How Sal Khan Hopes to Remake Education

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Salman Khan is not afraid to make mistakes in his popular teaching videos. In fact, he considers them a feature. “I’ll giggle every now and then because I make a mistake, which I think students say, “OK, it’s OK to make mistakes and it’s OK to giggle while doing…

Salman Khan is not afraid to make mistakes in his popular teaching videos. In fact, he considers them a feature.

"I’ll giggle every now and then because I make a mistake, which I think students say, "OK, it’s OK to make mistakes and it’s OK to giggle while doing mathematics," he says. "And it seems like a small thing. But when was the last time you giggled, you know, while doing a math problem?"

He’s the founder of Khan Academy, which has grown from something like a hobby, when he recorded videos in his walk-in closet, to a thriving nonprofit organization with more than twenty million registered students. Those videos are now one small part of a mission to remake education.

The New Education Landscape

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Re:Learning project provides stories and analysis about this change moment for learning.

Here is an edited transcript of Mr. Khan’s conversation with The Chronicle.

Jeff Young: Hello and welcome to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Re:Learning podcast. I’m Jeff Young, an editor here.

Many people think of Sal Khan as that educational video guy — and he has produced thousands of videos — but Khan Academy has grown now into a force. It has software that can quiz folks who’ve taken these videos. It has issued badges to folks to prove that they’ve done it. And, more important, Khan Academy represents a philosophy. Sal Khan is pushing this idea of mastery learning where students shouldn’t move on to the next thing unless they really grasp the concepts that have come before, especially in areas like math, the idea that he’s trying to patch over an educational system he sees as flawed and moving people through too quickly.

I sat down with Sal Khan just after his recent talk at SXSWedu in Austin to talk about his vision and about what he thinks the university of the future should look like.

Sal Khan came to education as an outsider. He spent most of his career, in fact, as a financial analyst at a hedge fund. He made his first teaching videos to help his cousins with their math homework, so he sort of stumbled into all of this; and those are just essentially him narrating as viewers see him working out problems on a whiteboard or drawing sketches. As he added more videos, he eventually decided to turn it into a nonprofit, and it came to the attention of Bill Gates, who became a backer. Anyway, the materials, the vibe feels very different than anything students typically see in a classroom. They’re more informal and often irreverent. Some of the trackers online have even complained that these videos aren’t formal enough or careful enough in their presentation. And yet at Sal Khan’s talk at SXSWedu, he said he’s inspired to make Khan Academy a world-class institution. How does he square those two things?

Sal Khan: Maybe when a lot of people think world-class, they think of, you know, bronze-plated pillars and, you know, kind of a very stoic type of style and all that. But when we say world-class, we just mean it should be the best in the world. It should be the best that students get access to. The style that I started off with — and this won’t, you know, as we bring other people on at Khan Academy they all kind of have their own style — but it is one of enjoying the material. You know, when I make a video, I genuinely am enjoying that. I’m genuinely — my sense of wonder is engaged. I’ll giggle every now and then because I make a mistake, which I think students say, "OK, it’s OK to make mistakes, and it’s OK to giggle while doing mathematics, and it seems like a small thing. But when was the last time you giggled, you know, while doing a math problem?"

Jeff Young: Sure, sure.

Sal Khan: I think that one thing that I hold very dear is, you know, even when I was starting with my cousins 10 years ago, over 10 years ago now.

Jeff Young: Wow.

Sal Khan: A lot of them were A students, but they had these fundamental gaps in their knowledge.

Jeff Young: Right.

Sal Khan: For them, math and science and actually most things were these disjointed formulas that they never saw the connection between. What led me to do well in math through high school and college and beyond was that — and even to be able to still remember all my math when I’m in my 30s and now soon to be 40s — is that it was very intuitive. It all kind of connected. And so what I initially wanted to give my cousins is that connection. Look, you don’t have to memorize that other formula. That’s just a rearrangement of that thing that you learned before, and even that you don’t have to memorize. That comes out of common sense.

There’s that thread throughout Khan Academy, and I think that’s what a lot of students enjoy. That, OK, this isn’t magic formulas coming out of anywhere. This is about really understanding what we’re doing, really understanding what this math or this science has to say about the universe. I mean, sometimes I have moments in videos where I’m just in awe. I’m just in awe of what we’ve just observed or learned about, and I think it’s that, you know, just being in the same room or the same video with someone who’s literally in awe, and you can’t fake that, I think hopefully inspires students, too.

Jeff Young: One of the most intriguing things Sal Khan has done recently is set up a brick-and-mortar school. That’s a far cry from making videos. It’s call the Khan Lab School. So far it serves only kindergarten through eighth grade. Sal Khan actually sends one of his own kids there. But it made me wonder: If he started a college, what would that look like?

Sal Khan: I’d start a college and I would have to say, in full disclosure, I’ve had some of these conversations. There are some people who are interested, so —

Jeff Young: I’m not surprised.

Sal Khan: I’d make a college that focuses on some really high-need areas in the world today. You know, you could talk about tech, you could talk about finance, you could talk about design. When I say that, people might immediately start to say, "OK, this is going to be some type of a vocational school, very narrow, not make it kind of the worldly type of students that we want," but you imagine bringing — say you start a school like this in Silicon Valley. The students have all of the good things that we all remember about college. They have the quad, the dorms, the student centers, the clubs. They have seminars about everything that is intellectually interesting, philosophy, great literature. It’s all fair game. But a lot of their time, their days are not spent in these 300-person lecture halls taking notes, trying to take exams on things that will have very little relevance to what they will eventually do or, even if it does, they’ll forget.

Instead they should be out in the field doing things — and that doing things, it could be interning at a Google or a Khan Academy. It could be doing research at a local, it could be at another university or at a pharma company. It could be working with a tech incubator or a business incubator and trying to start or innovate something new. It could be getting mentored by a great writer, kind of in an apprentice system and you’re trying to learn how to write similar types of novels.

Jeff Young: Sure.

Sal Khan: Or an apprentice painter, artist, whatever it is, and so you do that, not necessarily for four years. I always joke this four-year time bound is a pretty arbitrary thing. It’s like someone decided, "OK, we’re going to keep them here for four years. Let’s see how we can fill it up regardless of whether you’re a computer-science major or you are an art-history major. I think what these students graduate with, what they do in this environment is, yes, they could take some exams that show their competency in certain core skills. That would be done at the student’s own time and pace. They say, "Hey, you know what? I know signal processing good enough to take that exam. They’re going to administer that exam in a month. I’m going to take it then," but the core of what they do is they create their portfolios.

Jeff Young: Yep.

Sal Khan: They create their portfolios, not just in their specialty — which if it’s in software, might be creative-writing software programs or robotics — but it’s well beyond their specialty, their portfolio of writing, their portfolio of creative art projects, their portfolio of speeches they’ve given. When they graduate, instead of saying, "Hey, I have a magna cum laude GPA, blah, blah, blah, blah in this major," you’ll say, "Here’s my portfolio," and your portfolio is going to be one-third just of really well created things that you’re most proud of. There will be some assessment of what are the academic concepts that you’ve truly mastered.

Jeff Young: Sure.

Sal Khan: Then there will be some narratives, some pure feedback from the people that you have worked with, from your professors, from the other students. Some of it might be commentary on a narrative on your portfolios, but a lot of it could be commentary on, "Well, what was it like to work with this person?"

Jeff Young: On a scale of 1 to 10, how serious do you think it’s possible that you might do something like that someday?

Sal Khan: I don’t know if I’m going to do it, but I think one of these universities are going to exist in the next 10 years.

Jeff Young: Did you hear there’s this MIT dean, Christine Ortiz?

Sal Khan: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, I know her, yeah. She’s starting a new university, and, you know, I personally think that this university, in order for it not just be a one-off kind of quirky college, I think it has to be so compelling-

Jeff Young: Yep.

Sal Khan: That it’s taking students from Harvard, it is taking students from MIT, that the value proposition has to be — and when I say that, it isn’t just so that this thing only serves a small number of elite students — because if it can take, if the model can pull students from schools that have these incredible brands, and reputations, and multiyear, 100-year histories and kind of networks and all of that, if you can, then it sends a shock wave through the entire system that this is the model that we should try to emulate.

Jeff Young: Why do you think it’s going to take a shock wave for that to happen? If you think some of these changes are, you know, when you listen to your presentations, often you have this sort of common-sense kind of tone here. Why do you think traditional colleges aren’t going ahead and doing this?

Sal Khan: Well, you know, there’s just a, there’s tradition. There’s the way things have always been done, and I think universities are infamous. You know the joke, they have 2,000 CEOs. Some of the beauty of a university is that every professor is given a lot of autonomy over what he or she does. That’s also what makes it very hard for even a very forward-thinking president to change courses. I think the place, the best way for change to happen is for strong catalysts from the outside, and if some of these universities start saying, "We just, we’re losing some great students to that thing over there." By the way, that thing over there — since those students are interning, and they’re out in the real world, and they’re actually not ending up with debt, they’re ending up with savings.

Jeff Young: You know, there’s this book that came out about the history of the cubicle, which seems quite random, right? But the history was this utopian vision of, like, every person would get their own personalized — they would be able to make it their own, and it was this beautiful, artistic idea. But the way it was implemented by companies was to make it standardized and make every cubicle identical. Do you ever worry that by this beautiful resource you’ve created, well-intentioned, could lead to a world in which, world-class as it may be, that might be the only thing a lot of people end up getting? Or that kind of style of education of very — may be very good, but interactive software and videos versus an elite who get the in-person, and that it almost might exacerbate a trend that’s not your fault but that is in the world beyond your control?

Sal Khan: You know that, in theory, is possible, but everything we talk about is the exact opposite. Whenever we talk — I mean, in my book, One World School House, we’re not talking about what a school of the future is or a university of the future. I talk about large, open spaces, potentially even outside, where the students are working with each other. Even if they’re working on Khan Academy, Khan Academy is facilitating them to help each other. When they’re not doing their core skills on something like Khan Academy, they’re doing big, open-ended projects. They’re outside for significant parts of the day, and that’s actually one of our core design principles. They’re building these social, emotional skills.

The lab school that we’ve created, you know a lot of people think, "Oh, Khan Academy, Khan Lab School, it’s going to be these kids on a computer." Yeah, they use computers, but these kids are — I would put this school against almost any other school in terms of how much interactivity they’re getting with other human beings in terms of how much time they get outside, in terms of how much time they get to be creative and take ownership over what they want to learn. And so, yeah, I mean, I definitely appreciate how good intentions can go wrong. But our view on what schools should look like are virtual. That’s a tool, and it can do great things to personalize whatever else, but the real beauty is how do we leverage those tools to get humans to interact with each other more and give them flexibility to do more interesting things? Get off — you know, the school should just be their base. Get out of there. Go on field trips. Visit the beach. Have class on beach. Do Khan Academy on the beach. You know, visit the museum, go do some research, whatever else it might be.

Jeff Young: Do you ever just think like, "What have I done?" like this is a big responsibility you’ve created?

Sal Khan: Yeah, yeah. It hits you every now and then. Well, you just can’t screw up. That’s our, you know, all of this stuff, it’s good. I mean, you know we’re doing it, but they’re so — like, the last five years have been important. You know, I tell people that Khan Academy 1.0 was me in the closet for five years. Khan Academy 2.0 was the last five years. We’re a real organization. We’re doing real things now, some of it already very substantive, but then the next five years is our chance to like, you know, I would hope in 2025 people will be like, "Yeah, Khan Academy, that’s a major institution," like what would the world be like without it? Like, that’s, you know, that’s kind of the aspiration. But we’ll see.

Jeff Young: If he’s right that it will take new outside players coming in and showing new ways of doing things in education, then Sal Khan and his Khan Academy have become one of those outside forces. And as we’ll learn in future episodes of these podcasts, he has inspired others — both to use Khan Academy videos in their classrooms and to launch their own upstart efforts.

This has been the Re:Learning podcast. This is our very first episode, and it’s an experiment, so we’re really looking for your feedback. If you like this and want it to continue, please review us on iTunes and subscribe either there or on your podcaster of choice. You can follow us on Twitter, @relearningedu or like us on Facebook. Today’s show was produced by me, Jeff Young. Our theme music is by Jason Caddell. We’ll be back next week with more stories and analysis about the new learning landscape.

Links Mentioned In this Episode:

Khan Academy

The Chronicle, A Self-Appointed Teacher Runs a One-Man ‘Academy’ on YouTube

Sal Khan speaking at SXSWedu 2016

Jeffrey R. Young writes about technology in education and leads the Re:Learning project. Follow him on Twitter @jryoung; check out his home page, jeffyoung.net; or try him by email at jeff.young@chronicle.com.

Join the conversation about this article on the Re:Learning Facebook page.


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