October 28, 2011 10:05 pm

The man who knows everything

Salman Khan’s online academy has made him personal tutor to the planet, with more than 80 million YouTube views. He talks about a new model for education

On a humid Monday in late September, a wonky entrepreneur named Salman Khan visited New York City. Khan, a 35-year-old American of South Asian descent with bushy black hair and a nerdy affect, was in town to promote his Silicon Valley startup. He stayed at the London NYC, an upscale hotel just south of Central Park, and dined at Maze, the Gordon Ramsay restaurant off the lobby.

But that night, instead of seeing the sights or going out with friends, Khan holed up in his hotel room, fiddled with his laptop, and produced a series of amateurish videos about geometry. They are disarmingly simple – Khan’s deep voice talks over a black screen, where he draws shapes and writes out questions and equations in multiple colours. One, a six-minute clip called “Congruent triangle proof example”, shows a proof that a point on a line is the midpoint, using two triangles. Another, “Finding congruent triangles”, establishes why four related postulates are all equally reasonable. When he was finished, he uploaded them to YouTube and went to sleep.

A drawing by the Khan Academy that proves the congruent triangle theorem

'Congruent triangle proof example': a geometry lesson from Khan Academy

The five videos Khan uploaded that night added to more than 2,800 he had already posted to the web. Taken together, this corpus of scrappy YouTube clips makes up the heart, soul and intellectual capital of Khan Academy, the organisation Khan founded in 2006. The videos – on subjects ranging from the financial crisis to evolution – have been viewed more than 82 million times. They have become indispensable resources for students and teachers alike, drawn to Khan’s casual but authoritative instructions. Now they are being incorporated into the lesson plans at some California schools, and education experts say that fundamental assumptions about how children should be schooled are on the verge of being upended.

A quote from Salman Khan

“Our calcified system of learning is being enveloped by these new free and open resources,” says Tom Vander Ark, former head of education at the Gates Foundation and author of Getting Smart, a book about digital learning. “New technologies are being embraced, and in some cases they are rendering the old system obsolete. Only the people running old systems haven’t figured it out yet.”

As other young tech companies work to make our lives more social (Facebook), reinvent the music industry (Spotify), and offer unbeatable online deals (Groupon), Khan Academy has zeroed in on changing the way people learn. It is an area in dire need of attention. Public education in the US, once among the country’s greatest natural resources, is in a tailspin. State funding for schools is dwindling, and students in the US are now squarely average compared to their global peers.

“I’m concerned about the state of education everywhere. People dump on the public schools a lot, but I don’t think the private schools are doing much better,” Khan tells me. “It seems like we’re at an inflection point in history. This is the information revolution. It’s crazy that every other field is getting revolutionised except education. I think it’s ripe for it.”

. . .

Salman Khan didn’t set out to reform education. Growing up in New Orleans, he was an accomplished student, but harboured no ambitions to be a public figure or entrepreneur, and there were few signs that he would become the natural communicator he is today. “Early in my life there were two things I really liked. I really liked art and drawing and painting, and I really enjoyed mathematics,” he says. “I wasn’t a big fan of reading and I wasn’t a big fan of writing.”

Quote by Salman Khan

He went to Boston for university, and started hoovering up knowledge. He earned a double major in mathematics and electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a further advanced degree in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT and, after a few years in the working world, capped it off with a degree from Harvard Business School. After Harvard, he took a job with a hedge fund in Boston.

Then one day in 2004, when some relatives were visiting from New Orleans, he had an encounter that has become something like the founding legend of Khan Academy. His niece, Nadia, needed help with her maths homework. He tutored her while she was there, but she continued asking for his help once she was back home. He kept it up for nearly two years, teaching her over the phone. Soon other family members were asking Khan to instruct their children. It was rewarding, but inefficient to conduct so many remote sessions. So he turned to the web for a solution. Using the Yahoo Doodle programme, he began creating crude videos – his voice over a black screen with coloured drawings – to keep the lessons going. Nadia found that she liked the videos better than the live tutoring sessions because she could watch them multiple times and go at her own pace. In November 2006, he uploaded the first one to a relatively new website called YouTube.com.

“In an earlier time he would have been the uncle who was really great at explaining things, and it would have stopped there,” says Larry Berger, chief executive of Wireless Generation, the digital education company bought by News Corp last year for $360m. “Now it’s a global phenomenon.” The web allowed Khan, a gifted explainer, to become a personal tutor to the world.

His proximity to Silicon Valley has been instrumental in the success of Khan Academy, even if it wasn’t by design. “You see how things happen there, and you see these industries that are hugely important to society and you wonder why there’s not that innovation happening elsewhere.”

A Khan Academy diagram on 'Raising money for a startup'

'Raising money for a startup': from the tuition on venture capital and capital markets

In 2009 Khan joined the ranks of his entrepreneurial peers, quitting his job at the hedge fund and turning to Khan Academy full time. It was slow going at first. Though his following had grown organically on the web and he continued to produce several videos a day, he was self-financing Khan Academy and working with a shoestring staff.

But word of Khan’s gifts soon spread, and major donations began pouring in. Venture capitalist John Doerr and his wife donated $100,000. Microsoft founder Bill Gates took an interest and the Gates Foundation donated $1.5m, and has now committed $4m. Google contributed $2m. Netflix founder Reed Hastings gave $3m. Intuit co-founder Scott Cook gave $1m. Sean O’Sullivan, an Irish venture capitalist, has committed $5m. But big donations from tech moguls are not enough to explain Khan’s recent success. Despite the infusion of cash, the videos are as simple as ever, the format unchanged.

Khan has honed his ability to be concise, cheerful and encouraging, a potent mix that keeps viewers engaged, even when learning about rote subjects such as “Application problems with equation in one variable.” It’s not that the videos are the most succinct lessons on a given subject, and they are certainly not the most visually appealing. What he offers is genuine encouragement. He believes that just about anyone can learn just about anything, and his enthusiastic, conversational tone instils a good dose of confidence in viewers.

One of the opening frames of Khan Academy's lecture on light

From the opening frames of the 'Introduction to light'. 'It really defines our reality', says Khan

In his “Introduction to light” video, Khan launches into a 10-minute lesson in excited tones, speaking fast and sounding awed by the very words coming out of his mouth. “Light is, at least to me, it is mysterious,” he says. “Because on one level, it really defines our reality.”

Innate wonder is part of his appeal. “It’s almost obviously simple that the person speaking should sound interested, but it’s amazing how often people speaking sound uninterested,” he tells me. “If it’s cool, say it’s cool. Express an emotion. Students aren’t given the luxury of stepping back and appreciating, they’re too caught up in the stress of the next exam.”

While seemingly unscientific, his casual air can be a powerful teaching technique. “He prides himself on his informal nature and ability to step on his own words,” says Shelley Pasnik, director of the Center for Children and Technology. “That can be inviting to some students, the notion that learning is a process, not a conclusion. It’s funny to think about the generation of kids who are growing up with his voice in their heads.”

A quote from Salman Khan

Another factor in Khan’s success is the extraordinary fact that one man has such a solid grasp on such an array of subjects. For a sense of the full range of his knowledge, scroll down the homepage of KhanAcademy.org, where the videos are listed. What begins with “Simple Equations” under the heading “Algebra”, concludes far down the page with “Bankruptcy Restructuring” under the heading “Venture Capital and Capital Markets”.

Khan tells me that in order to prepare for a video, he reads as much as he can about a subject, everything from primary texts to the “idiot’s guides”. When he feels fluent, he’ll do the video. It may require a few takes, since he only posts a clip once he’s able to give the entire lesson in one go.

“People focus on the gifted explainer part,” says Berger. “But part of the appeal is the polymathic mastery issue. It’s nice to learn chemistry from someone who also seems to know his math and history and physics. Part of the fun is being able to dip into videos on such different topics taught from the same mind.”

A few weeks after we met, I emailed Khan and asked him how he got his head around so many different subjects at once. Instead of emailing back, or phoning, he posted an 18-minute video on YouTube answering all my questions. Typically, it features Khan’s voice talking over a black screen with my questions displayed. Within a day, thousands of people had watched it and there were dozens of comments, the most popular of which reads: “Khan for president!”

In the video reply, Khan says he learned to hone his broad curiosity by working in finance. “I learned a lot of this to some degree from my former job, working for an investment fund and analysing a bunch of different companies and a bunch of different industries,” he says. “The more topics you look at, the more that you see there are common underlying themes, and the more connections you are able to make, and the more you are able to have a philosophy of how the world works.”

. . .

Khan’s boundless curiosity, however, has begun to rile some academics. As he moves from maths and science to more nuanced and subjective topics in the humanities, there is growing concern that his lessons do not meet the rigorous standards of academia.

In an essay entitled “The Dangerous Mr Khan” on the website of a conservative academic group called the National Association of Scholars, David Clemens, a professor at Monterey Peninsula College, assails Khan’s brief treatments of the second world war and the Vietnam war. “Everything is a matter of viewpoint, perspective and cultural positioning, therefore nothing is essentially right or wrong, to be applauded or condemned,” Clemens writes. “Mr Khan stands exposed as possessing a historical perspective steeped in academia’s standard issue, postmodern, left-leaning narrative of cultural relativism, multiculturalism and moral equivalence.”

The one time I see Khan get testy is when I bring this up. He speaks even faster than usual, and says he is held accountable by his large and vocal audience, and often re-records videos to make them more accurate. Moreover, he says, “I have never had a history book that is not hugely biased. There’s A People’s History of the United States [the leftwing tome by Howard Zinn] and A Patriot’s History of the United States [a rightwing rebuttal]. History is the most biased field.”

Another concern for Clemens and others is that the same technology that gives Khan the power to be a good maths tutor for his niece also gives him vast and undeserved influence over impressionable minds. “Instead of the internet democratising information, it can fill our heads with whatever its algorithms decide our heads should be filled with,” Clemens writes. “Just as unnerving, internet distribution of Mr Khan’s videos can fill everyone’s heads with the same information in the same way, and that is just what he would like it to do.”

That one man with no formal training in education might be one of the most powerful educators on the planet is understandably a cause for some concern within the profession. “The charming comprehensiveness of it at some point could become too much,” says Berger.

But again Khan plays humble, downplaying his influence even as he heads towards 100 million views on YouTube. “You can go to a university that has many professors, but when you take intro to American History, you get only one source,” he says. “You’re getting that one professor. We think we can provide more voices than what is traditionally provided.”

Scrutiny of Khan Academy is growing more acute as it works its way into California classrooms. In a pilot programme with the Silicon Valley school district of Los Altos, students are watching Khan Academy videos to supplement a lesson on, say, geometry, and being encouraged to watch them at home. Then students work with the teacher and each other in class, to do problem sets and talk through the material together. This is a simple but profound reversal of the traditional model, in which students learn the basics in the classroom, then go home to grapple with the problems alone.

The so-called “flipped classroom” has become one of the hottest topics in education right now, thanks largely to Khan Academy. “He’s got a jump on this, and he’s aligned with this notion of the flipped classroom,” says Pasnik. “There’s definitely a lot of attention around it right now.”

But Khan wants to take it a step further. Khan Academy is also building a sophisticated testing system on its website that lets teachers track the progress of individual students. “It’s not just about the flip,” he told me over the phone. “It’s about every student learning at their own pace.” As he sees it, students in the same classroom can be doing work that spans several grade levels of curriculum, while a teacher tends to their needs one by one.

Should the flipped classroom and asynchronous learning catch on, the implications for the educational industry could be profound. Textbook providers, including Pearson, owner of the Financial Times, could lose out if they don’t act quickly to secure their place in 21st century classrooms, and homes. “For textbook providers, this is something they need to start paying attention to, because Sal is a lot better at explaining things than their books are,” says Berger. “Right now it’s a quirky island of knowledge that’s not yet affecting how schools spend money. But at some point there will be hard questions, and people will end up being on one side of the issue or the other.”

Given Khan Academy’s potential for creative destruction, it may not be long before the group has significant competition. “We’re really just at the beginning of this,” says Pasnik. “Every company is just beginning to think about the transformation of digital media and how their business models are changing. It wouldn’t take long for education companies to create viable rivals.”

Khan himself, however, has exhibited little impulse for money-making. Doerr has asked him to consider making Khan Academy a for-profit company, seeing in it the power to upend the multibillion-dollar education industry. Khan has declined, though he concedes that he is open to charging corporations if they are using his material for training purposes. “Being a not-for-profit is our secret weapon,” Khan tells me. “It keeps us focused on the right business strategy.”

The right strategy in Khan’s mind is one focused on building products that help students learn, rather than to generate revenues. “Other education startups go out there and cater to the test preparation market, or the school districts,” he says. “But we want to optimise learning. We want to make deep learning scalable. We’re going to be free forever.”

In this way, Khan is of a kind with Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, and Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia. Like those altruistic entrepreneurs, Mr Khan has foresworn the promise of immense riches, believing such overt commercialism would corrupt the integrity of his mission.

“About 10 years ago we passed this threshold in human history where anyone can learn anything anywhere for free or cheap,” says Vander Ark, the former Gates Foundation education head. “Wikipedia was symbolic of that new threshold. The rise of Khan Academy in the last 12 months is the next phase.”

Khan doesn’t shy away from the comparison. “We’re in the same spirit,” he says, taking time to defend Wikipedia, which has also come under fire for bias and outsized influence. “People have knee-jerk reactions about Wikipedia that I don’t think are fair, as if the encyclopedia was God-given fact.”

But just how much can one man change an industry? While Microsoft, Apple and Google all had charismatic founders, they also had teams of thousands working to perfect and sell their products. Khan is one guy making videos on a laptop.

“In the near term – if, God forbid, something happens to me – the videos will still teach,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for five or six years. Give me two and a half more years and you’ll see another 3,000 videos.” Others, too, say he heralds a new era of digitally minded educators. “There will be many more Khans in the coming years,” says Pasnik.

This would suit Khan just fine. Perhaps recognising his own limitations, Khan is recruiting other experts into the fold, starting with two art history professors. When I asked him why he seemed to be the only one distributing tutoring videos so effectively, he said he hoped Khan Academy would inspire other likeminded teachers. “I think there are more people out there,” he says. “Maybe we can find them, and they can even join the Khan Academy faculty.”

David Gelles is the FT’s US media and marketing correspondent

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