May 30, 2012
Khan's 'Academy' Sparks a Tech Revolution in Education
R. della Cava
VIEW, Calif. Most people don't wake up in the morning
thinking about how to best explain the financial collapse of
the Thai baht in the 1990s. But most people aren't Sal Khan.
It's not much past 9 a.m., and Khan, 36, founder of the online
educational non-profit Khan Academy, gets set to record his
3,081st video lecture in a small office with a view of air conditioning
"In 1997, you see, there was a devaluation of the Thai
currency," Khan says into a beefy microphone as he makes
crude sketches on his monitor.
If you want gleaming high-tech, go down the road to Google's
campus. If you're looking for a revolution, this is the right
Ever since quitting his job as a successful hedge-fund analyst
two years ago to dedicate himself full time to this labor of
love, Khan has managed to win fans worldwide and goad skeptical
His simply narrated, faceless home videos on everything from
algebra to French history have been viewed half a billion times.
Last year, a number of schools began "flipping" their
classrooms, having students study Khan videos by night and do
homework with teachers by day.
In the process, Khan has fueled the debate over tech's growing
influence on education while garnering the support of powerful
"At 3,000 lessons online, Sal's personal ability as a teacher
is remarkable," says Bill Gates, whose mention of Khan
Academy at a conference in Aspen, Colo., in 2010 put the website
on the map. "Bringing this kind of creativity and new assessment
tools for teachers could make a profoundly positive difference
Gates' enthusiasm is shared by Silicon Valley philanthropist
and Academy backer Ann Doerr, wife of renowned tech investor
John Doerr. "Sal imparts a sense of dignity; he assumes
each (viewer) is intelligent," says Doerr, who adds that
providing free access to knowledge that "allows students
to become empowered, drive their own education and test their
mettle just seems right."
Khan is taking that praise and sprinting with it.
Where he once was an army of one, the staff has been ramped
up to 32, including the recent high-profile addition of Google's
first hired employee, programming ace Craig Silverstein. The
staff's immediate mission is to further broaden the site's content
and improve assessment and feedback features so the Khan Academy
experience becomes more interactive.
"We have 6 million visitors a month, so we think that students
helping each other is the future," Khan says. "That
community can become as popular as the videos themselves. It'll
be like having free private tutors in the cloud."
Next up: Camp Khan
Khan's plans are no less ambitious on the ground. This summer,
he'll launch the first Khan Academy Discovery Lab in Palo Alto,
Calif., a small, project-based summer camp "that's like
a lab for us, so we can learn more about how kids learn,"
he says. If it's a hit, the labs will expand nationwide next
And after, perhaps a bricks-and-mortar Khan Academy. "I
wouldn't want to be the headmaster of such a place per se, because
I want to work on stuff that scales," he says. "But
it's a cool idea. A place where teachers make what an engineer
would make, where the ideas we have can be on display."
Those ideas have caused friction in the education community.
Though critiques vary, most hinge on the inference that classroom-based
teachers aren't as important as we thought.
"If a teacher is just lecturing like a computer might,
maybe that teacher should be replaced. But the truth is, most
teachers don't just drone on, they educate," says Frank
Noschese, a physics teacher at John Jay High in Cross River,
N.Y., whose personal website dedicates a tab to Khan Academy
"Some teachers are getting pressure from their administrators
to flip their classrooms, but it might not be the right thing
for them," Noschese says. "When I first learned about
the site, I eagerly e-mailed it around, saying it could be a
useful tool. But now all of sudden it's supposed to be reforming
That bandwagon phenomenon is at the root of the grumbling, says
Kevin Bushweller, executive editor of Education Week Digital
"Khan's timing is perfect, because students and parents
are living in the age of YouTube, where video watching is routine,"
he says. "Certainly schools need to evaluate what's best
for their kids and curriculum. That said, technology is here,
and doing the same old thing just won't work."
Suney Park agrees. The sixth-grade math teacher at Eastside
College Prep in nearby East Palo Alto recently flipped her classroom
using Khan Academy videos, and now feels liberated. "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," Park says.
"I couldn't go back to the regular way of teaching."
Voice behind the videos
Love it or hate it, Khan Academy is part of a looming tech-education
iceberg, says Victor Hu, head of education technology and services
for Goldman Sachs. He says that from 2002 to 2006, venture capital
firms put $300 million into about 50 tech-ed deals; since 2007,
$2 billion has gone into 230 deals.
"Technology is doing to education what it's done to countless
other industries: disrupting it," Hu says. "Where
education once was static, bound to a textbook, now it's moving
to a global, interdisciplinary model."
But even Hu is impressed by Khan's rapid and improbable success.
"To go from making videos for your cousins to promoting
a new model for education in a few short years is amazing,"
he says. "But it's also the best thing that can happen
to this space. It needs more smart people who care."
By any yardstick, Khan is both. Raised by a single mother in
suburban New Orleans, Khan attended a local public school, where
"we had smart kids, and we had metal detectors."
He was one of the smart ones, eventually not only captaining
the math team but also taking graduate-level mathematics courses
at the University of New Orleans. Massachusetts Institute of
Technology offered him a scholarship, and four years later,
he graduated with two bachelor's degrees and one master's in
computer science and math.
"Being a bit crazy intellectually is normal here, and that
characterizes Sal," says Anant Agarwal, an early Khan mentor
at MIT who now is president of edX, a newly formed non-profit
online-education partnership between MIT and Harvard.
"Sal and I have our debates, but we agree that adding a
tech dimension to education will have a huge impact worldwide,"
says Agarwal, whose edX project is echoed by news that Stanford,
Princeton, the University of Michigan and the University of
Pennsylvania have partnered with Coursera.org to offer classes
"What makes Sal's videos particularly engaging is just
his personality," Agarwal says. "It's his voice. You
feel like he's there next to you, explaining things."
But Khan's almost laid-back delivery belies a fierce drive.
"Besides having a great sense of humor, Sal is also very
intense and dedicated," says Shantanu Sinha, who met Khan
in high school, roomed with him at MIT and now is Khan Academy's
president and COO.
Sinha recalls walking miles in the snow with Khan so the two
could tutor gifted children nearby. "He became that focused
with his videos," he says. "Heck, he was that focused
when he went looking for a wife."
Khan found one, rheumatologist Umaima Marvi, during his time
at Harvard Business School, which he attended after an ill-fated
foray into the dot-com space at the turn of the millennium.
The couple have two children, a 3-year-old boy and a 10-month-old
If Khan is pushing his academy for anyone, it would seem to
be for that next generation. He got off a hedge-fund track that
was promising high-seven-figure payoffs so he could pilot this
startup, one he is particularly thrilled offers no lure of stock
options and instant riches.
"I saw firsthand what that did to people (during the dot-com
years), and it was ugly," he says. "Sometimes people
in Silicon Valley are a bit confused, 'Oh, you're not for profit?'
But the core ethos of the valley isn't to buy a Bentley. It's
to innovate, do well, and then help the next generation innovate.
So we're just part of that."
Khan says he has had no problems luring top talent, and Silverstein's
decision to come on board last fall is a case in point. "At
first I just thought I'd donate some money, but then I thought
it'd be better to donate my time," says Silverstein, whose
job is to help other new engineers make the site's user experience
more intuitive, something he pioneered at Google.
"Search was a bit like where we're at with Khan Academy.
There was a lot out there, and it was just a matter of helping
people find what they needed fast," he says. "Who
knows where this will go? But helping people learn things is
a nice challenge to have."
An argument with oomph
Back in his small office, Khan is holding forth OK,
call it lecturing on why a college degree may not mean
what it used to.
It's full of reasoned examples ("College must give you
a job? Well, no, a computer science degree from Berkeley will
give you a job, but you go some random place, it's not clear
what will happen to you") and makes a simple point (create
globally recognized tests that define mastery, which ignores
whether the student had come upon that knowledge at Oxford or
by sitting in his basement watching videos).
Yet what's most fun is watching Khan make his argument. As with
his faceless videos, he is engaging for some indefinable yet
undeniable reason. But what if Khan stops making those videos?
Will folks keep watching?
"We're letting others in now," says Khan, noting that
Stanford will soon put medical classes on his website. "But
hopefully they realize from what I've done that it can't be
a professor at a whiteboard with PowerPoint. It has to be bite-size
and conversational, and no faces."
Khan swivels in his desk chair, then grins broadly.
"When I started, you wouldn't have imagined that some crazy
dude in a closet making videos would help lead this charge.
But my mission is to have every precocious 13-year-old in the
world have access to every bit of information they could ever
In other words, his target is the 13-year-old version of Salman
Amin "Sal" Khan.