Sal Khan, SB, MEng '98

SHARE:

Sal Khan

Sal Khan became a global superstar when he brought his life experiences and natural inclinations to help others into focus by creating and running the Khan Academy. Since it’s inception in 2008, Khan Academy, as a not-for-profit, has delivered over 240 million online lessons to students worldwide — testament to its mission to provide a free world-class education for anyone, anywhere. Students of all ages have been viewing the over 4000 videos and using the site associated online adaptive exercise platform and online tracking that encourages learning mastery. The story of his journey and his thesis to reinvent education now appears in his book, The One World Schoolhouse, which came out in late 2012. 

Sal Khan followed his undergraduate education (in math, and electrical engineering and computer science) and his MEng in computer science at MIT in 1998 with several jobs in Silicon Valley for a few years — his first career. Completing his Harvard Business School MBA in 2003, Sal Khan started his second career as a hedge fund manager in Boston. 

Then came his third (and current) career. Sal Khan has the good fortune to be a natural teacher — as well as a good computer scientist — so he was more than adept at helping his then 7th grade cousin Nadia (based in Louisiana) with a math problem in 2004 while he worked in Boston. Teaching at a distance was easily overcome online and eventually Nadia and her friends and relatives ballooned into a pre-Khan Academy set of viewers of her cousin Sal’s short, entertaining videos ultimately posted on You Tube. Within a few years, Khan’s interests went well beyond hedge fund management. Fortunately, the increasing recognition and support came just in time as Sal reached the tipping point to go on his own. Donors began to surface including Ann Doerr (and her husband John, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist) and then in quick succession, Bill Gates (and his family) who raved about Khan Academy to a large audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival in front of 2,000+ people, support from Google’s Eric Schmidt, and more. By 2009, Sal Khan was fully launched to run his dream — the Khan Academy. 

Sal Khan got to this point for lots of reasons including his early schooling and his childhood. Although Sal’s mother, a single parent from India, was forced to work extremely hard at many jobs, Sal and his older sister and younger brother grew up in an environment that fostered individuality and curiosity. In his words: “For the most part we had a fairly verbal family which in no small way was a euphemism for argumentative. But you can't discount that. [It] actually makes you good at articulating yourself on the fly.“ 

Sal is naturally the kind of person who is not afraid to ask questions to understand something, to get to the heart of a problem or need, to want to teach with passion and effect, and to take on natural leadership roles. (He was president of the Class of 1998 at MIT and president of the student body while a student at Harvard Business School). In so many ways, Sal Khan is what he teaches. 

"I teach the way I wish I was taught. The lectures are actually coming from me, an actual human being who is fascinated by the world around him." 

Since his experiences growing up in the public schools in New Orleans, Sal Khan has been sensitive to how he was taught. When he was selected to join a class for gifted learners, he says, one of his teachers asked him: “What do you want to do?” His reaction? “I was like “What? You're asking me what do I want to do?” You know, she kind of gave me license to be creative.”

At the heart of his well-formulated thesis about education for humanity, Sal points to the need for allowing each individual (at any age) to proactively seek out learning—a positive and creative act in itself. He proposes that by using the Khan Academy online videos and exercises, which are self-paced and uniquely tracked, anyone (including students in public schools) can reach mastery (100%) of the material without being turned off by lengthy lectures. Teachers can finally give their full passion to individual tutoring while all students can help each other as they progress at different (and similar) rates. His ideas on a self paced, mastery-based model are already being adapted for use in schools in California and elsewhere. (Read more about applying Khan Academy courses and concepts on the Khan Academy website. https://www. khanacademy.org/coach/resources).

Sal Khan has been thinking about education for a long time. When he came to MIT, he was keenly aware of how smart students were sometimes struggling while others were not. He wondered about this. At the same time, he noticed that the pace forced him (and others) to be mercenaries with their time. “I was thinking coldly how to get the most bang for my hour of time,” he recalls. He discovered that he learned best at his own pace — whether getting ‘chunks of understanding’ from a book chapter or working with classmates on a project in the lab. He also realized that the people who understood a subject (such as math, the basis for much of science and engineering) holistically — on an intuitive level — were the ones who learned most deeply. 

It is interesting that between his junior and senior years as an undergraduate at MIT, Sal Khan was given the Eloranta Fellowship to create education software and he created “Planet Math”. Since then he admits he has lost the domain name and doesn’t know what’s happened to it — though he would like to have it! [We are on it, Sal!] 

Along the way, Sal also realized that effective online education requires more than just a scripted experience. From his early days teaching his cousin, he knew the value of the human ‘emotive’ delivery. He says, “There should be intonation and cues that you [the teacher] care[s]. A lot of that get's lost when you script things.” Although he misses those early days when he recorded all his videos in a little ‘closet-like’ office, he guards his time to continue preparing and making all the videos for Khan Academy. 

Since his experiences growing up in the public schools in New Orleans, Sal Khan has been sensitive to how he was taught. When he was selected to join a class for gifted learners, he says, one of his teachers asked him: “What do you want to do?” His reaction? “I was like “What? You're asking me what do I want to do?” You know, she kind of gave me license to be creative.”

At the heart of his well-formulated thesis about education for humanity, Sal points to the need for allowing each individual (at any age) to proactively seek out learning—a positive and creative act in itself. He proposes that by using the Khan Academy online videos and exercises, which are self-paced and uniquely tracked, anyone (including students in public schools) can reach mastery (100%) of the material without being turned off by lengthy lectures. Teachers can finally give their full passion to individual tutoring while all students can help each other as they progress at different (and similar) rates. His ideas on a self paced, mastery-based model are already being adapted for use in schools in California and elsewhere. (Read more about applying Khan Academy courses and concepts on the Khan Academy website. https://www.khanacademy.org/coach/resources).

Sal Khan has been thinking about education for a long time. When he came to MIT, he was keenly aware of how smart students were sometimes struggling while others were not. He wondered about this. At the same time, he noticed that the pace forced him (and others) to be mercenaries with their time. “I was thinking coldly how to get the most bang for my hour of time,” he recalls. He discovered that he learned best at his own pace — whether getting ‘chunks of understanding’ from a book chapter or working with classmates on a project in the lab. He also realized that the people who understood a subject (such as math, the basis for much of science and engineering) holistically — on an intuitive level — were the ones who learned most deeply.

It is interesting that between his junior and senior years as an undergraduate at MIT, Sal Khan was given the Eloranta Fellowship to create education software and he created “Planet Math”. Since then he admits he has lost the domain name and doesn’t know what’s happened to it — though he would like to have it! [We are on it, Sal!]

Along the way, Sal also realized that effective online education requires more than just a scripted experience. From his early days teaching his cousin, he knew the value of the human ‘emotive’ delivery. He says, “There should be intonation and cues that you [the teacher] care[s]. A lot of that get's lost when you script things.” Although he misses those early days when he recorded all his videos in a little ‘closet-like’ office, he guards his time to continue preparing and making all the videos for Khan Academy.

And, Sal Khan’s life observations about the holistic learning experience — where ideally, you learn by connections between content — have framed his approach. He notes, “When math or science was taught, it was often not in the most emotive way — often coming from one unit to another. It was very disjoint; connections weren’t drawn across subjects. Even within a subject connections were often lost.”

Now the 37+ individuals who work for Sal Khan are applying these concepts to the growing Khan Academy. They come from all over (including EECS and MIT) and are highly gifted computer scientists and engineers who are excited to contribute to this effort. While, the focus is to effectively deliver online mastery learning experiences in all the major core topics such as physics, chemistry and biology, much is happening in the real-time teaching and learning potential offered through Khan Academy.

Last summer Sal and members of the Academy ran a camp designed to discover what was possible in the physical learning environment interfacing with young students — a project simulation-based experience. He notes, “There is a part of our DNA that really wants to interface with real kids to see what and how they can learn.” Well over a thousand applications were made for the class of 60 — another indication of the growing interest in the Khan Academy approach.

Is there competition? Sal Khan says, yes, but not in the traditional sense. He explains: “There are others starting to give tools — some for profit, some not — like Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). I don’t know whether you call them competition. They are in the same space. We want to be on the cutting edge. So, if they’re doing something cool, we want to be able to leverage that. It’s kind of like the competition you have with friends. You want to do well but you want to continue the friendship.”

In terms of MIT’s digital learning tools, Sal Khan was extremely impressed when Open Courseware was announced in 2001. His reaction to MITx was a lot more personal. He notes, “Later [in late 2010], when they set up MITx, they referred to ‘KSVs’ [Khan Style Videos]. I was blown away. Now they’re citing me!” (He was and is a big supporter of edX/MITx.) In early 2012, the MIT School of Engineering launched a series of videos produced by MIT students and aimed at K-12 learners. Sal Khan helped with this project and the MIT+K-12 videos are integrated on the Khan Academy website.

This may have been about the same time that Sal Khan was approached to speak at MIT. He reflects: “Speaking at graduation was like a Nobel Prize, literally. If someone had told me while I was at MIT that I would be the commencement speaker, I would have said "If that happens to me the day before I am 80 years old, that's awesome.”

Among the many inspirational personalities Sal Khan followed as a child (including his older sister), late night comedian Johnny Carson ranks high. He says, “Literally from age 3 until 11 when he retired, I was a regular watcher. I thought there was no more fun thing to do than to watch. Clearly I had no bed time!” But he admits he didn’t get most of the jokes.

But, he did get the idea of entertaining — for education’s sake.

2013 MIT EECS Connector
Click on the link above or the cover image above to access the 2013 issue of the MIT EECS Connector.
Alumni in EECS Connector 2013
The 2013 MIT EECS Connector featured Deborah Estrin, SM '83, PhD '85; Dropbox co-founders Drew Houston, SB '05, and Arash Ferdowsi '08; Khan Academy creator and educator Sal Khan, SB, MEng '98; and Susie Wee, '90, SM '91, and PhD '98, Cisco VP and Chief Technology Officer of Networked Experiences. Read more about these amazing individuals in the Connector!