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Educating the Planet

By Heidi Hackford

Sal Khan Gets Down to Earth

“Free world-class education for anyone anywhere.” That’s the ambitious mission of the popular online learning platform Khan Academy. Visionary founder Sal Khan, winner of the CHM Patrick J. McGovern Tech for Humanity Luminary award, was onstage at CHM in a rare appearance on June 1, 2022. He shared the origins of his big idea and insights about where he thinks education is headed in the future.

Swinging for the Fences

The event’s first moderator was Anahita Srinivasan, alumna of CHM’s Teen Internship program and Teen Engagement Council, who is currently a student at Sal’s alma mater, MIT, majoring in electrical engineering and computer science just as he did. She asked about the big ideas behind Khan Academy, and Sal said that he felt that if you’re going to do something, you may as well “swing for the fences.” The idea of educating the world, was “a bit delusional” at the time, but Sal was inspired by meeting people doing big things at MIT when he was a student there and by science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov.

Sal Khan describes how Isaac Asimov inspired Khan Academy.

Sal was also impressed by how MIT resisted the impulse to try to monetize its offerings as other universities were starting to do with for-profit ventures in the early days of the internet. Instead, MIT announced that its Open Courseware Project would provide courses for free. It inspired Sal to believe that Khan Academy could be bigger than a business.

Learning At Home

During the pandemic, daily learning minutes on Khan Academy increased from an average of 25 or 30 million to 85 million. Sal started schoolhouse.world, a prototype offering free tutoring from volunteers, many of whom are students. Today, ten thousand students are involved in a pilot for free SAT prep and homework help.

Sal likens the pandemic to a natural disaster of sorts and hopes that Khan Academy can help in the reconstruction. He notes that there was already a lot of learning loss before the pandemic and that 65% of kids at four-year colleges must take remedial math at a pre-algebra level. Now, students are scoring 10–30% worse in math, and many have fallen off radar.

But there’s hope. Studies show that kids who are able to put in 30 minutes a week over a year are improving 50–100% on average. Allowing them to work at their own pace to fill in gaps is Khan Academy’s specialty, and the organization is working with school districts to promote those efforts.

A Reluctant Entrepreneur

Moderator Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster, asked Sal if Khan Academy could have happened outside of Silicon Valley. Sal thinks not. There’s perhaps a higher probability of meeting a philanthropist like Ann Doerr, who gave him $100,000 after a lunch meeting, but it’s more than that, he says. People in Silicon Valley think about impact and scale differently than other regions and are more likely to take a bet on something that might sound a little crazy but could scale.

But Sal’s experience at a failed Silicon Valley startup in the late ’90s made him reluctant to jump into entrepreneurship. He initially thought of Khan Academy as a hobby project.

Sal Khan describes how Khan Academy started as a hobby.

Impacting the World

When Sal first posted his educational videos on YouTube, he saw how the internet could be used at great scale for educational content. Even in 2010, Khan Academy was already reaching more people than Harvard had in its entire history, and it’s grown by a factor of 100 or 1000 since then.

Sal sees Khan Academy as an institution that can and needs to exist on the internet. He likens its ethos to Sesame Street, which used new technology (TV at the time) to disseminate knowledge through a trusted brand. He’s an advocate for competency-based learning and explains why Khan Academy is ideal for that model, unlocking a whole new ecosystem.

Sal Khan describes how Khan Academy can help the future of learning.

In ten years, Sal believes that students will be proving what they know for free. They’ll prepare for it for free and get all the support they need for free. This, he says, will put pressure on colleges to add value to their experiences. Perhaps they’ll end up treating freshmen more like graduate students, allowing them to do research and build things. The universities that thrive will be those that support students in proving mastery by third-party benchmarks or by optimizing the college experience beyond just sitting in lecture halls.

Sal’s advice as an entrepreneur, visionary, and daily meditator? Find balance between working at your profession and also at your passion. Take the next step. Live in the moment, accept what is happening, and then do the next best thing you can do.

Watch the full conversation

Educating the Planet With Social Entrepreneur Sal Khan | CHM Live, June 1, 2022

Watch the Patrick J. McGovern Tech for Humanity award ceremony, where Sal and other visionary entrepreneurs were honored, and hear powerful stories from people whose lives were changed by Khan Academy.

Celebrating Tech for Humanity | June 1, 2022

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About the Author

Heidi Hackford is the content and curriculum director for the Exponential Center at the Computer History Museum. She is responsible for leading the development of educational materials focused on innovation and entrepreneurship. Heidi previously worked at Monticello, where she edited Thomas Jefferson’s family letters. At the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, she established a digital archive and conducted teacher workshops on incorporating digital history resources in the classroom. After moving to Silicon Valley, Heidi directed the start-up of a new foundation promoting wilderness conservation through art.

Originally published at https://computerhistory.org on June 14, 2022.

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