The era of the irrepressible teacher

Blogs were supposed to be the medium that empowered citizen journalism. Much digital ink was spilled pushing this idea back and forth:

“You bloggers are self-absorbed and undisciplined!”
“Oh yeah? Well you journalists are arrogant and out of touch with the real world.”

It was all pretty silly. I can see how a journalist might feel threatened these days, but whatever is destroying journalism as a career, I promise you it’s not bloggers.

I think when we look back on this era, it will be clear that the most important category of amateurs unleashed by the web wasn’t wannabe journalists but wannabe teachers. You probably know the story of Salman Khan and his startup academy. He’s an extreme example of a gifted teacher who started teaching over the web in his spare time. He’s doing it full time now, and he’s making a huge difference in the world. Khan has done a lot to capitalize on the merits of the web, as opposed to simply repackaging the instruction you’d see at an institution.

I keep running into these sites now, really high quality instruction provided for free by someone who has the teacher bug. It’s remarkable and encouraging. Want to learn quantum computing? Michael Nielsen has a series called Quantum computing for the determined. He uses a format for which he credits Salman Khan as inspiration.

My favorite new site is Kalid Azad’s BetterExplained. I first came across his quick guide to Git (Git is a software management system). Of more general interest is his Visual, Intuitive Guide to Imaginary Numbers. He launches his discussion by reminding us how weird negative numbers are. And so they are. Good stuff.

Why is Kalid doing this? Because he can’t be stopped! I find it interesting to think of the web not as something that empowers natural teachers, but as something that removes the weights that have been around their shoulders. It’s sobering to think how many great teachers there are that have been thwarted by the pain of teaching as a career path. But that was then. Now is their time. Sit back and enjoy the show.

3 thoughts on “The era of the irrepressible teacher”

  1. Beg to differ.

    Teaching is a human endeavor — a relationship between a teacher and one or more students.

    What you are seeing with Khan et al is not the next step in *teaching* but the next step in *textbooks*, or more generally prepared media to be used in teaching. The two are not only not identical, they are like a whole (teaching) and a part/tool (textbooks, video tutorials, whatever). In fact, Khan’s materials are not even the best, since they are not at all interactive (though the testing stuff that surrounds his tutorials is better on that). For some really neat, interactive stuff, take a look at

    Just don’t confuse tutorial videos with teaching.

  2. We say tutorials on BBSes and USENET. I think it’s just carry-over. I remember writing magazine articles for free on topics. I’m not sure blogs are much different.

  3. What I’m talking about here is giving an outlet to the urge to teach. It seems like teaching to me, but as long as we agree that something important and valuable is being created, I don’t care so much about what you call it.

    Throughout my education, I’ve listened to a lot of non-interactive lectures, and I always thought of that as teaching. But there’s no question that quality one-to-one interaction is best of all. VirtualNerd sounds like a great idea too. So we’ll keep attacking on all fronts.

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