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Q&A: Khan Academy Creator Talks About K-12 Innovation

By Lesli A. Maxwell — March 05, 2012 5 min read
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Salman Khan, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Harvard Business School, was working as a hedge fund manager when he began posting videos on YouTube six years ago to tutor young family members in math. That led to the 2008 creation of the Khan Academy, a nonprofit organization that has built a free, online collection of thousands of digital lessons (nearly 3,000 of them created by Mr. Khan himself) and exercises in subjects ranging from algebra to microeconomics. Education Week Staff Writer Lesli A. Maxwell recently interviewed Mr. Kahn about the evolution of the academy and its potential for changing K-12 education.

How do you think classroom instruction is going to look five years from now?

I’m not sure of the timeline, but the classic teacher in front of the room at a chalkboard lecturing while you have 20 to 35 students at their desks taking notes—I think that model will soon go away. I think that’s going to be kind of blown away in favor of a model where every student is working at their own pace and the teacher now has a much higher-value role as someone who is diagnosing students’ weaknesses, who is mentoring students both on the academic material, but also mentoring students on becoming good teachers of their peers.

SALMAN KHAN, the creator of the Khan Academy, uses his office, in Mountain View, Calif., to record online educational videos.

And once you have every student working at their own pace, then you don’t have to have 30 desks aimed at a chalkboard. It also opens up the idea that why do you have to have one teacher with one classroom and another teacher with another classroom? Why can’t you have three teachers in a room with 60 students instead? And they are all dynamically working with students on whatever their strengths and their weaknesses are, and the students are also working with each other.

Explain what the confluence of technological and educational factors has been at this point in time to allow the Khan Academy to flourish and expand. Why is it working?

I think some of the core ideas behind what we are doing are old. The cost of production has gone down dramatically; the cost of distribution has gone down dramatically. The proof of concept of the Khan Academy, which was the first collection of 1,000 videos and even the primitive version of the software, I was able to do as a hobby; it was a significant hobby, but it was essentially a hobby. Even that proof of concept would have required tens of millions of dollars in capital even 20 years ago. And because those costs went down, it allowed for rapid eperimentation, iteration.

I think the breadth of the content on the Khan Academy also gave it an experiential edge, and people learned to trust it. It wasn’t just about one concept you learn about here and then you go to another website. This was about your entire learning experience.

How does your business model work when all of your content is free? How do you sustain that?

It’s a question we constantly ask ourselves. In the medium term, we’ve had the benefit of some small, medium, and large philanthropists, donors, and foundations to support us. We are a not-for-profit, so we are not a business in the traditional sense. I think there will always be this case that yes, it will require capital to scale this out. We are at 4 million unique users. What will happen when we are at 40 million and want to cover so many different topics and have simulations? That will require capital.

But the return you get on that capital is almost immeasurable in terms of the numbers of students you can be reaching. It’s not just the sheer number of students, but the value you are creating in their own being. It’s a pretty stratospheric number, so hopefully that will always be the main selling point for someone who is looking to support society that they will see this as a pretty good leverage point.

Where did the idea of the “flipped classroom” come from?

Very little of this did I think of myself. I also want to emphasize that the flipped classroom is not what we view as the ideal or the endpoint. We view it almost as a transition state. But the flipped classroom is … essentially, early on, I had these videos out there and teachers started emailing me saying: ‘Hey, we flipped our classroom. We used your video. Why should I, the teacher, have to do that lecture anymore? I’m having students watch it on their own time and pace.’ In our mind, the reason why I say that’s a transition state is that it could still imply that all the students are working through the curriculum at the same pace.

We would say, instead of holding fixed the time and date when you learn something and the variable is how well you learn it, we’re saying let’s hold fixed how well you learn it, and you learn it at a deep level, and what’s variable is how long you have to learn it, and when you learn it, and when you revisit the material.

What are the downsides of this approach?

This isn’t an attempt to put it on students’ plates on their own time. Even if you just talk about that flipped approach, I actually think the problem-solving is the much more important part of the experience than the lecture. And this is coming from someone who has made 3,000 lectures. The cynical aspect is that even if a student doesn’tdo anything on their own time, does absolutely nothing, right now that student is kind of staring at a lecture that he or she may or may not be understanding, probably not understanding, and then aren’t doing their homework—so then nothing is going on in their mind, as far as I’m concerned. In this model, at least the classroom is a problem-solving period. It’s a period where you are interacting with the teacher and with your peers.

What are the opportunities that this approach creates for schools to offer more-customized learning for students?

The base assumption of the model is that it’s completely customized to the student and it’s optimally differentiated, and students are working exactly at their pace. But what it does for schools, … it allows them to rethink a lot of the assumptions that we’ve been making about what a school should even be like for the last hundreds of years, which is one teacher, one classroom. Everyone in that classroom was born between August of one year and July of the next year and all will move together in these age-based cohorts, and someone can fail an exam but still be pushed on to the next class. Teaching is a solitary profession where you’re the only teacher in the room. [This model] allows districts to rethink all of this.

Anything to add?

This has absolutely nothing to do with replacing teachers. When we talk about getting lectures out of the room, that’s because we think we can move teachers up the value chain. That they are better off forming the bonds and connections. That’s what you need a human being to do and for a really great teacher to do. Khan Academy takes some of the more traditional stuff off the plate and now, all of a sudden, the classroom becomes a richer and more stimulating experience.

Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as Q&A


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