01 Mar 2012
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The Accidental Innovator

Sal Khan is building a one-room schoolhouse for the world
by Garry Emmons

Topics: Communication-Communication TechnologyEducation-Curriculum and CoursesEducation-LearningInnovation-Innovation LeadershipBusiness Ventures-Business StartupsTechnology-InternetTechnology-Web Sites
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Issue Focus: Innovation

Salman Khan (MBA 2003) is an energetic, amiable young man, with a twinkle in his eye and a fondness for jokes and self-deprecation. He’s unpretentious and unassuming, despite holding three degrees from MIT, where he was president of his class (as he was at HBS) and where he will deliver this spring’s Commencement address. As he greets a visitor to his bare-bones office in Mountain View, California, there’s little evidence of this former hedge-fund analyst’s meteoric rise to rock-star status as a kind of online pied piper for the learning dispossessed. With millions of grateful student fans, Khan and his not-for-profit, Internet-based Khan Academy, are turning traditional—and, many would say, obsolete—paradigms of public education upside down, as well as recasting learning and extending it to the remotest corners of the earth. He’s created such a phenomenon of human-capital development that Khan finds himself turning to science fiction to try to make sense of it all. Meanwhile, financial backers such as the Gates Foundation, Google, and venture capital’s Ann and John Doerr (MBA 1976) are adding credibility and momentum to what appears to be impending change of global significance.

Like many great innovations, it all began with a simple question, in this case from Khan’s nine-year-old cousin, Nadia: “Sal,” she asked, “can you please help me with my homework?”

So how did Nadia’s request launch a juggernaut?

In 2004, Nadia was living in New Orleans and I was in Boston, working at Wohl Capital, a hedge fund. At night, I’d call her, and using Yahoo! Doodle as a shared notepad, I’d tutor her in math via computer and telephone. Other cousins and their schoolmates soon wanted help, too. It was getting crazy. Finally, in 2006, a friend suggested that rather than reteach the same points over and over again to different kids, I should make videos of each lesson and put them on YouTube. I was skeptical. YouTube was for cats playing the piano, not serious mathematics! Then I got over the idea that it wasn’t my idea, and I made a couple of videos. The initial feedback from my cousins was good so I kept going. By 2009, I quit my day job to work on the videos—and the software—full time. To date, I’ve personally made around 3,000 videos—I love doing them—on dozens of subject areas, ranging from physics to finance to history. It’s all free to everyone and anyone, and learners of all kinds seem to like them. As our website says, the tally as of early February is now “119,074,255 lessons delivered.”

What’s the secret to the success of the videos?

I try not to talk down or be judgmental, I’m not staring over your shoulder making you nervous. I remain off camera—the less distraction the better—so it’s just my voice-over, informal and without a script. I also try my best to give students deeper intuition rather than just learning things by rote. I can also sometimes be a bit eccentric, which I think the students like. The screen image is of a chalkboard, simulated through software, and I “write” on it as the lesson develops. Actually, my cousins have told me they like this “virtual Sal” better than the real-life me. They can start and stop and repeat me at will.

How does Khan Academy change the standard classroom we all know?

The nearby Los Altos school system, for one, is using Khan Academy on an experimental basis. It’s early, but test and learning results are promising. Here’s what happens: Students spend part of class time—and some time at home—working at their own pace on videos and exercises. They get immediate feedback, and there are game mechanics—points and badges—to give even more motivation. Every interaction with our system is logged, and this data is used to give students, teachers, and parents real-time reports on student progress. In the same classroom, you’ll have some fifth graders working on trigonometry and some reviewing basic arithmetic. The teacher no longer spends class time lecturing, but focuses instead on small-group interactions with students who need help. The students also teach each other. So every student is working at their own pace, and time is freed up in class to work on more open-ended projects. We think that even more than the student-to-teacher ratio, this is optimizing the student-to-valuable-time-with-the-teacher ratio.

This model we’re experimenting with gels with the best learning experiences I had in my own public school in Metairie, Louisiana. Whether it was being on the math team, the school paper, or the wrestling team, the teachers in those situations were more like mentors with whom you worked collaboratively to achieve personal and team goals. Teammates would help, too. Everybody was trying to get the best possible result, without that teacher versus student antagonism. That’s the way learning should happen.

You’re soon going to open a brick-and-mortar school?

I totally believe in brick-and-mortar schools, and I want my children to attend one, but with a very different environment and setup. Unfortunately, traditional schooling can be a dehumanizing experience. Students are sometimes belittled and frustrated, they’re not allowed to talk, interact, or be creative. You must move in lockstep, not at your own pace. There’s no allowance for students to engage in long-term, original projects, which I believe are an important way to learn. Most people think Khan will work for only 5 to 10 percent of students who are motivated, but I think 90 percent of students can be motivated.

So we’re planning to eventually open a model school in this area. Such a school requires rethinking a lot of things: Do you force kids away over the weekend or all summer? Shouldn’t it be a place that kids want to come to year-round? Because students are working at their own pace, do you have to separate them by age? Also, why have teachers teaching individually in separate classrooms, why not teach together in large collaborative spaces? If $10K or $15K a year is about what school districts spend per student, with the Khan Academy method, can you parlay that into a $150K or $200K salary for a teacher? If you could do that, it immediately professionalizes teaching to be on a par with medicine or law because in principle it’s at least as important to society.

Beyond brick and mortar, where is the Internet taking Khan Academy?

Via the Internet, today and even more so in the near future, we get a direct channel to the students of the world, which frankly is everybody regardless of age. Our goal is that with Khan Academy alone, a student in the poor parts of Calcutta, for instance, with Internet access—and with time, some access will be a reality everywhere in the world—that student can get a solid grounding in any subject. We are now being translated into 10 languages.

How do you see yourself? Entrepreneur? Disrupter? Innovator?

I and the rest of the team—we’re now about 20 total—try not to take ourselves too seriously. But yes, I suppose on some level, all of the above. We’re definitely trying to create something that hasn’t existed before, an influential, international institution that will be around in 200 or 300 years. We don’t want be just a cute website, but something that makes the content and the tools of a world-class education available to everyone, the way that clean drinking water and electricity are things that everyone should have in their lives. Even now, a student can have that experience for a few cents a day—we’re free, but the computer and bandwidth are a relatively small cost—and every year it’s getting exponentially cheaper.

In America’s public discourse, ignorance is often seen as a badge of authenticity. There’s skepticism about the scientific method, and there are anti-intellectual strains in different social strata. Is “disrupting” anti-learning cultural attitudes—in America and elsewhere—also something Khan Academy can and should try to do?

Yes, I think working to change such bias is well within our purview. Interestingly, someone told me there’s a US white supremacy group that loves Khan Academy, despite the apparent fact that I am not white. We’ve also heard that in the frontier regions of Pakistan, people are using Khan Academy. That’s because, despite whatever views they hold, parents everywhere think, “My kids should learn math, that’s good. I just won’t let them watch Sal’s video on evolution.” Both of those are groups of people whose kids don’t get proper exposure to the world and thus see it through a distorted lens. But when those kids get a direct connection to Khan Academy, they will not view the world the way their parents did.

I believe there is a hunger for deeper learning. On television, they’ll mention for 30 seconds that Greece might have to do an austerity program, and they’ll repeat it 100 times over the next week. Unfortunately, 99 percent of the viewers don’t know what an austerity program is, and 99 percent don’t understand what sovereign debt is or what it means to default on sovereign debt. I think Khan Academy can fill the gap between an esoteric, hard-to-read book and the “news,” which is sound bites and superficial. People are hungry for context and to understand the whys and the connections. I think we can play a huge role there.

What’s the business plan for Khan Academy?

Our number one objective is not to mess up a good thing, so we will definitely remain a not-for-profit, because it generates so much goodwill and signals to people that we are genuine about what we’re trying to do. We are contemplating a capital campaign that will give the academy the staying power and the ability to have a longer-term vision. One concern is finding a way financially to compete with the rest of Silicon Valley for talent, so we can retain top people for the long haul with attractive compensation.

Our total invested capital to date is equivalent to the budget of a small elementary school, and we’re reaching 4 million students a month. So the social return on capital is off the charts. I challenge anyone to find a more scalable model. Viewed through that lens, we hope the community realizes how valuable this is. We can rival the impact of a ministry of education or exceed it by orders of magnitude, with a budget that is orders of magnitude less than such a ministry or department of education would require.

So the financing question is an issue, but in Silicon Valley, if you reach 100 or 200 million people, there are going to be ways to pay the bills that do not conflict with our mission of providing a free world-class education to anyone, anywhere.

What has influenced your thinking in regard to Khan Academy?

I know this sounds dorky, but anyone who wants to better understand my long-term thinking and motivation for Khan Academy should read a couple of my favorite books: Foundation, by Isaac Asimov; Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card; and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain. In Foundation, actually a series of books, fast-forward into the future where a “psychohistorian,” who uses mathematical models to accurately predict large-scale movements of history, sees an oncoming dark age that will last 30,000 years. To shorten that dark age, he will create a foundation and collect the knowledge of the empire. In Ender’s Game, besieged by aliens it can’t communicate with, the human race seeks its best minds to lead the way against this existential threat, using an online system to identify and train young people so they can reach their full potential. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a man time-warped from the Industrial Revolution is able to elevate the thinking of a generation of young people in early medieval England.

And what will be Sal Khan’s story and legacy?

When I’m 80, I want to feel that I helped give billions of people around the world access to a truly first-rate education. That sounds a lot better than starting a business that educates some subset of the developed world and then eventually selling it off to somebody. I already have a beautiful wife, a hilarious son, an adorable daughter, two Hondas, and a decent house. What else does a man need?

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Sal Khan
Class of MBA 2003, Section D
follow @BeingSalmanKhan

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