He didn’t know it at the time, but Sal Khan began his career as an educator when he decided to tutor a young cousin over the Internet—with the help of a speaker phone and electronic notepad.
Two years later, he found himself tutoring 15 family members online.
And today, through his nonprofit Khan Academy, he’s helping educate millions. His online video tutorials have been viewed more than 140 million times by students from around the world.
Speaking at Sunday’s General Session, Khan told the story of his remarkable transition from a hedge fund analyst to an education innovator garnering national acclaim.
A key moment in this journey came in 2006, when Khan complained to a friend that he was finding it difficult to find time to provide adequate help to every family member who wanted tutoring. His friend suggested he create video tutorials and put them on YouTube.
“I was immediately dismissive,” he said. “YouTube is for cats playing the piano. It is not for serious mathematics. But I went home that weekend and kind of got over the idea that it wasn’t my idea.”
The rest was history. Not only did his family find the tutorials useful, but he began receiving positive comments from others—students, parents, and educators who’d discovered his online lessons.
In 2009, Khan took a “leap of faith” and launched the Khan Academy, hoping to fund it through donations. But money was scarce — with $50 being a large donation — and he was brushing off his resume and preparing to re-enter the job market when he suddenly received a $10,000 donation from a woman he’d never met.
“I immediately e-mailed the individual … and said, ‘Thank you. This is the largest donation that’s ever come to the Khan Academy. If we were a physical school, you would now have a building named after you.’”
Later, he would meet the woman, who talked to him about his work and his ideas for the future, and soon after that meeting, he received a text: “I just wired you $100,000.”
“So it was a good day,” he said.
His next big break came in 2010, when he learned from his patron that Bill Gates had just spent five minutes praising his videos at a public presentation. Two weeks later, he was flying to Seattle to meet with Gates, who gave him $2 million for his work. Then Google donated another $2 million.
“We were up and running,” Khan said, suddenly flush with the resources to expand his work to bring a world-class to anyone who could tap the Internet.
That money showed the faith that people had in his work, and Khan has lived up to it. His library of online tutorials has climbed to more than 3,000, and he estimates that 6 million new users are using the videos each year.
Meanwhile, he’s expanded his services overseas, developed sophisticated software that allows teachers to track student progress as they complete online exercises he’s developed, and added tutorials in content areas beyond his original focus in math and science.
In explaining his success, Khan suggested his online program solves a long-standing problem with traditional education: the tyranny of time. In a traditional school, students have a limited amount of time to master a lesson before the teacher moves on; with his approach, students can go over the lesson again and again until they master it.
“Instead of holding fixed the time and pace of instruction and the variable is mastery … let’s make time and pace the variable.”
Teachers also are saying the tutorials and online exercises free them from the role of lecturer, he said. Instead of standing at the blackboard, they can track student progress with software — and intervene individually with students as they struggle. They are empowered.
“It’s ironic. We use technology to increase the humanity, the interaction, to improve the time with the teacher.”
Most important, it’s having results, he said. Sharing a number of slides, Khan noted that, in one pilot project in high-poverty classes, the number of seventh-graders who tested proficient or advanced in math jumped from 23 percent to 41 percent. Six percent of these students climbed from “far below basic” in math to a ranking of “basic.”
Among Khan’s anecdotes was a story about a reporter who visited a fifth-grade classroom using his tutorials and found a student working on a trigonometry lesson. Asked if the student thought this was fifth-grade math, Khan said, she replied with a conspiratorial smile, “I think it’s sixth grade.”