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Sal Khan describes the passion behind Khan Academy

By Julie Phillips Randles
June 25, 2014
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Sal Khan is the founder of Khan Academy, a nonprofit with the mission of providing free, high-quality education for anyone, anywhere in the world.

Born and raised in New Orleans, Khan graduated from MIT in 1998 with three degrees: two bachelor's degrees in mathematics and electrical engineering/computer science, and a master's degree in electrical engineering. He began his career working in technology, and later earned his MBA at Harvard Business School. Khan then became an analyst at a Boston-based hedge fund, which later relocated to Palo Alto, California.

As a side project in 2004, Khan began tutoring his young cousin in math, communicating by phone and using an interactive notepad. By 2006, Khan was tutoring 15 family friends and cousins as a hobby. To better scale, he began writing software to give his students practice and feedback in mathematics.

To complement this software, he also began posting videos of his hand-scribbled tutorials on YouTube. Demand took off, and in 2009, when the practice problems and instructional videos were reaching tens of thousands of students per month, he quit his day job to commit himself fully to the nonprofit Khan Academy.

The Khan Academy website now provides a self-pace, guided learning experience with more than 100,000 practice exercises and 5,000 instructional videos covering everything from basic arithmetic to college-level science and economics. It's the most used library of educational lessons on the web, with more than 10 million unique students per month, more than 300 million lessons delivered and more than a billion completed exercises.

More than 200,000 educators around the world are also using Khan Academy to help build student mastery of topics and to free up class time for dynamic, project-based learning.

Khan has been profiled by "60 Minutes," featured on the cover of Forbes magazine and recognized as one of TIME magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World." He is also a recipient of the National School Boards Association's Heinz Award. In late 2012, Khan released his book "The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined."

If you could have a different career, what would it be?
Some combination of a science fiction author, avant-garde artist and Charlie Rose.

What's the side of you the public never sees?
I sing a lot when no one is looking or listening.

How have you changed in the last five years?
I've become more optimistic. I was never really a pessimist, but, like many people, I was somewhat cynical about society's odds of addressing the really big challenges it's facing. In the last five years, through Khan Academy, I've met incredible teachers, students, parents and business leaders who are committed to improving the lives of others and having real impact. When I meet folks like that, it inspires me to think bigger and devote even more energy to aspirational goals.

I have also had two wonderful, hilarious children in the past five years, which has given me a deeper appreciation of what it means to have love and fear for someone other than oneself. I recently heard singer John Legend speak about education and, in discussing the framework we should use for making decisions that impact schools, he said, "We just have to ask, what would we do if we really loved those kids…like really 'loved' them." I don't think I could have fully appreciated the power of that idea before I was a parent.

What aspect of Khan Academy are you most passionate about?
As much as Khan Academy is known for me and my videos, I think they are the least important part of what we do. Most of our energy is focused on creating world-class, free interactive software that allows teachers to meet the individual needs of students. For example, we've spent the past year building resources with 40 leading educators, including some of the authors of the Common Core, to build tens of thousands of Common Core-aligned, interactive math exercises. As the students work through the exercises, either at their own pace or based on assignments, teachers get real-time reports on how their classroom is progressing. I believe we now have the most rigorous and comprehensive set of Common Core exercises available, and we are passionate about always keeping this free and noncommercial to empower as many teachers and students as possible.

What measurements can you point to regarding the effectiveness of Khan Academy?
Over the past few years, we collaborated with a number of schools and with SRI International to study various types of classroom use and the effects of different approaches on teaching and learning. The report was published in March, and we were encouraged to see positive association between Khan Academy use and some important outcomes like improvement in student test scores, improvement in students' confidence and reduced anxiety when it comes to math. Teachers also reported that integrating Khan Academy into their instruction increased their ability to support their students. Students' perceptions of Khan Academy were very positive, their engagement during Khan Academy sessions was high and students felt that using Khan Academy encouraged greater independence in learning.

This reinforces a lot of what we hear directly from our users, both those using Khan Academy in the classroom and students using it independently. We get hundreds of letters from people using Khan Academy who have changed their entire outlook on learning, and often how this learning journey has transformed their lives. Hearing these personal stories from both students and teachers is the "effectiveness data" that really propels and inspires us on a daily basis.

Why didn't the SRI report focus only on effectiveness?
When we first started working with schools, we had a very nascent product and only a small subset of the full Common Core curriculum. We, the schools, and the researchers fully expected our product and content to evolve tremendously during the study period. Given this, SRI felt it was more appropriate to focus the research on the different ways that our exercises platform was used. One of the things they found was that Khan Academy was rarely the only variable being changed and that the use cases were very different so, given the sites being studied, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to isolate the impact of Khan Academy alone. sri concluded that trying to conduct effectiveness research would have been methodologically unsound.

How can today's Khan Academy address some of the fundamental issues in education?
We hear from teachers how hard it is to reach all their students — to give enough attention to kids who are struggling while still engaging and challenging their students who are more advanced. That's why we felt it was important to give teachers a tool to let students work at their own pace and give teachers instant feedback so they can see their students' progress and, at any time throughout the year, quickly identify which students might need more attention and then assign more practice. We also hear a lot about how teachers use this data to form small groups of students to encourage peer mentoring. Khan Academy is certainly not a silver bullet, but we strive to be a valuable tool for teachers to help reach each student, at every level.

We also hear from students that it's hard to catch up if they missed something in class or have gaps from prior grades. We built our learning environment to provide students a safe, unpressured learning environment where they can fill in their gaps and practice concepts at their own pace. This is not only important to help students develop math competency, but also a sense of agency over their learning.

The SRI report also indicated that teachers use Khan Academy as a supplement to classroom instruction. How would you help teachers think about integrating Khan Academy into actual teaching practices?
Khan Academy has never been about direct or primary instruction. We view our role as a tool to empower teachers by giving them unlimited, standards-aligned exercises with instant reporting and feedback and on-demand, mini-explanations as a reference. You could think of it as a 21st century textbook. By definition, this is going to be a supplement to the great work that teachers are already doing. However, "supplemental" doesn't necessarily mean "superficial." There are many instances where teachers use Khan Academy as a tool that is meaningfully integrated into their math teaching practice. We are now seeing teachers getting students on the new Common Core-aligned, grade-level "missions" that ensure each student can focus on practicing the skills and filling their individual gaps, while giving teachers in-depth feedback to know exactly where each student stands at any time throughout the year. We've profiled and interviewed a number of teachers on our website, like Suney Park, who recently won a Presidential Teacher award, to show different ways teachers have deeply integrated Khan Academy into their classrooms.

In addition to content, Khan Academy provides educators with data from student use of lessons. Is that data being used effectively? How can the analytics that you are able
to provide assist teachers and students?
We hear from teachers how hard it is to know where to focus your teaching and attention, so we enable teachers (as well as their students and parents) see a student's progress. Through Khan Academy's coach reports, teachers can quickly see how their class is doing overall or skill-by-skill, at any time throughout the year. Teachers can then quickly identify which students might need more attention and then assign more practice. And while there are thousands of teachers who use these reports on regular basis, we are continually looking for ways to make this data even easier to interpret and more actionable for teachers.

How is Khan Academy managing the student privacy guidance that was recently released? How far will you go to work with school districts to secure student data? For example, would you be willing to sign a memorandum of understanding or a data use agreement?
We care deeply about the privacy of all our users and have always worked to create a safe learning environment for students and teachers alike. In fact, the primary reason we decided to incorporate as a nonprofit is because we wanted to provide free access to education, without ever having to do things like advertise or sell student information. We make sure we are transparent on what we do with students' information, and we get explicit permission before any personal student information is shared with anyone. There have been situations where we worked with third parties, such as SRI International, to do research, but we were very careful to ensure we got proper and explicit permission from students and parents.

So, yes, we take privacy very seriously and we'd be happy to work with school districts to ensure we are collectively protecting student information.

What misconceptions does the education community have about Khan Academy and what it contributes to learning and teaching?
One of the questions I sometimes get is whether Khan Academy is trying to replace teachers with technology. I think we all know and have personally experienced that there can never be anything that replaces what a great teacher can do. We hope that by providing teachers with a comprehensive and free learning resource, we can be one of the tools that help empower and elevate the role of the teacher in the classroom.

Another misperception that stemmed largely from the popularity of our early YouTube videos is that Khan Academy is just a video library that students passively watch, when in fact our focus and most of our usage has been students actively practicing using our interactive exercises. In addition, as I mentioned, over the past year we've brought in a team of over 40 math educators to create thousands of interactive exercises designed for the Common Core standards and to provide students with instant feedback, hints and step-by-step solutions. The videos are only there as supplements to the instruction students get from teachers.

Can you help readers visualize how Khan Academy's new relationship with College Board for SAT test preparation is going to work?
Rather than focusing on "cramming" or teaching students how to game exams, we want to help prepare students with deep practice that will build a solid foundation in math to help them be successful not only on the sat exam, but also in college and beyond. We are working in close collaboration with the College Board to create thousands of in-depth practice problems and instructional videos available spring of 2015 — a full year before the launch of the redesigned sat. Students will be able to practice at their own pace using Khan Academy's personalized learning dashboard. The dashboard will recommend exercises at each student's level and show progress, points and badges as students accomplish their "sat mission."

What's the next big thing on the horizon for Khan Academy?
We know this is a really critical time for students and teachers. This year, we're going to continue to roll out resources to help millions of students and teachers transition to the Common Core math standards. We'll also be focusing on building a world-class learning experience that helps students build the math foundation they need for the redesigned sat by spring of 2015. And of course, we'll be continuing to make our teacher tools and reports even simpler and easier to use, and making our student learning dashboard more engaging for students.