between the haves and have-nots, but it’s always been scarce and its always been expensive, and…I think if we collectively work on it, over the next ten, twenty, thirty years it is going to get to the point where access…to a world-class education… [is] going to become more common-place…and more and more of an expectation.”

We can do more.
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