Sal Khan on Leading for Impact and Rethinking Education
Sal Khan works out of a small closet. It’s the same closet where he filmed the first Khan Academy videos back in 2005 and posted them to YouTube. Khan Academy was officially founded in 2009 and has since grown to reach 120 million learners in 190 countries in 50 languages. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought Sal’s work setting full circle, back to the closet where it all began.
He joined us on the Creative Confidence Podcast to reflect on the past, present, and future of Khan Academy and share his vision for the evolution of education. If you hope to have greater impact in the world or you’re working up the courage to take a chance on a business idea, look to Sal’s journey for inspiration. Listen to the podcast episode for the full conversation.
What do you see as the role of technology in the future of education?
Technology has undoubtedly advanced innovation in education—it creates access for folks around the globe who wouldn’t have the opportunity to learn in person, whether that’s because of their location or lack of financial resources. While Sal clearly believes in the value of remote learning, having seen firsthand how Khan Academy classes have changed the lives of thousands of kids, he says he’d choose an in-person learning experience any day of the week if forced to pick between that and the fanciest remote learning technology on the planet. Using technology for technology’s sake loses sight of the real needs of the people you’re designing for. He hopes we find a blend of in-person and virtual learning that draws out the best of both worlds. At Khan Academy and IDEO U, technology is a pathway to enabling human connection.
“I've fallen into that trap where I've made something cool, and I'm like, this has got to be a solution to someone's problem,” Sal admits. “And then I try to find a problem for the solution that I have.” But that approach is backwards. With education, and all businesses ventures, he says you’ve got to focus on the problem first. Identify your pedagogical goals, then based on those seek the resources at your disposal to reach those goals.
He outlines three areas where he sees technology’s potential for good in the education space:
When we have to do large-scale mass public education, teachers know that their 30 students have 30 different needs, 30 different learning gaps, 30 different rates at which they're ready to learn, and 30 different things going on at home. Technology could enable peer-to-peer interaction, drive more focused interventions based on data, and create the opportunity for each student in a classroom to go on their own journey.
2. Breaking barriers of time and space
Technology makes barriers like scheduling conflicts, lack of access to transportation, large class sizes, and limited teacher resources less daunting. Students can supplement the education they receive at school with online courses or join a live event virtually from the other side of the world.
Technology could be used to nudge students forward and keep them engaged.
- The future of education should be a blend of virtual and in-person learning.
- Don’t use technology for technology’s sake. Focus on the problem or need first, then search for a solution.
- Technology has the potential to drive greater personalization, access and motivation in the world of education.
When you were first starting Khan Academy, how did you find space in your busy life to pursue this passion?
When Sal began working at a small hedge fund right after college, his boss encouraged him to spend time away from the office in order to avoid burning out. He also reframed the value of time off: “Our job is to make a few good investments and avoid a bunch of bad decision-making,” Sal remembers him saying. “The best way that you can do that is to make sure you go home and don't do anything related to stocks. In fact, that will actually lead to better creative insights.”
In an industry where long hours are common, that advice was unusual. Following it led Sal to find time to tutor his cousin Nadia in math—what turned out to be the beginnings of Khan Academy. It’s a lesson that stuck with him. Sal stays hyper-focused on his primary goals 80 percent of the time, then “I'm always fiddling with 20 percent of my time,” he says.
- Save 20 percent of your time for creative projects as a source of inspiration and energy.
Do you have any advice for people who want to start a business or nonprofit?
There’s an archetype of entrepreneurship that doesn’t always hold true: identify your big ideas, secure an angel investor, build a prototype, raise a ton of money, and you’re off to the races.
For Sal, building Khan Academy was a slow burn. He started tutoring his cousin in 2004 and quit his hedge fund job in 2009 to focus on Khan Academy full time. Over those five years, the concept was continually evolving. And even when he decided to take the leap, it was still a huge risk for him personally and professionally.
“All of us are bound by far more internal expectations than we realize,” Sal says. The rest of the world isn’t expecting you to have it all figured out the day you launch your business. It will take time to gain traction. Sal spent a year pitching investors before hearing a yes. “You have to be delusionally optimistic to start any type of venture,” Sal admits. “You think that surely the universe will recognize your genius, and then it doesn't necessarily as quickly as you hope.”
Also know that tradeoffs are inevitable. “Think in first principles about where your time is being spent,” he prompts. “Is that creating real value?” Define your priorities and make time for them. Then everything else has to fit around that.
- Your biggest barrier to launching your business is your own internal expectations.
- Prepare to make tradeoffs and be honest about the most valuable ways to spend your time.
“All of us are bound by far more internal expectations than we realize.”
How and why did you shift to supporting school districts with Khan Academy? What was the emerging need you spotted?
Khan Academy is on a mission to provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere. It started with tutoring, then expanded to tools for teachers as a way to scale their impact. Now, Sal says, they hope to move education forward on the country level to reach significantly more kids. In order to do that in a realistic time frame, they realized they would need to integrate with existing systems.
In speaking with leaders in school districts across America they saw the potential for Khan Academy to supplement what was already happening in the classroom. But it would mean growing the Khan team’s capabilities.
“Districts and school leaders said ‘We need more support. We need training. We need integration with our information systems. We need district-level dashboards. Ideally, integration with our assessments,’” Sal shared. “This was a new set of muscles that we needed to build if we wanted to serve the system in this way.”
Layering virtual learning on top of the classroom setting could help move the education system away from the broken fixed-pace instruction model toward a mastery-based learning model—a topic Sal spoke passionately about in a popular 2016 TED Talk. A pilot program started in 2020 with 10 school districts and has grown to more than 200.
- In order to scale your impact, consider how you might partner or integrate with the existing system to address unmet needs.
“This was a new set of muscles that we needed to build if we wanted to serve the system.”
How did Khan Academy move quickly to help students whose schools shut down during the 2020 COVID pandemic?
The Friday before California schools officially closed, Sal recalls the Khan Academy site traffic beginning to spike. During normal times, the site sees about 30 million learning minutes per day. When COVID hit, traffic spiked 3X to 90 million learning minutes per day. “It was one of those moments where you look left and you look right and you say, I think this is going to be us,” Sal says of the moment his team realized the role Khan Academy would need to play during the pandemic. “People were going to need something to keep that continuity of learning.”
The Khan Academy team did a few things to immediately address student and teacher needs:
- Stress tested the website to make sure it could stay up through the deluge of traffic.
- Created schedules for kids based on age to help parents decide how to structure their days.
- Scheduled webinars for parents and teachers to support their use of the site.
- Shared thought leadership on what distance learning should look like.
- Listen to your community in times of crisis, and move swiftly to address their needs.
What innovations or changes in education brought about by COVID do you hope will carry over into the post-COVID era?
While the COVID pandemic has undoubtedly caused harm to communities around the world, Sal sees a silver lining in three areas:
1. Spotlight on the digital divide
Khan Academy says an estimated 30 percent of students and 10 percent of teachers lack the tools or sufficient internet access to engage in learning at home. COVID shone a bright spotlight on this digital divide when distance learning became de facto almost overnight. The Recovery Act and state programs to distribute laptops to students and teachers helped, and Sal is hopeful that efforts made during COVID will lower the barrier to using technology in the classrooms of the future.
2. Better methods of engagement in the classroom
Teachers struggled with engaging the kids in their classroom over video, but Sal says they probably weren’t engaging every single child in-person either. The extra hurdle of keeping kids’ attention in a video setting led to using tools like breakout groups and questions to prompt interaction. He hopes these tools will still be used when kids go back to school.
3. Credit-based learning models
The speedy switch to virtual learning, as rough as it was at times, shows it’s possible. Once people agree that learning doesn’t need to be bound by time and space, Sal hopes that leads to a realization that credit should not be bound by time and space either.
In other words, instead of looking at graduation from a well-known university or years spent at a job as indicators of a person’s ability, are there better signals of competency that don’t require a lot of time and money? Schoolhouse.world, a new venture Sal is leading, is exploring this question. The platform enables peer-to-peer tutoring. He thinks acting as a tutor on the platform, or completing a Khan Academy unit test to show understanding of a subject, is a better signal of competency. The University of Chicago agrees, as they’ve been using the unit test submissions in their college admissions process this past year.
Sal thinks the COVID pandemic accelerated some of these conversations by five to ten years. Following a year that brought so many challenges, he’s hopeful about the future of education: “I've always been inspired by imagining what the world could be like.”
- The silver lining of COVID’s impact on education is the spotlight on the digital divide, conversation around how to effectively engage students in the classroom, and potential to embrace competency-based credit models.
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