Meet Sal Khan: the Seinfeld of the Education Revolution

Salman Khan's library of free instructional videos has reached millions of people, and now his videos are reaching into classrooms.

If you're curious at all about the future of education, you should know about Salman Khan. He's the charismatic brainiac who's created more than 2,000 instructional videos about everything from photosynthesis to the Bay of Pigs invasion. As former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein recently noted, "Sal Khan has 50 million people on a site that doesn’t sell sex."

Self-effacing ("Any joker in his closet can reach millions of people"), fast-talking, and pragmatic, Khan spins his big-picture views about education in the same way he describes subjects like valence electrons or mortgage-backed securities: as a bemused observer pointing out the obvious. “If Isaac Newton had made YouTube videos about gravity, I wouldn’t have to!” Khan said at a recent TED Talk.

But rather than quarterbacking from the sidelines, Khan is intentionally getting in the game. Some, including Bill Gates (who's donated millions of dollars into Khan's vision), believe his free YouTube videos, the full collection of which are called The Khan Academy, will profoundly change what we know as classroom instruction.

In Silicon Valley, at least, it’s already in the works. What began as a series of helpful videos for his cousins is being piloted in the Los Altos School District in two fifth-grade and two seventh-grade math classes, and will likely expand to other grades and possibly even schools in the district next year.

Here's how it works: Students watch the videos in class (all of them produced by him), take “gamified” assessments that determine whether they understand the concept, and move on to the next level when they’re ready. The teacher can monitor each student’s progress with a dashboard: the green bar shows they’re proficient, blue indicates they’re working on it, and red alerts teachers that students are stuck on a problem.

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This approach seems to work for one simple reason: The fact that students can go back and replay the videos as many times as they need to understand a concept eliminates what Khan calls the “Swiss cheese” gaps in knowledge. Unlike with traditional classes, a student can’t move to the next level until he’s understood the one before it.

Though he’s the buzz of education circles – at two conferences in Silicon Valley where I saw him speak in the past six months, long lines of fans waited to thank him for his work-- Khan has his share of critics, too. Some educators think Khan is arrogant in believing that videos can replace the human touch in a classroom, and in the process squeeze teachers out of the equation. Others believe his focus on basic skill drills misses more important learning ideals, like critical thinking and collaboration. As an institution, education does not so easily adapt to newfangled ways. "Entrenched systems don’t go away because Sal Khan is charming,” Klein said.

I spoke to Khan about these questions, and more.

Q. How do you answer teachers who say your videos will replace them in the classroom?

A. Depending on the teacher's mentality, I think this can actually make it a lot more fun. If I was a teacher, this is exactly the type of class I’d want to teach, because for the core skills, I don’t have to prepare in a traditional sense. But I do have to prepare for projects and all that, so I have to prepare for creative things. As a teacher, when I’m in a room, I’m relying on my innate skills and teaching abilities, I haven’t scripted it ahead of time. I’m doing like a doctor would. I wouldn’t have a script about what I’m going to say to the next patient. They look at the patient’s data, they ask questions, and they try to diagnose the patient and somehow cure the patient. It’s the same exact model here.

But it’s going to be hard for teachers who have trouble letting go of the idea that they’re the sage on stage, that they have all the information, "Do not question me, be quiet," and it's all about classroom management. It throws all that stuff out the door. But the people who are attracted to this model is exactly the type of people we want and who this will work for.

Q. Are you adding any input from teachers?

A. Yes, we’ve had input on both the videos and creating the software, from teachers and students. In Los Altos, it’s a very tight design. We have our engineers in the classrooms on a regular basis. They’re talking to students and teachers. In fact, they figured out that some kids were gaming the multiple choice, and we realized we had to fix that.

Sometimes we see what teachers are doing in class, and we realize that it should be a feature in the videos or the software. For example, we've created a profile of the students for the teachers to look at. But teachers have started to use it in a different way. They're asking students to look at their profiles and come up with their own goals. And right now the kids are looking at it and writing their goals on notecards. So we thought we should automate that process and build it in.

And using that profile, Khan Academy can make suggestions too. So students can say: “These are my 20 goals for the month.” “These are my three definite goals and these are my three stretch goals” and you can look at it at the end of the week compared to where you were.

So we’re learning a ton from the teachers themselves. And we're actually going to hire some of them. There are teachers who were laid off, some of the best teachers the district has. It was a travesty at first, then we thought, Gee, we could hire them. These teachers have been masterful with the technology and what to do with it. They weren’t afraid of the ambiguity.

Q. How is the teacher's dashboard and assessment piece working out?

A. It’s been working well. A teachers has an iPad now, so she’s walking around with the students’ dashboard, which highlights who’s doing what, who needs help. Before she helps a student, she can flip to their profile, see what they’ve been working on, look at their goals, then she can talk to the student, and she intervenes. It feels like a doctor with a patient's medical history, but way more advanced because they know the history of the student going into the intervention. Also it's cool because it looks like the future.

Q. Did you create an app for the teacher's dashboard?

A.  Right now, it’s a Web interface, so anyone can use it without an iPad, but we’re building a dedicated mobile version. And that’s where most of our resources are going, hiring engineers and designers. Any teacher in the world can do this right now, and they are. If you’re a teacher, you could get all your kids an account, and you give them your I.D. and they sign you up as a coach, and they designate you as their teacher.

Right now, it looks like 500 to 1,000 people are using this in classrooms, based on the numbers we see. They're working in groups of about 30 and it looks like they're using it as a classroom would. We don’t know for sure, but it looks like that’s what’s happening. You can do this homeschooling with two or three kids. The idea is we perfect the use in Los Altos, but anyone can use it.

Q. What are your plans for the Khan Academy in the near future?

A. We’re definitely ramping up team to do school implementation. We're going to new schools and classrooms and school districts.

Q. Do you think this kind of learning is appropriate for every student?

A. We’re not saying it’s not for every student, but we're not sure. Our goal right now is, on videos and exercises, let’s as quickly as possible do a really solid first pass, use as much data as possible to iterate on it, and improve it. Then we’ll learn from the data. We know from the data that it’s much much more appropriate for a lot more people than what they’re getting now.

Q. Where do you think the Khan Academy fits in with the debate about high-stakes testing, core curriculum, and the need to teach students intangibles like critical thinking and collaboration?

A. Our thinking is that if you take a test or a series of tests, you should be able to get your credential and you’re done. And what I love about that is it kills the monopoly on the credential, it levels the playing field on the learning side, and I think Khan Academy will be a strong contender on the learning side.

When it comes to we shouldn’t be teaching this, we should be teaching that; we should be teaching it this way or that way. I don’t disagree with some of it. For example, I think we should be teaching computer science. But I think it’s an impractical approach, or naïve approach to sit on the sidelines and complain about it.

You're still not addressing the issue of students still being assessed by the world, you know, on the SATs. And if they really do want to go to med school, regardless of your personal opinion of what’s important – and you might have a valid personal opinion – but that’s still not going to help kids go where they want to go if you refuse to teach something based on ideological grounds.

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So our point of view is, go where the need is, address the need, and once the need is addressed, we’re now in a position where we can start delivering other things – things that are maybe more relevant, more useful. More projects, more computer programming and things like that.