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Sal Khan: ‘I love learning’

At MIT, alumnus describes his path to reshaping education through highly accessible online videos.
Sal Khan posed for photos with students after autographing copies of his book, "The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined."
Sal Khan posed for photos with students after autographing copies of his book, "The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined."

Photo: David L. Chandler
MIT President L. Rafael Reif, left, and Khan Academy's Sal Khan at Wednesday's event.
MIT President L. Rafael Reif, left, and Khan Academy's Sal Khan at Wednesday's event.
Photos: M. Scott Brauer

“If there was a PhD in learning everything, I would do that,” the always-enthusiastic Sal Khan ’98, MEng ’98 said in a talk Wednesday at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium. In fact, he added, in creating the popular Khan Academy website for online learning, “Now, I feel like I found that job!”

MIT President L. Rafael Reif, left, and Khan Academy's Sal Khan spoke during Wednesday's event.Photos: M. Scott Brauer

The site began almost by accident, as a way for Khan to help his younger cousin in Louisiana with her math classes. He said that Khan Academy’s humble origins may have been a key to its success, encouraging a simple and conversational approach that is part of his lessons’ appeal.

“I actually think I would have messed up if I thought I was doing this for Bill Gates,” Khan said — although the Microsoft founder did become an early Khan Academy fan, and later a major benefactor through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Khan said that for a larger audience, he would have hired professional scriptwriters, used special effects, and ended up with something impersonal, like a talking GPS unit. Instead, because he was aiming his presentation at one person, “that created a human connection.”

MIT President L. Rafael Reif, serving as Khan’s interviewer, seconded this point, saying, “I think that’s a good lesson. … The receiver is actually feeling that you’re talking to that person.”

Khan said members of his team have met with officials of edX, the nonprofit online-education venture launched last year by MIT and Harvard University, to discuss ways in which Khan Academy, which provides free online educational videos for younger students, could cooperate with its higher-ed counterpart.

“There’s a million ways we can work together,” Khan said, adding that both organizations “want to be a catalyst for rethinking how classrooms are architected. … I’m super-pumped about the possibilities here.”

With edX, Khan said, MIT and Harvard will define how higher education will change in the coming years. Both edX and Khan Academy, he noted, share an insistence on a nonprofit approach, adding that his alma mater’s announcement of the creation of a nonprofit approach to online learning was “one of the most proud days of my life.”

When Khan was setting up Khan Academy and deciding how to structure it, many people advised him to make it a for-profit company, he said. But he thought about the potential rewards: At best, a for-profit could be acquired by a bigger company, or have an initial public offering.

“Both of those things weren’t clear to me as positives,” Khan said. By contrast, nonprofit institutions — such as universities — can have an impact that persists over centuries: “Maybe in 500 years people could still use Khan Academy,” he said.

Khan relayed that several MIT students have told him that “Khan Academy helped them to get into MIT. … That’s better than anything!” He also disclosed, to the hundreds of students gathered in Kresge, “I’m selfishly here because I’m hoping to hire at least half of you.”

In selecting topics to cover, Khan said, “I won’t make a video unless I feel excited about making a video. … The key is to really enjoy the subject matter.” He added that people sometimes misunderstand online learning, seeing it as decreasing opportunities for interaction. “When we say learn at your own pace, we’re not saying learn by yourself,” he said. “It’s, in fact, the opposite.”

Rather, he suggested, in combining online videos with problem-solving work with teachers, “the role of the teacher becomes far more valuable”: Teachers can then spend more time in one-on-one interactions with students.

Khan downplayed the importance of formal credentials for online coursework. When considering new hires for his rapidly growing company, he says, what matters most is, “What have you made? Can you show us something? … It doesn’t even have to be software. Do you have a painting? Even that speaks volumes to us.”

Khan’s visit was organized by an undergraduate group called StartLabs, founded two years ago, which seeks to promote student entrepreneurship. After the public talk, students selected through a lottery were invited to meet Khan at a private reception.

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Howard Husock writes for Forbes about Khan Academy, a platform created by MIT alumnus Salman Khan that hosts free courses online. “Our goal is for Khan Academy’s software and content to be the best possible learning experience and for it to be for everyone, for free, forever,” said Khan.

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