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Q&A with Salman Khan

An amateur teacher who rocketed to fame on the Internet tells us how he’ll take his free video tutorials to the next level.
November 7, 2012

What kind of crazy teacher would put high-school math on a site known for cat videos?

Everyone’s tutor: Alexander the Great had Aristotle. The rest of us have Salman Khan.

In his new book, The One World School House: Education Reimagined, Salman Khan recalls how, eight years ago, he uploaded his first mathematics tutorial to YouTube. “I had no preconceived notions about how people learned; I was constrained by no orthodoxy regarding the ‘right’ way to do things,” he writes.

Today, Khan’s throw-out-the-rules message has turned him into a pedagogical star. CNN and Charlie Rose have called him to explain where education is headed, and his nonprofit Khan Academy, in Mountain View, California, is rapidly branching out from videos into educational software.

Khan’s book retells details now familiar to anyone who has followed his sudden rise. Beginning when he wanted to help his 12-year-old cousin Nadia pass a math test, Khan ended up recording more than 3,000 videos explaining long division, plate tectonics, and much more (they’ve been viewed 204 million times). He was soon discovered by wealthy philanthropists like Bill Gates, who’ve showered the Khan Academy with $16.5 million in gifts.

One World School House is partly a hymnal for future donors, in which Khan gamely plugs a riches-to-rags storyline. A Louisiana native, he was president of his MIT class, earned an MBA at Harvard, and later made a tidy sum working at a hedge fund. But he gave up all that when he discovered his true calling as an online teacher. (His first big contributor, the wife of powerful venture capitalist John Doerr, was moved to write him a $100,000 check when she discovered he was living “off of savings.”)

The rest of the book is an erudite and accessible call to reorganize education. In much of the developed world, Khan writes, schools use a top-down teaching model first developed in Prussia, a Germanic kingdom known for “stiff whiskers, stiff hats, and stiff way of marching in lockstep.” Students must march ahead even if they haven’t understood what came before. Eventually, some stumble and tune out.

Khan’s big idea is that using online technology for lessons, quizzes, and constant assessment will create an affordable way to implement a different teaching ideal known as “mastery learning.” Everyone advances at his or her own pace. Don’t try algebra until you know your arithmetic. Spend less time in lectures and more in hands-on problem solving.

MIT Technology Review spoke with Khan by telephone.

Khan Academy says it intends to “provide a free world-class education to anyone anywhere.” That’s a big goal. How did you come up with it?

When I first filled out the IRS paperwork in 2007 to get not-for-profit status, that is what I filled in where it said “mission.” At that point, I had made a few hundred YouTube videos. So it was more of an aspiration. It’s definitely our mission now, and it’s kind of emerged as a slogan as well. It’s core to our belief that there shouldn’t be any barriers to experiencing the learning part of education.

Can we dig into the slogan a little? Because nothing is really “free.” Someone has to pay for it.

For us, free really means free. So far it’s been donors who have paid for it. Over the longer term, we think there will be ways to get other revenue that doesn’t conflict with the “free” part. We’ve learned from what’s happened at the Children’s Television Workshop—the people who make Sesame Street. They offer their learning for free but have obviously done very well. I don’t know if Sal dolls will do as well as Elmo dolls, but the general notion is out there.

We were inadvertently—and now more explicitly—building a brand in a space where there are very few brands. As time goes on, if people say, “Hey, we trust the Khan Academy. That is where we go to make sure that we understand things,” I could see third-party toys or books. Something we’ve already started to do is license our content to for-profit companies. There’s one that plans to sell devices into the education market that will include the video part of what we do.

There are people offering college courses for free. Do you see a model for paying for that?

Here’s what I think it could look like in five years: the learning side will be free, but if and when you want to prove what you know, and get a credential, you would go to a proctoring center [for an exam]. And that would cost something. Let’s say it costs $100 to administer that exam. I could see charging $150 for it. And then you have a $50 margin that you can reinvest on the free-learning side.

I think that is consistent with the mission. You are taking the cost of the credential down from thousands of dollars to hundreds of dollars. And the [software] system would tell them they are ready for it. So no paying tuition for community college and then dropping out, or even finishing the whole thing and saying “Oh, I’m $20,000 in debt and what did I get out of it?”

Now you are like, “Look, there is this micro-credential in basic accounting I can get for $150, and I basically know I am going to pass before I invest that money.” That would be a huge positive for the consumers of education, and it could pay the bills on the learning side.

Can you define what you mean by a “world-class” education?

“World-class” is probably the hardest to define. The aspiration is not [to create] a cheap alternative for those who can’t afford anything else. We really want it to be as good or better than anything anyone is charging money for. When people watch our videos, we want them to say, “I’ve learned just as much as I might have doing anything else.”

But here is also where our mission gets a little more into the physical. We are a website on one level, but we’ve been getting into this broader discussion about “What is a classroom? What is the best use of a classroom?” Half of what I talk about isn’t Khan Academy the software; it’s the general idea that no one should be giving lectures anymore. The idea is to move the lectures out of the way, so when humans get together in class they can be doing problem-solving.

You’ve become the world’s most talked-about educator. But you’re not even trained as a teacher. That has upset some people, hasn’t it?

Look, pedagogy is a lot like economics. I can find two education PhDs who are in 180-degree opposition. It’s just like Keynesians versus the Chicago school of economics. You can see it in the debate over New Math versus the old math. The math wars have been raging for decades. They hate each other. They shout at each other. We try not to be dogmatic about it.

A lot of the criticism I have [gotten] is “There is no such thing as a silver bullet. The Khan Academy is not going to solve education’s problems.” And we agree with that 100 percent. At the same time, we think we’re at the very top of the first inning. Over the next five years we are going to be investing heavily, more than anyone, in analytics that give you a dynamic assessment. What does a student know? What does a student not know? How effective is the tutorial? That is what is exciting. That is the possibility of doing experimentation at Internet speed with Internet scales of data. So what you see today at Khan Academy is a very crude approximation of where we’ll be in five or 10 years. And even that won’t be the silver bullet. But we’ll be moving in the right direction.

In your mission statement, you talk about education for “anyone.” You don’t say “everyone.” What have you learned about the real demand for knowledge?

I don’t think I thought that deeply about it when I wrote it. When I started this, I thought this might be interesting for people like me when I was 12 years old—fairly motivated. And who knows how large a class of people that is. Most sites for the motivated have tens of thousands of users, if that.
We are close to 6.5 million unique users per month. But if you look at the engagement—who is really ultra-into this and spending a lot of time with the videos—well, it’s a couple of hundred thousand.

My big takeaway, and we see this in classrooms, is that who is motivated and who can engage is a much bigger group than we originally thought. The core reason for students disengaging is that they are frustrated. They’re in algebra class but don’t have a good foundation in pre-algebra or arithmetic. It’s going straight by their heads. So they’re acting up in the back of the room. I think that is what is happening universally.

What is the biggest pressure being placed on you that runs counter to your mission?

That goes back to question number one, the free part. I have to raise resources for this effort. And if I am doing that, then I am not directly making the videos, or helping the team with the product. A lot of nonprofit heads are money raisers. That’s not me, but I do it anyway. So that’s a tension. Our budget will be $10 million next year and we pay people well. But we’re also not giving stock options. People who work here need to feel that we are going to be sticking around. I am trying to get us that runway.

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