“COVID-19 feels like a ctrl+alt+delete on society, it’s moving us towards collective action.”

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Aug 4, 2020 · 6 min read

In 2020, closures have affected more than 87% of schools around the world. In response, distance learning has become the default placing huge hardships on parents, teachers and students. Khan Academy’s CEO shares insights on the importance of high quality distance learning in the age of COVID-19.

Sal Khan, Founder of Khan Academy

Khan Academy is synonymous with distance learning and enables anyone to access a world-class education for free, from home. Has COVID-19 changed your work and if so, how?

SK: At the highest level, it has accelerated the urgency for our mission and opened the door for more conversations, and more movement. COVID-19 feels like a ctrl+alt+delete on society. We rebooted. We’ve found that in places where we had alignment before COVID-19 as an ecosystem, the crisis is moving us towards collective action. Two big areas where we see this:

Differentiation: Khan Academy has long been focused on how critical differentiation is in making sure that education works for everyone. However, in far too many contexts, learning happens at a fixed pace. If you failed the test because you didn’t understand the concepts, the class keeps moving and you may never develop that critical knowledge. When we look at the staggering percentage of people taking remediation courses in college, it becomes clear that this linear approach does not work. Our theory of change at Khan Academy is focused on giving people the ability to fill gaps in their knowledge and personalize their learning trajectory.

Access: Alongside access to tech, Khan Academy has long talked about gaps in access to high quality instruction. We want everyone to have access to a world-class education.

Addressing both of these gaps is all the more important today in the COVID-19 context and we believe that Khan Academy has a huge role to play which is what our most recent Google.org grant enables us to deliver. We are seeing 2–3x traffic, 5–10x student/teacher registration, 20x parent registration. We are offering free digital learning experiences for students who might not currently have access through their school system or need to supplement what they are receiving. We are offering daily schedules for parents and teachers who might have had to start homeschooling on two days notice. We are accelerating development of Khan Academy Kids for younger learners ages two to seven. And we are creating a variety of preparedness courses for back to school. We know that the impacts of COVID-19 will extend beyond this school year and we want to make sure that students, particularly those who have been left behind during and before COVID-19, have the requisite knowledge to be successful in the new school year.

Amidst so much change and challenge, what has you hopeful?

SK: First and foremost, there is a ton of suffering happening due to COVID-19. But I’ve been very heartened by the humanity I’m seeing in everyone. And, I think there is still a lot to be hopeful about. Our reboot as a society has made it all the more clear that some of our old patterns and assumptions are no longer serving us.

I see an open mindedness to new ideas right now. Whether in education or how we commute or how we hold meetings, folks are starting to question some of the beliefs we had held to be true. Our mission to provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere is arguably more important now than ever, and more people than ever are taking advantage of our resources.

I am hopeful that after COVID-19 we adjust some of our habits to allow us to spend time on the things — family, friends, connection — that really matter to us and our communities. In my own life, I have found joy in spending more time with my family, gardening, and doing home improvement projects. Nothing was stopping me from doing these things before but with a little bit of time, I have realized just how beautiful they are.

What challenges have you faced shifting organizationally to respond to COVID-19?

SK: As we saw school closures begin to happen and accelerate, we realized that we needed to do more. We recognized that it’s our duty to step up. We never could have foreseen this type of situation but the team at Khan Academy is very focused on making sure we can support students, parents, and teachers through this crisis.

At the same time, we are all humans. We are all balancing complex personal lives with the immense opportunity we have right now to offer learning to millions of people around the globe. Internally, we have teammates balancing parenting, worrying about the health of family members, and making plans to account for the economic hardship that their now unemployed partner will be navigating. However, the opportunity and need for Khan Academy has never been greater so we see folks wanting to dedicate themselves fully to work. How do we support folks to take care of themselves and find balance?

In 2016, a Google.org grant enabled you to scale and localize your platform for more learners, in more places. How have Khan Academy’s offerings expanded since then?

SK: In 2016, the project was focused on supporting our work in Indonesia and general operating support for the organization. The project there started because of the scarcity of learning resources designed for students in Bahasa Indonesia. So we partnered with local organizations and experts to make high-quality resources that worked for learners, parents, and teachers.

In terms of general operating support, philanthropy has a real tendency to gravitate towards project-funding rather than broad support of organizations. However, when I look at the different phases of Khan Academy, general operating support has been one of the critical factors for us having enough runway to evolve as an organization. I think of it as a three chapter story: chapter 1 was me in my walk in closet, chapter 2 was in 2010 when Google.org first funded Khan Academy to be a global resource, and chapter 3 started in 2018 as we set out to truly deliver a world-class education at scale to billions of learners around the globe. General operating support is what has allowed us to turn the page at each of these important moments and it is more important than ever now. Philanthropic support is absolutely crucial to continuing to level the playing field and ensure more students get the access to quality education that they deserve.

It has been a busy couple of years. Are there any specific learnings or takeaways from those projects that your team is focused on today?

SK: Looking specifically at the work in Indonesia, access to devices and connectivity is a real issue. We see this mirrored in other resource-constrained contexts around the globe. Even now during the COVID-19 crisis, equity is the big issue. Many students don’t have reliable access to computers and the Internet from home. For these learners, there is an interest in mobile interfaces that are more text based to be lightweight and bandwidth efficient. We continue, as a team, to think about how we can best serve these learners with high quality content that is less dependent on connectivity or videos.

Can you speak to Khan Academy’s specific offerings for parents helping students learn at home. What should they be focused on?

We have tips and resources for parents with kids in preschool through high school, including schedules and free tools for parents to track their child’s progress. Find those on our website:

This series on distance learning is brought to you by Google.org, a proud supporter of Khan Academy since 2010. In April 2020, as part of our broader $100M COVID-19 response, we gave Khan Academy an additional $1M grant to create new parent and teacher resources in 15+ languages ensuring that students can keep learning in the midst of the pandemic no matter where they are. This grant builds on our 2016 Global Education Portfolio which focused on nonprofits using technology to address education gaps, particularly in developing countries.

To hear more about our work with Khan Academy, watch an interview between Google.org President Jacquelline Fuller and Sal Khan on the Khan Academy YouTube channel. The two discuss Google.org’s mission and commitment to COVID-19 relief as well as Jacquelline’s career trajectory to date.

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We bring the best of Google to help solve some of humanity’s biggest challenges & provide opportunity for everyone.