Chat with Khan Academy’s Founder, Sal Khan

I had originally posted this on my Posthaven blog, but I recently deleted my account. So I’m just re-posting this here on Medium.

Two years ago [in 2013], Sal and I met at his office in Mountain View. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to post the transcript of our chat until today. Instead of leaving it locked away, I figured it would be worth sharing in case someone finds it useful or interesting to read.

These are some excerpts I thought would be good to share. I think Sal would be okay with me sharing this as well. Enjoy!

(By the way, if this is a tl;dr, and you’re just interested in reading education focused stuff, skip to the last 2–3 questions.)

AG: What was the turning point — when did you realize this was something you wanted to pursue full-time? Was it a progression?

SK: Yes, I’d say it was more of a progression. It started of as something like, “Wow, this is a really fun way to spend my time.”

The progression started when I began working on the software stuff — you know, any time you write a piece of software, you always dream that one day it’ll be used by a lot of people. But at the time, a few people, mainly my cousins, were using it.

By 2007, when the viewership started growing rapidly, I got hooked and made more and more content. And by that point, it did get to my head that one day this might be something I’ll be able to do for a living. I did know at that time that I wanted to give it away for free, but I didn’t know whether it’d be a non-profit, or a for-profit. I would daydream a lot about it.

AG: Interesting. Let’s talk about that. Why a non-profit? I’m sure there are multiple for-profit models that you could have used, while still being able to offer the core product to people for free. I mean, don’t get me wrong — I obviously appreciate and respect (along with millions of others) that you stuck with a non-profit model.

SK: Yeah, first I would say that the decision to keep it a non-profit was from a basic, non-thinking gut level. I was just getting so much satisfaction from people saying, “Hey, thank you!”

I was also a hedge fund analyst. I would look at a lot of for-profit companies that were doing good. But the one thing that always bugged me, and still bugs me, is someone who is… [pause]. Okay, let me put it this way: Apple or Google, they’re doing good things for the world. But they don’t try to have it both ways; they’re honest. They say, “Okay, we’re here to make products for you that you find valuable and will help us create more value for our shareholders.” This is a virtuous circle. They’re very credible and open about that. I love that.

What I don’t like are for-profit entities that say, “We’re here to help the world, do good, and our top priority is to help you. Oh, and by the way, it might help us, too. Oh and by the way, our Founder just cashed out for $50 million. But he’s really here to help you!”

I just find that to be a very disingenuous place. I would say, even worse, there are for-profits that use this kind of social angle almost as a marketing tool.

I never wanted people to doubt my own motivations.

So that’s kind of the base, primitive gut level. Another level is when I met with some VCs in around 2008 that did want to fund it, as a for-profit entity. At first, it was somewhat enticing. But by the second meeting, since they’re investors, they started asking, “How about we charge for test prep or SAT prep?”

Then I started to really think hard about it. So I asked, what is success here if it became a for-profit? Success is basically getting sold to someone or an IPO. Decisions in that case would be driven quarter by quarter, as opposed to what is the long-term good. That didn’t feel exactly right.

And then there’s more of the delusional feeling, like how cool would it be if Khan Academy were still helping people learn in 500 years. The only model that could support that idea — that somewhat delusional idea — is a not-for-profit entity. There is no ownership. It’s not about my spoiled kids ruining it, or someone buying it, or someone breaking it apart. Maybe it’s philanthropically supported; maybe it finds its way to generate revenue. But at the end of the day over multiple generations, its mission is what matters.

AG: Interesting you say that. Let me share a quick story. My mom’s been a teacher for over a decade, and when I initially told her about Khan Academy, she was a bit skeptical. Teachers are always being approached with new tools from a ton of education companies. But as soon as I told her that you guys were a non-profit, there seemed to be more interest. Any skepticism pretty much went out the window.

SK: I don’t think we would have been as successful as a for-profit. We benefited a lot from that reaction that you’re describing, where people felt goodwill. I don’t think you can underestimate the power of that.

AG: Let’s switch gears. What do you think universities and K-12 educators need to work on the most?

SK: Reassessing what is the best use of class time, and how does one make class time as engaging and interactive for the students as possible. In my opinion, that’s reassessing the importance of the lecture, the value of the lecture, and trying to move in the direction of students doing things in a more hands-on way, collaborating with each other, spending one-on-one time with the teacher, and peer tutoring. That’s my inclination.

AG: What’s your creative process?

I think step 1 in anything is understanding a subject I want to tackle, really, really well. I get myself to a state where I’m excited about it. Then you think a little bit about how you want to communicate it. Sometimes it’s obvious, and you just press record. But sometimes you just need more time to think about it.

AG:So how many iterations of videos do you end up doing?

Sometimes it’s zero iterations, and sometimes it’s as high as 10. But the average is closer to 1.

AG: Where do you see KA in 10 years?

Over the next 10 years, I hope we can say that Khan Academy should be the core of your learning. We shouldn’t need textbooks anymore.

This isn’t about replacing teachers or anything. In fact, I imagine a school of the future, which I write about in my book, and it has teachers — very much so. But they’re using a tool that helps coordinate and engage people at their level. It also helps teachers figure out what’s the next best thing for students to work on. It helps them evaluate, and get feedback on progress.

In 10 years, whether you’re doing reading or writing or math, this has to be a part of it. This frees up the teacher’s time to do something else.

AG: On that note, here comes the big question. What should the future of education actually look like?

SK: It is a big question!

We can think about it in two different dimensions. One is what the classroom is going to look like and the second is how do we actually give people credentials, or what is the credential of the future?

In terms of what the classroom looks like, I imagine it being much more personalized to the individual student. This means that the curriculum needs to match the student, as opposed to the student being pushed ahead or pulled back to match the curriculum. In a world like this, because it isn’t a one-pace-fits-all, the lecture is no longer the center of the academic experience. The academic experience, the physical experience — and I think there is a very physical aspect of this — is coming to a classroom, using tools like Khan Academy to work at your own pace, to get feedback, to give the teacher data on how all the students are doing. But the fundamental core of the entire experience is those human interactions with your teachers, with your peers, and being able to work on problems and projects together.

AG: Let’s dive into the details about assessment.

SK: What I imagine about how people are going to be assessed, I don’t think we’re going to use this grading mechanism any more. My personal opinion is that it’s fundamentally flawed. If someone has a ‘B’ in algebra, to me it means that they should work on their algebra until they get to that ‘A’ level as opposed to going on to algebra 2 or calculus or whatever else. And so the credentialing reality that I think is going to happen — and we’ve already seen the first signs of it — are really what I would call a competency-based system. As opposed to you sitting in a seat for a fixed amount of time and you’re graded — so it’s a variable level of competency — the variable is how long you work on something and what’s fixed is when you know algebra, you just know algebra! You don’t get a B or a C. You just know algebra — you get an A.

So in that reality, you’ll have your academic competency but I think there will be two other important data points or credentials that you’ll see.

One would be your portfolio of creative works. I think all fields should fundamentally be creative. The creative aspects of any field are the ones that are not going to be marginalized by outsourcing or by technology. And by the way, every field does have a creative aspect. And since the creative aspect of every field is what’s going to be most important, everyone is going to have a portfolio of their writing, of their computer science projects, of the music that they’ve composed, of whatever matters to them.

AG: Interesting. So then what’s the third dimension of credentialing you see?

SK: In the traditional model right now, it’s all about the individual student. It’s all about yourself. What are my scores? Did I pass? How am I doing? What is my class rank? It’s actually a little bit competitive relative to your peers. I see it going the other way. When I want to bring someone into my university, or if I want to hire someone in my organization, yeah being academically strong is very important. But what’s at least as important or even more important is, how good is that person at communicating with others, at managing others, at empathizing with others, and at relating to others.

So you have academic achievement competence, you have your portfolio of creative works, and you also have your peer ratings. That is, how good were you to work with in groups, how good of a peer tutor were you, how good of a communicator were you?