Salman Khan started his education revolution by making instructive videos for his young relatives and posting them on YouTube.
Today, Khan heads the Khan Academy, a non-profit organization that hosts a collection of more than 2,300 video lectures and provides a education platform that asks educators to rethink the way classrooms should be run.
He’s given a coveted TED talk, and secured high-profile backers including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, angel investor Ron Doerr and his wife Anne, and Netflix chief executive Reid Hastings, The Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein said in a column last week.
Khan took some time to speak with Faster Forward over the phone, answering some criticism about the Academy and sharing what’s next on the agenda. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
You’ve gotten a lot of coverage (in The Post and elsewhere), but for folks who don’t know, what would you say is the Khan Academy’s main mission?
We’re most known for videos I made for my cousins, but we really see ourselves as a platform for teachers to go to whenever they want. We’re layering on more content and more tools for students and to track their progress.
If someone has no access to other materials, it provides a pretty solid experience. And if they do have access, it can be an operating system for them.
The mission is to provide a free world-class education to anyone, anywhere. Right now we have over 2,300 videos on all sorts of topics including all of the major sciences and some economics.
And teachers are already using this in classrooms?
Formally, they’re using it the Los Altos school district. The system lets students work at their own pace on videos and software. It starts off with basic concepts and doesn’t move you on until you’ve mastered ten lessons in a row. The platform records how students are doing and how long its taking them to master the concepts.
So in the Los Altos classrooms, the teacher doesn’t have to give lectures anymore. The role of the teacher turns into someone who looks into the data and can identify how best to help those students. The school district is looking at rolling this out into other schools, maybe even district-wide.
But the school does not need to contact us to do this. Looking at our own logs, it looks like about 1,000 groups are out there acting as classrooms and using our stuff on a semi-regular basis.
What we’re doing with pilots is closely observing classroom progress, but every tool that we have available right now, a random school in India or Africa or New York could use tomorrow, for free.
What are the main criticisms you’ve heard about the Khan Academy?
Well, teachers using it love it, because it allows them to focus on more creative things.
Most of the criticism I’ve heard is from people who are looking at it too superficially, making a shallow judgement. Some haven’t even seen one of our videos.
The assumption that because kids like it, it must be superficial. If you go to our Facebook or go to our YouTube channels, you’ll see that students like the fact that the videos are intelligent and don’t talk down to them. They like that they don’t focus on memorizing.
Teachers like that it’s not just trying to crank out a syllabus. When people hear about this program, their first reaction is that this is about turning teachers into cafeteria monitors. But it’s about getting rid of these scripted lectures and formulaic lesson plans.
This actually makes teachers more important; they can switch gears and form bonds with their students. It allows them to be way more creative than they could in other classrooms, and also provides kind of leveraged or optimized way to monitor progress and get involved.
Teachers are using Twitter-like feeds in their classrooms and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said that technology is important for young kids’ education. How do you think technology can change the classroom?
I agree with both ideas. Even if teachers don’t adopt the full model, the minimum thing to do is you can flip the classroom. Students can watch the lecture at home, and you can use class time to do exercises and interact with eachother. It lets us humanize the classroom and has turned it into an interactive experience
It’s not becoming more mechanical, it turns classroom into more interactive and more creative experience. You can get basics out of the way, and have a good tool kit to work from.
Some people, including the op-ed in The Washington Post, have hinted that this is a way to affect student-teacher ratios. But we’re agnostic on what this can do to teacher-student ratio. Videos can make the classroom way, way, way more productive, improve the overall experience.
We’re not advocating larger classes or smaller classes. We’re looking at what we can do for the individual learner outside the classroom.
Most of the courses on the site focus on math and the sciences. Are those easier to teach using this format?
That’s just where my background is strongest. Those courses are prevalent because that’s where our core strenghts are and where the biggest needs are. It’s not obvious that that’s the only place where this form factor works.
What about things like foreign language, to supplement districts with smaller curriculums?
That’s very doable. The ideal foreign language would be software on core vocabulary and grammar, then some lessons with lecturers, and Skype classes with people all over the world.
That’s not something we’re looking to roll out right now, but it’s very doable.
Do different ages of students respond differently to the videos?
Anecdotally, the surprising thing is that it’s not. When it comes to my tone, a first-grade video is no different from college-level biology, or this conversation. Young kids like it — precocious kids like it — because it’s not talking down to them. Others like it because it’s more verbal, and I’m writing on a chalkboard instead of typing.
So far it’s been fairly universal.
What’s next for the Khan Academy?
In the near term we’ll add videos — there’s been a lot of cosmology lessons lately — and we’re working on translating the lessons into ten languages. The software platform goese well into college level mathematics. We’re looking at having lessons up through calculus in next 6-9 months, as well as more science.
We want to roll it out to schools, too. Obviously, we’re never going to manage to roll out into thousands of schools, but we can get to hundreds of classrooms. With those classrooms, we have something to point to and have people emulate, because the tools are all there.