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How Sal Khan is exorcising the math spectre from the minds of millions of students worldwide

Khan Academy has built a team and created a video database of over 3200 videos spanning subjects from math to science, economics, finance, history and art.

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Aug 10, 2012, 12.27 AM IST
Students can even take exercises to perfect their understanding of a topic and monitor their progress on a dashboard.
Students can even take exercises to perfect their understanding of a topic and monitor their progress on a dashboard.
When his cousin Nadia started having some trouble with math eight years ago, Boston-based hedge fund analyst Salman ‘Sal’ Khan was only too glad to help. Since she was based in New Orleans, Sal used Yahoo!’s interactive Doodle notepad and a telephone to tutor her after work hours.

And when Nadia began doing better at school, Sal began tutoring his other cousins and family members. By 2006, he moved on to creating and uploading mini-lectures on YouTube to save time. The overwhelming response he received over the next three years made Sal realise that his Khan Academy, by then registered as a non-profit entity, was taking over his life — and that he was enjoying it so much, he wanted to quit his job and do it full time.

With generous contributions from Google and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation among others, Khan Academy has built a team and created a video database of over 3200 videos spanning subjects from math to science, economics, finance, history and art. Students can even take exercises to perfect their understanding of a topic and monitor their progress on a dashboard.

It’s all free and it’s all based on the concept of mastery-based self learning, a concept most schools and educators still don’t get very well. And while he’s a celebrity of sorts in the US, he admits some people from the subcontinent still confuse him with a certain muscled Bollywood actor. But Sal doesn’t mind — after all, many of the former’s fans end up on Khan Academy’s site. Excerpts from Sal’s interview with CD:

As an Asian kid growing up in New Orleans, was there a lot of pressure on you to excel academically?

Well, after my parents’ divorce in the early seventies, I grew up with my mother who wasn’t super educated herself. But there were a lot of kids from the subcontinent in the neighbourhood, many of whom were academic achievers. So my sister and I grew up around them and both of us did well in school. I particularly took a liking to math and science and won a lot of math competitions.

Once, I told my uncle that I wanted to study engineering and he casually said ‘Go to MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology)’. And indeed, I ended up going there. While we were far from well-off — my mother was making about $16,000 a year at the time — the good thing about American schools, especially the more established ones, is that they give you whatever aid you need. I also took about $40,000 in loans.

You’ve always been a critic of the conventional learning system...

Because studies show that everyone learns at a different pace. Some kids grasp a subject faster and race ahead to the next level, while others continue to struggle with the first. The great thing we’ve seen is that if you let a student take his time to master a concept; he will probably race ahead on the next one. But all the kids are tested at the same time.

And when someone does badly, they get poor marks and are tagged as slow learners. I guess if resources were no constraint everyone would have a private tutor to keep challenging and pushing them individually. Realistically that’s not possible. And technology is changing that to some extent, but there’s a long way to go.

When did you suspect that the Academy was getting big enough for you to leave your hedge fund analyst job?

I’d set up the Khan Academy as a not-for-profit in 2008, but I was doing well in my job and initially thought I could fund the Academy myself. But by 2009, I was getting so much good feedback that I told my wife that I wanted to do this full time. We had some funds to fall back on and I knew doing this made me happy.

Distance tutoring over a mass medium wasn’t a new idea even when you started Khan Academy... so what then made it click?

I agree, it’s an incredibly old idea. When the radio and TV were invented, people said these platforms could be used for tutoring. During the early days of the PC, people said the same thing. Even when I started, it was an incredibly crowded space and in hindsight, craftsmanship and execution was really what made the difference. We clearly struck a chord and were able to reach a scale because of that.

What was the turning point in Khan Academy’s existence?

After I had been out of a job for nine months, I had begun to dig into my savings at the rate of 4000 to 5000 dollars a month. Though five and ten dollar contributions were coming, it wasn’t enough. And I was beginning to question myself — should I go back to work? Around that time, I met (philanthropist) Ann Doerr who had contributed $10,000 to the academy, to thank her in person. By the time I got home from the meeting, I was in for a shock — Ann had wired another $100,000 to me and said that she wanted me to do this for a living. Far more important than the money, was the fact that Ann and her husband John are highly respected in the Valley and their support was a big validation.

How successful has the Academy been in the classroom context?

We have tied up with many schools and every school uses it differently. Sometimes kids are assigned videos as homework, at other times they do it during class hours and their teachers help them with their doubts. Sometimes, the students tutor each other. Teachers get the benefit of data on who’s been spending how much time on a particular subject and who needs help. However, exams are still administered at a fixed pace. That’s because letting kids take exams as and when they’re ready is very hard to implement.

Why does India produce so few employable graduates?

My sense is that it’s not because of lack of subject expertise, but of soft skills, which are difficult to teach. In a good American classroom, students actively study the humanities. The real world doesn’t need a lot of deep knowledge. Education has to be more than tests and formulas.

Are you surprised that so many people left great careers to join you?

Yeah, because conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley says that if you want to attract good talent, you have to be the next Facebook or Google and offer stock options to employees. But there are studies that say that as long as you pay people enough so that they don’t worry about money, it’s more important to give them a mission. So we pay our people upper quartile salaries, but we also offer them the chance to affect many kids’ futures.

Now that you’ve got scale, what are the big challenges you face?

For me personally, it’s finding time. When I was jobless, I spent a good 8 hours a day creating content. Today, I am lucky if I can find 2-3 hours. And on the technical side, it’s about making content cohesive and making it easier and faster to find content, and assess oneself on one’s learning. We are also trying to integrate other resources with the Khan Academy.

For example, we are talking to the Stanford Medical School to create content. Have you measured your user demographics? We get about 3.6 million unique visitors every month. About 60% of those are male and 60% are from North America. We get also a lot of visitors from India, who probably landed on our site because they were searching Google for the other Salman Khan (chuckles).

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