Sal Khan's Fireside Chat from the SPC Archive

Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, shared his founder story and approach to radically innovating in education.

Sal Khan's Fireside Chat from the SPC Archive

Forbes once described Khan Academy as a virtual space that provides a place to work “through homework at the kitchen table with your favorite uncle looking over your shoulder.”

Sal Khan didn’t expect to become that helpful uncle to millions of students, but nearly two billion views of Khan Academy’s educational videos made it so. Khan first shared his free online non-profit educational platform in 2008, before the raucous reception prompted him to quit his job as a financial analyst. The platform’s success eventually spurred Time Magazine to honor Khan as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

SPC was excited to host Khan for a Fireside Chat in 2021, providing a forum to share the founding story of Khan Academy, how Khan continues to find ways to use technology to enhance teachers’ effectiveness, and his approach to social impact. SPC’s connection to Khan runs deeper than just a mutual commitment to innovative learning formats—SPC alum Vishal Kapur worked with Khan on the early Khan Academy product.

As SPC wraps up applications for the Social Impact Fellowship, it made sense to revisit insights shared by one of the most successful social entrepreneurs of our time.

Creating Khan Academy (13:00)

  • I was working at a hedge fund, but I told my friends this is just a means to an end and one day I would start a school. I wanted to be a Dumbledore figure because I had ideas about how to do school differently.
  • I was always subconsciously looking for the path and when my cousins needed help studying, I saw interesting possibilities. I was tutoring them and I started writing software for them. Up to that point in my life, I'd done a lot of coding but no one used any of the products that I made.
  • Word spread around my family that free tutoring was happening and suddenly I was creating YouTube videos for 10-15 cousins. Just to write a piece of software with 15 real users of my product was exciting for me.
  • If you can get product-market fit in certain ways, that you could scale to an arbitrarily large number of people, you know there's something there. I decided I would keep working on this until it becomes something that is very impactful.

Standardized testing (27:44)

  • Where there's valid concerns about standardized testing is when you know there's a subset that’s easier to measure and others harder to measure. It's easy for people who are creating the test to focus on easier things to measure, but then that's what everyone indexes on, and you lose a lot.
  • When tests are structured as a high-stakes one-time snapshot, it leads to weird psychological pressures that aren’t healthy. It’s unfair for a high school student to say that one Saturday is going to dictate who I am as a human being for the rest of my life.
  • You want to measure so that you can do something. But it’s a problem if you're doing a standardized test that shows one-fourth aren't at grade level, and yet still promoting them because they passed their other classes and they're big now.
  • There are legitimate concerns about holding kids back but then that kid gets promoted and then they're expected to learn the next grade level even though they haven't mastered the prerequisites. But that's kind of all we know how to do. Clearly there's a new regime of assessment that can occur.
  • What does that look like? It is mastery learning at a competency-based assessment with lots of support, such as tutoring or Khan Academy. Hopefully teachers have in-person help. When the student is ready they can take the assessment. If they pass it, great, they can move on. If not, it's not a big deal, they can come back in a week or in a month, and they can really know the material. It would make a huge difference.

Mastery in education (32:28)

  • In the 80s and 90s and before, the people who were disproportionately successful were those capable of self-learning with a textbook, which there’s a certain art to it.
  • Now Khan Academy and MOOCS lower that threshold. They make it easier if you're motivated to self learn. It's just a question of what extra layers and supports and motivational mechanics can you throw in.
  • One thing that we're talking about at Khan Academy that we haven't implemented is this notion of proximal personalization. Let's say you want to do a grade level standard but you're struggling. How do we back you up right in service to that standard as opposed to saying you have to do all of the math going up to that point to ensure you have no gaps?
  • Teachers and peers are one of the most important frameworks for ensuring that you are engaged. Most humans are naturally motivated and curious but they fall out of the system to protect their self-esteem because things aren't making sense anymore.
  • In the Cal State system, 65 percent of the students aren’t ready to learn algebra. The majority of kids are having to remediate at the 6th or 7th grade level because of this lack of mastery-based learning. If they just had a system where they mastered what I would call “Algebra 1.5,” these kids would have had much better outcomes in life.

College vs. boot camps (43:37)

  • This Google certification program is going to be a huge deal. When Google says we'll hire you as a project manager if you can get through this certification, which is essentially free, that's a huge signal to the higher education community.
  • A lot of kids are spending four years in college or even going to grad school and dreaming of being a project manager at Google. They say, “I’m paying $200,000 and losing four years of earnings for this when I could work and do the program. It's free and it’s going to give me a higher probability of my dream job.”
  • I think that's going to create some interesting dynamics. I don't think it's going to disrupt college but I think it's going to put healthy pressure on colleges to offer the same thing.
  • To think it magically takes four years for you to be academically prepared makes no sense. Deciding to attend college will be based on whether it will be a nice life experience. Colleges are going to index more on what they can uniquely offer for that life experience that you won’t get in boot camp or in a MOOC.

Dream policy change (50:19)

  • We should move to a competency-based system that's less based on seat time, which unlocks all sorts of innovation including all the way through higher ed and jobs.
  • Once you define the competencies and how to achieve them, and if they're designed in a good way, it completely opens up how people prepare folks for those competencies.
  • I would also make it very transparent on how effective different interventions are at preparing people for those competencies. Natural dynamics would lead to more and more and better and better options.

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