My name is Brandon. I'm a writer, cartoonist, husband, and father. This is the online space where I talk about life, family, art, videogames, and anything else that interests me. Disclaimer: a lot of things interest me.

The Patronizing and Humiliating Underbelly of Khan Academy


In high school I was ridiculously horrible at math. Each year I skated by finishing up with something that I’m told was “passing.” That is until my senior year, when I was fortunate enough to get into the class of the only honest-to-God mathematician in what my high school called the “Math Department.” Not only did he know his shite, he was funny, and charming, and could teach the hell out of some numbers. For the first time I actually understood what I was doing, and took College Algebra in the spring semester my senior year to get a jump start on my college classes. Alas, our time together was over too soon, and that May I graduated effectually ending my career in math altogether. I have never opened a math book since, and always felt like I quit just as I was starting to understand what was going on. It’s always galled me a little, and recently I decided that this was a problem I could fix. I am further motivated to rectify this deficiency because I’m a dad; and when it comes time to help with homework, I want to know what the hell I’m doing.

So, I’ve begun re-teaching myself math using Khan Academy. It’s an interesting experience because KA has turned the exercises they’ve developed to teach their subjects into mini games. With each exercise you complete you earn points which unlocks achievements and badges. It’s basically the internet’s version of a gold star for a job well done (or at least doggedly pursued.) This feature not only appeals to the gamer in me, it creates something of a problem. It means that in a desire to unlock all the things I’ve started at square 1 in my re-education of mathematics at KA.

Like. Really. Square 1.

Like, math that pre-dates a 3rd grade skill level.

I am tested on things like, “Which picture is larger?” [a horse and a fruit fly] Or, “Move the hands on this clock to show 11:45.”

Of course I’m not THAT remedial, so I totally own these simple exercises, racking up points and unlocking badges. The victories are, of course, hollow. I’m not proud of my prowess in such basic knowledge. I even feel a little guilty taking advantage of the system in such a way. Even though it is a situation of my own making, I feel like KA is patronizing me with every exercise completed.

OMG, you are SOOOOOOO smart!

What’s worse is when I get impatient and rush through them. A misfired click here, a half-read instruction there and I’m answering incorrectly these very simple questions.  Then I just feel stupid and like I’ve somehow disappointed KA in the worst way imaginable.

I don’t know where I went wrong. You used to show such promise.

I’d like to say I started the way I did because I want to thoroughly go through this process and find any small gaps that may exist in my knowledge. That I want to systematically refresh myself on all the little nuances of basic maths before moving on to the more challenging stuff. But that would be a lie. The truth is, I like badges and achievements. I like gold stars. Always have. So I will endure your petty cruelties, Khan Academy. I will endure them because you made the game. I’m just playing by your rules. And in the end I’m going to be a stronger amateur mathematician because of it.

Still, it doesn’t mean you aren’t a giant ass, and that I don’t want to slap your smug face.



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