This may surprise you, but Sal Khan used to skip classes at MIT. They were too long and boring, he often thought, particularly lectures. “I found it much more valuable to learn the material at my own time and pace,” he says. “I learned a lot more going into the computer lab or the science lab or the circuits lab, fiddling with things and playing and getting my hands dirty.”
That same renegade spirit of independence and innovation, of learning on your own terms on your own time, is still the heart and soul of Khan Academy, the revolutionary, somewhat controversial online learning platform the 38-year-old math whiz engineer singlehandedly founded 10 years ago. What began as a handful of tutoring videos the former hedge fund analyst uploaded to YouTube to help his cousins with their algebra homework has since mushroomed into a massive digital classroom for the world.
To date, the free, non-profit learning hub has delivered more than 580 million of Khan’s straightforward video lessons on demand, with students completing around four million companion exercises on any given day. The Academy is in the midst of a growth spurt offline as well, with an excess of 1 million registered teachers around the globe incorporating the supplemental teaching tool into their classrooms.
We recently caught up with Khan, who discussed how his own education shaped his passion project, his belief that anyone can learn anything and what’s next for Khan Academy, online and off.
The transcript that follows has been edited for clarity and brevity.
How did you develop a passion for education? Who inspired you?
Education has helped me a lot. My father’s side of the family was very active in education. My parents separated when I was two and then my father passed away, so I never really knew that side of the family. But, when I got to know them, they’re intensely academic. My mother’s side of the family, they’re more the artists. We have a lot of dancers and singers who don’t fit with certain stereotypes that they’re all engineers and they’re all super invested in math.
I went to a fairly normal, middle of the road public school in a suburb of New Orleans, but it gave me huge opportunities. I had a lot of friends there who were just smart as I am. They seem to learn things just as fast, but they’re hitting walls in algebra class and chemistry class. That’s when I started questioning the notion of mastery-based learning. It wasn’t completely obvious to me then, but I just knew something was off.
You often say that anyone can learn anything. Why do you think that?
If you’re doing well in school you can have one of two things: You can say, “Oh, well, I have the DNA for doing it. Or you can say, “No, my brain was able to tackle it. I had the right mindset.” I saw those ideas in action early in high school.
Also, I tutored others as part of this math honors society I was in. I noticed that if you tutored people the right way, engaged with them the right way, they would improve. I saw C and D students all of the sudden do very, very well and become some of the best math students in the state.
Then I go to college at MIT and I saw a lot of people struggle there, too, mainly because they aren’t adequately prepared. It was the same thing. It was clear to me that it wasn’t intelligence at play, it was much more preparation. The people who did well were the people who saw the material for the third time, had a lot of rigor and didn’t have any gaps in their knowledge. The people who really struggled were the folks who weren’t familiar with the material and didn’t have a super solid grasp. It has nothing to do with some type of innate intelligence.
How are you taking Khan Academy out from behind the Internet and into the real world?
We piloted a program called LearnStorm in the Bay Area [of California] last year and we’re expanding it to three to five other areas this Spring. We hope it will function nationwide by 2017. It goes beyond the core skill work we do on Khan Academy, tying it into monthly challenges that are intended to be done in a physical environment, in your math class with your teacher.
LearnStorm came from the idea of we can create these great experiences online that are aligned with standards that are really good for students and they correlate with success metrics, but you need the the students to engage with them. We on our own can create a lot of neat game mechanics and all sorts of things on the site, but nothing beats having physical people who are part of your life, especially your teachers, your school and your peers, involved in your learning.
More recently, we worked with Disney Pixar to bridge the disconnect between what students learn about math and science at school and tackling creative challenges in the real world with an initiative called Pixar in a Box. Our relationship with Pixar makes it very clear that math, science, creativity and storytelling aren’t separate things. They can all happen together.
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Why the recent pivot to a growing list of local, offline projects when you originally set out to be a digital classroom for the world?
This isn’t the first time we’ve branched out offline. From day one, I immediately reached out to teachers to see if they’d want to use Khan Academy and to get their feedback on our features. In 2010, we started with the Los Altos school district here in Northern California. Plus, there’s a whole teacher resources section on Khan Academy, so we’ve always had this dimension.
What’s different now isn’t us working with a handful of classrooms in a very high-touch way. It’s us being able to work with many more teachers and, frankly, they’re able to do a lot of the heavy lifting around mindset, meta cognition, getting students into it, and we provide the tools.
When we say that our vision statement is a free, world-class education for anyone anywhere, it doesn’t mean that it’s just going to all happen through our software, through our content. As an organization, we view it as part of our mission to up how we interface with all of the other incredible stakeholders in this ecosystem, especially teachers and schools, to figure out how we educate students together, not just all from one site.
What will the classroom of the future look like and how will Khan Academy play a role?
You won’t need lectures in class any more. Those can happen on students’ own time. Using exercises, students can progress at their own pace, like how the Khan academy software works. Instead, in-class time can be spent having peer-to-peer socratic dialogues, case-based discussions, programming and project based learning.
Why can’t teachers co-teach and mentor each other? Why separate students by perceived ability or age? Can’t you benefit from older students mentoring younger students? When classrooms are not one pace, when it’s all not lectured-based, it opens up all sorts of possibilities.
What’s the next big tech innovation in education, even bigger than the Internet?
Virtual reality, though my gut says it’s going to be about 10 years before we see major potential here. It’s very early right now. I can imagine that in about a decade, when you come to Khan Academy, you’ll literally feel like you’re in a virtual place of learning and in a community. You’ll see people walking around in a virtual world. Who knows? I don’t know if that’s in 10 or 20 years, but I think that’s going to happen.
Aside from virtual reality integration, what else is on the horizon for Khan Academy?
We’re going to be available in all of the world’s major languages on all of the major platforms, whether it’s a cheap smartphone or an Oculus Rift. The more the better. We’re working on translating all of our resources into more than 36 languages, with thousands of volunteers helping us subtitle videos.
Are any new subjects in the works? Topics outside of the traditional academic realm, like, say, yoga and meditation perhaps?
No, nothing like that at the moment, although I do love yoga. We already have a lot of material in physics and chemistry and biology, but we want to really nail those core academic subjects. Expect to see a lot from us in history and civics over the next year, along with interesting things around grammar, writing and programming.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs who hope to be as astronomically successful as you?
(Laughs) Well, I cringe at the term “astronomically successful,” because it sure doesn’t feel like I am. As for advice, though, I think every entrepreneur should know what they’re getting into, that there are moments of extreme stress and pain that aren’t so obvious sometimes when you read about startups in the press. Still, all entrepreneurs go through it. You need to be prepared for it and know that it’s normal when you’re in the midst of it.