How Khan Academy Used Technology to Humanize the Classroom

When MIT graduate Sal Khan started uploading the math classes he ran for his cousins onto YouTube, he stumbled upon a surprisingly successful new way of teaching. Ultimately, it would lead to the story of how one man’s side work in tutoring led to a revolution in the world of education.

Khan Academy speaks to how innovative digital products can reinvent services, even those that have resisted change for hundreds of years. It’s not so much a case of thinking outside the box, but creating an entirely new box to work with.

“I was an analyst at a hedge fund. It was strange for me to do something of value.” 
– Sal Khan, Founder of Khan Academy

The unlikely tale of how Khan Academy came to be is already something of an Internet legend. Routed in practical, everyday life, it also speaks of altruism from the very start. It’s a story of personal fulfillment against the odds, for both its founder and students: of a service that aims to help people achieve the unachievable, many times transforming their lives in the process.

It starts in late 2003, with founder Sal Khan working a comfortable job at a hedge fund. In his spare time, the MIT graduate started remotely tutoring his cousin Nadia in mathematics. Word got out and demand grew for Sal’s services from other family members, until it all became too much work to manage. Then a friend asked him why he doesn’t just film his classes and post them to YouTube. Even though at the time YouTube was still largely known for cat videos and limited uploads to ten minutes, he decided to give it a try.

Right from the start, the results were surprising. Not only did Nadia enjoy the new classes delivered on YouTube, she preferred them. Sal had essentially stumbled upon a new teaching method that in many ways works to the student’s advantage. As an article in Wired explains, the video lectures allowed Nadia to control the pace of the class, as well as repeating problem sections to her heart’s content, without the pressure of someone standing over her shoulder — which Khan describes as “the worst time to learn something.”

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Changing Lives on YouTube

Clearly Nadia wasn’t alone in finding success in this new way of teaching. Since the videos became publically available, a whole new audience of people struggling with calculus or algebra have been drawn to these rudimentary online classes. Some of the feedback Khan receives is nothing short of inspirational — including a woman who says her entire family is so grateful that they devote daily prayers to him.

He eventually received a notable email suggesting he might be onto something big. It came from a student who was well behind in his math class, so in the vain hope of catching up, he spent most of the summer digesting Khan’s classes. The end result: against the odds, he was accepted into college. His message, quoted in Forbes includes the following touching detail:

“I can say without any doubt that you have changed my life and the lives of everyone in my family.”

With such encouragement, it’s perhaps little surprise Sal Khan decided to ditch his comfortable, high paying finance job to work full-time on what would ultimately become Khan Academy.

This was in 2009. Soon after, the newly-formed charity caught the attention of philanthropist Anne Doerr. She became its first supporter, and rapidly upped her contribution when she realized Khan had no other funding and was operating out of a ‘closet’ in his California home. Not long after, Bill Gates became another donor. His own children are reportedly fans of Khan’s classes. In 2012, Gates went so far as to call Khan’s contribution to education “incalculable”, and from then on, his donations, along with others from the likes of Google, secured Khan Academy’s immediate future.

“The Future of Education” by Steve Jurvetson. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY2.0).

A ‘Game-Like’ Way of Learning

“It was a good day his wife let him quit his job.” — Microsoft Founder Bill Gates, quoted here.

To date, the Khan Academy website has delivered almost 600 million lessons worldwide, and is currently seeing four million exercises completed per day. If you’re wondering exactly how it came to be so popular, look no further than the site itself — and how Khan, despite not being a qualified teacher, has made the whole experience of learning fun — and maybe even more human, in the process.

When using the site now, you can see it has developed a great deal from its rather basic origins. You progress upon mastering a subject by answering a set number of questions in a row correctly. All the while, you are awarded ‘energy points’ and merit badges for your efforts. Together, this has the effect of setting out a clear feeling of progression and achievement as you go.

The end result is a brilliantly executed, game-like way of learning. Also, unlike other bland or repetitive online learning experiences, Khan Academy is highly interactive — a crucial factor in its success. This comes across not only through questions, but with other dynamic elements that make it feel like a more personalized, Internet-based experience.

Another key differentiator is in the format of the classes themselves. Other platforms essentially take the form of a lecture transplanted to screen, complete with close-up videos of the professor and obligatory PowerPoint slides.

From the start, Sal Khan knew he wanted to do things differently — instead of a close-up of himself, we get a dynamically changing blackboard, complete with bright colors, annotations and notes added on the fly. We hear Khan’s soothing voice and uninterrupted fluid delivery (he still delivers most of the Academy’s classes and claims to do each one in a single take). Overall, it makes for a unique, but consistent experience: informal and approachable — the effect (as was perhaps intended from the start) is much like a friendly uncle lending you a helping hand.

Flipping the Classroom

Another way that Khan sets himself apart from the competition, is that Khan views his online lessons and quizzes as complementing in-class activity — not replacing them. While reducing the student-to-teacher ratio is often seen as the main challenge in education, Khan believes addressing student to valuable time with teacher is even more important. What’s more, he has spoken of how the rigidity of the traditional school system reduces students’ capacity for curiosity, not to mention initiative:

“Kids are herded together, the bell rings, you’re rewarded for passivity, you’re rewarded for compliance, that’s what keeps you moving through the system.”

And one way of enabling more valuable time between student and teacher is what he calls “flipping” the school day: homework and lesson time are essentially swapped, with students following lessons on Khan Academy at home, then getting support for specific problems in “homework” sessions at school the next day.

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An easy-to-use analytics dashboard is built into the system so teachers can spot wherever students are struggling and then intervene. This includes the work they do from home. Crucially, where traditional school curricula would see all students forced to work at the same pace, Khan Academy also takes learning back to an individual level. Those who are more advanced naturally progress to more advanced subjects — and are continually engaged and challenged. In report after report, it also flips the traditional view of students being passive subjects, making them take ownership of their own progress.

An 18th Century Institution

As you might expect, Khan has faced his fair share of criticism from the educational establishment, including criticism of his lack of teaching qualifications. Some also argue the video lecture format isn’t so far removed from the old “listen and repeat” formula. Others say that his lectures include basic errors and are overly weighted to the procedural over the conceptual. But Khan might argue that some simply feel threatened by what he is trying to achieve. And looking at the range of other sectors being turned on their head by technology, it seems inevitable learning should also face some change. Arguably this change is as likely to come from outside as within.

Many school conventions in place today apparently date back to the late 1700s, including age-based classes, and learning math, reading, and writing, even down to the ringing of the school bell. And as Khan has pointed out himself, while there is much questioning of new teaching methods, often the old ones aren’t subject to the same level of scrutiny.

Interview with Sal Khan

The Growth Mindset

In terms of the academic thinking behind Khan Academy, look no further than the lifelong work of one Stanford professor:

The Growth Mindset is a theory developed by Professor Carol Dweck: ultimately it relates to cultivating students’ potential — moving away from the idea that students are simply bad or good at specific subjects, so that instead they:

“See their qualities as things that can be developed through their dedication and effort.”

Overall, it’s simply a different way of looking at education. It aims to encourage students to build a passion for learning instead of simply seeking approval. And Khan Academy carries an interview with Dweck directly on its website, summing up its own parallel philosophy like this:

“Our goal is to empower students to take ownership of their own learning and to empower coaches to spend more time doing what they do best — personally interacting with every student, providing guidance and encouragement, and engaging students in collaborative activities.”

In other words, not only is Khan Academy a completely new, “internet native” approach to learning — its execution is matched by a way of thinking that breaks with hundreds of years of tradition.

But so much for the theory, what about Khan Academy’s practical application in real schools and its impact on those students’ and teachers’ lives?

“Math Class May Never Be the Same”

The Los Altos school district in California was the first in the US to implement Khan Academy, with a trial in 2010. Seeing “remarkable results”, it rolled out the platform to all 5th, 6th, and certain 7th and 8th grade classes the following year. Soon after, teachers reported a huge change in students’ attitudes to math. As well as freeing up time, one even claimed, “It was the first time I truly felt I was teaching everyone, and no-one was bored.” Another teacher explains how previously she might not have known for weeks if a certain student was getting left behind — but with the benefit of Khan Academy’s analytics, “You can come in and save the day.”

According to a teacher at the Oakland Unity High School, Khan Academy’s biggest impact is shared equally between the highest achieving students and those who would otherwise “appear to be lost”. Another teacher also speaks of being able to only speak to the ‘middle’ before Khan Academy was introduced: students didn’t speak out for fear of being on one side or the other.

In all teacher feedback, it is Khan’s analytics dashboard that comes back repeatedly as one of its most useful features: in an instant, the dashboard helps visualize progress and identify issues. Students can also access their own performance charts, giving them a clear sense of progress and achievement, where before all they had were ‘chapters to complete in a book.’ Administrators from Oakland also explain the benefits such features bring to parents — allowing them direct access to see what their children are studying, feel closer to it, and get involved directly if required.

The popularity of Khan Academy’s dashboard is indicative of both its usefulness and uniqueness in educational circles. Although visualizing data is nothing new to many industries, without the dashboards, many schools would have simply relied on manual data entry to achieve anything like this type of effect. And this is another indication that Khan has quietly created an entirely new category in teaching.

Wider Proof

One teacher relates the benefit of Khan Academy as “really teaching 9th grade students”. He explains how it identifies knowledge gaps, helping them truly master subjects they thought they knew, but didn’t. The key to this process is its seamless and game-like structure, convincing them to keep going. Ultimately, it makes them take more responsibility for their learning — “it’s their job to figure it out.” The results speak for themselves — in one especially rigorous test on equations, since using the service the school’s average score jumped from 37% to 72%.

If wider proof of Khan Academy’s educational value was needed, this comes via a large-scale study in Idaho. Sure enough, the report shows that those who hardly use the platform progress as expected, but those in more active user groups develop between 1.5 to 1.8 times their normal rate in one year. As one teacher puts it, her initial feelings of being challenged by technology — threatened even — have now turned towards seeing it as a huge positive.

Opening Doors, Taking Away Isolation

“How many people have written off their own potential in a discipline, because they didn’t have time or weren’t able to work on what was relevant to them when they needed it.”

Elizabeth Slavitt, VP Strategy & Operations Khan Academy taken from a TEDx event

Though 70% of Khan Academy’s users are currently US-based, its courses have already been translated into multiple languages, and as we look to the future, it is perhaps outside of the US that it still has the most potential to grow.

An idea of what this might look like comes in the major, five-year partnership announced between Khan Academy and Indian philanthropic organization Tata Trusts in late 2015. Promising “to leverage the power of technology to provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere in the country,” this major project involves building an entirely new set of resources, from language down to user experience and curriculum. It’s an indication of the potential, but also the level of backing this charity will need to become a truly global service.

Bringing virtual and physical learning closer together has been at the heart of Khan Academy’s mission from the start. So with its latest project LearnStorm, there’s another inkling of its future. Schools compete and track their progress on a series of live online scoreboards, culminating in a major live event. Essentially it uses the platform to create a new form of national math competition. And it being Khan Academy, the system is able to measure and reward effort as well as correct answers. After what seems like a highly successful first run in Ireland, the first of many other LearnStorm events look set to follow.

As it moves into new countries and new learning experiences, what Khan Academy has achieved already in a few short years is no small feat. As one teacher puts it in the above video, “It’s opened up the door and taken away the isolation in math.”

There you have it, in a sentence. Who would have thought — where technology is so often accused of dehumanizing, of putting up barriers between people — that it could prove such a humanizing force in education.

In fact, this can be seen as a direct result of “flipping the classroom” — bringing teacher and student together for higher quality interactions, and more effective use of their limited time together.

Far from perpetuating old teaching methods, or simply putting classes online, Khan Academy has in fact created something completely new. A completely new category of learning where virtual complements physical learning. And this is no small achievement.

We need more, not fewer innovations like this if the website’s motto “a world class education for anyone, anywhere” can become anywhere near a reality in future.


This article is part of The Paragon of Innovation series by Amdocs Delivery exploring some of the most exciting achievements and developments in technology and engineering. In each case, we look for the innovation at the heart of all such great achievements.

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