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Turning Learning Upside Down the Khan Way

July 26, 2020


Salman Khan was working as an analyst at a hedge-fund in Boston in 2006. Being a bit of a math whiz (with four degrees from MIT and Harvard) he had been tutoring family members and relatives. He had an idea and started putting up tutorial videos on You Tube to make learning more flexible for his students.

His cousins said they liked Khan better on You Tube than in person. Rather than being offended, Khan thought this made a lot of sense. For instance, his cousins could repeat their lessons or re-watch the videos at their leisure.

Now 44 years-old, Khan didn’t make the videos private; people started discovering his web site. He notes that one comment from someone who had done his calculus tutorial was “…the first time I smiled doing a derivative.” Another person talked about the “natural high” they had for the rest of the day after doing a tutorial.

The more feedback he received, such as the letter from the mother whose son suffered from autism and who benefited hugely from Khan’s tutorials, propelled him forward to keep adding content and broadening his audience. He thought about the timelessness of his website’s content. His efforts were further supported by teachers who encouraged him to continue, saying it flipped on its head the concept of the traditional classroom. Khan’s technology was helping to humanize the classroom, which seemed like a non-intuitive approach to formal learning.

What’s amusing about Khan’s early online tutoring was his primitive office setup, consisting of a small desk squeezed into his bedroom closet. His headquarters, to use the word loosely, is now crammed into several rooms inside an old office building in Mountain View, California. There’s nothing physically glamorous about the Khan Academy.

The best things typically start small, growing organically as the creator learns from and adapts to mistakes and feedback. When new opportunities present themselves the creator seizes them and continues to move forward without slowing down.

Khan 2Salman Khan, who quit his hedge-fund analyst job in 2010 to devote himself full-time to the Khan Academy, never had a “vision” for what has become a global learning portal, free to all citizens regardless of country. However, his curiosity to explore, strong desire to help others learn and a high degree of humility has produced a leader who has received the support of Google and Bill Gates, among others.

The Khan Academy was established as a non-profit organization in 2008. The web portal contains some 100,000 practice exercises, 5,000 instructional videos, and has over 10 million unique students every month, delivering over 300 million lessons. Over one billion exercises have been completed. By the end of 2019, his videos on YouTube had been viewed 1.7 billion times. Subjects have broadened beyond mathematics to include history and political science in what one might call the world’s largest classroom.

During the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the Khan Academy has proven to be a trusted source of online learning for children from the age of two to 18.

Take a moment to watch Khan speak at a TED conference in March 2011 on the topic of using video to reinvent education.

Salman Khan was one of the winners of The Economist’s 2013 Innovation Awards. And it’s not surprising why he earned it, considering the massive impact his efforts have had in the span of only a few years in promoting learning around the world.

This story is a lesson in starting small, with an idea, and letting it grow without trying to manipulate it. Ideas often die, for various reasons. However, they often take off unexpectedly and with unexpected results. The key is to provide the necessary leadership to guide its growth, adapting along the way.

I had my doubts, but now I feel like the conductor of an orchestra, and if I have to tell the violins to go on with their stuff while I help the brass catch up, I can do it. I couldn’t go back to the regular way of teaching.
– Suney Park (sixth-grade math teacher, East Palo Alto) on the Khan Academy

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