It began innocently enough in 2004 as a way for Sal Khan to tutor his young cousin, who was struggling with math and lived miles away. Within two years, those virtual lessons blossomed into a full-time career and the KhanAcademy, an online library of 2,600 YouTube videos and counting that currently draw more than 3 million viewers a month and fans like Google and Bill Gates, who sends his own kids to the free site for help with school work.
Covering mostly math and science, Khan’s low-key, straightforward and concise approach to brain-jarring concepts like quadratic equations and the phases of mitosis have taken the education community and students by storm.
Khan, who is a keynote speaker at NSBA’s 2012 Annual Conference in Boston in April, carved time out of his busy schedule to talk to ASBJ Senior Editor Naomi Dillon about his journey toward “helping people learn what they want, when they want, at their own pace.”
So you’re an educator to the masses. Would you say that’s an accurate description?
Different people have different views on what an education is, and we don’t pretend that just experiencing on-demand video by itself is the panacea to solving education’s problems. But what we think we’re giving, at minimum, is an alternate way to tackle the material. If students missed a day at school, if their mind wasn’t engaged when it was happening in class, if they need to remediate things from previous years they’re definitely getting that. And I actually don’t think that should be understated, because frankly I think a lot of the reason why some students have trouble progressing is because they have gaps in their basic knowledge.
Few people realize how difficult it is to transfer knowledge from one person to the next. Did that come naturally to you?
I wouldn’t want to pretend by me recording these videos that I’m doing everything that a teacher does. I once volunteered teaching seventh-graders when I was in Boston. It didn’t take long for the classroom management to go through the door. I did not know what I was doing in terms of being able to handle 30 kids. But the part about explaining concepts, that is something I am into, and that’s hopefully the value I’m bringing. There’s a methodology to learning and my videos are about sharing that methodology to other people: “Let’s think this through; let’s do what seems logical; let’s try to find the pattern between things; and let’s do it in a conversational way.” You should feel like it’s a story even if it’s a math problem.
Where did this drive and appreciation for learning and education come from?
I think it’s a human instinct to love to learn and understand the world. But I think, what’s happened for most people is they become frustrated with one topic or another, or have a bad experience along their education, and they kind of fall off and start to believe that they don’t like learning. When really, they just don’t like being frustrated, they just don’t like being talked down to, and they don’t like when the information is going past them.
Explain why we don’t see you in your videos – just a black screen and a drawing tool with a multiple array of colors, a whole setup you call “The Forum Factor.”
When I decided to make the first videos I didn’t have any production equipment or a background in video production. I just got a cheap $20 head-set to record my voice, used screen capture software and just started using Microsoft paint. My cousins liked it. Other people gave good feedback. And now, although we have the ability to do more, we realize that [this way] is not only easier to produce, but it focuses on the content. It’s more intimate. It feels like we’re sitting next to each other as opposed to me at a white board talking to you.
Your videos are known for being brief and concise, lasting no more than 10 minutes. How do you know how much material to cover and when to stop?
I have found with most concepts 10 minutes is actually about enough time. You can get about two or three pretty decent concepts across in that time. If it requires more complex development I will say, “Hey, let’s just take a break,” and I’ll just resume it in the next video.
Besides the actual lesson, what do you want the viewers to take away from the videos and the exercises on the Khan Academy?
What we’re hoping to do is give students a genuine love for learning and, frankly, I hope I can make students see what I see: a world that’s fascinating, a world that’s full of mysteries to be solved.