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lifestyles magazine spring 2013

Cover Profile Salman Khan

The Google guys love him. Bill Gates watches his videos. So why is Salman Khan still searching for the holy grail? By Darren Gluckman

O
Photo by MARKIAN LOZOWCHUK

h, Nadia, sweet Nadia, the troubles you’ve wrought for poor Cousin Sal. The slippery slope he’s slid along since teaching you mathematical right from wrong. Take the very definition of slope itself: Is it rise over run? Or, as one among a chorus of critics would have it, is it a rate describing how two variables change in relation to each other? If this is the kind of debate that doesn’t keep you awake at night then you obviously don’t care about our

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Cover Profile Salman Khan

children. And by our children I mean every child, anywhere, with access to an Internet connection. Because it’s those children whose fates hinge on the outcome of these definitional battles. At least, that’s how some in the teaching establishment would frame it. Their turf is being challenged. By an upstart. An uneducated educator. Well, not uneducated. Not exactly. He has three degrees from MIT and a Harvard M.B.A. But he never apprenticed as a teacher’s aide, never went to teachers college. For all his degrees, a

She actually preferred the pre-recorded lessons to the real-time, real-life ones.
B.Ed. ain’t one of ’em. So who does he think he is, exactly, transforming the face—and the pace—of public education? Whoever he thinks he is, Salman Khan, 36, aspires to be Dumbledore (too busy studying to read Harry Potter?). At least that’s what he confesses when asked about his ambitions beyond Khan Academy, the wildly popular online learning site he founded in 2006. It’s perhaps a telling admission: Dumbledore, after all, is the fictional headmaster of a school for the teaching of magic. And Khan’s impact as a teacher has been, if not fictional, then virtual, and by virtue of the wonders of the modern age, magical in its reach: Notwithstanding his lack of professional designation, he is a teacher (it’s probably safe to say that no teacher in history has had more students). His Dumbledorian dreams come up when discussing the idea of his someday building a bricks-andmortar school, at which he’ll roam
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the halls musing mirthfully about polynomials. But the physical presence of Professor Khan seems at odds with the invisible, almost spectral incarnation that has been central to Khan Academy’s success. His teaching, even from the start, has been virtual. It was in 2004, shortly after acquiring his M.B.A. and while working as a hedge fund analyst in Boston for Wohl Capital, that his young cousin, the aforementioned Nadia, 13 at the time, called him up from New Orleans, seeking his help with algebra. After work, they’d talk on the phone from their respective computers. Yahoo! Doodle software served as a shared remote notepad over which Khan would illustrate, in real time, the ideas he was trying to transmit, his disembodied voice narrating the visuals. But the schedules of a teenager and a financial analyst proved difficult to align, so Khan hit upon the notion of pre-recording his bite-sized tutorials and uploading them to YouTube. Nadia’s brothers, Arman and Ali, began watching and, in short order, their friends and classmates were also logging in to watch Cousin Sal’s videos. A key turning point came when Nadia confessed that it wasn’t just a matter of scheduling: She actually preferred the pre-recorded lessons to the real-time, real-life ones. She could stop, rewind, review, forward, and replay to her heart’s (or her intellect’s) content. As Khan has described it, “She basically said, ‘I like you better on the video than in person.’” That insight, along with the digestible length of the videos (not much longer than 10 to 15 minutes), formed the structural basis for what would follow. In 2006, Khan began posting the videos to a dedicated YouTube channel. He continued his work in the hedge fund business, but in his spare time he’d record and upload more videos, mostly in math and science, his strong suits. In 2008, he incorporated Khan Academy as a nonprofit. But as the monthly viewership grew from the hundreds to the thousands to the tens of thousands, in proportion to the feedback he’d receive—emails from students deeply appreciative of what he was doing—Khan was confronted with a choice: either develop Khan Academy and scale it up to its potential, or keep it a hobby, albeit an increasingly consuming one, for nights and weekends. In 2009, he quit his day job. After experimenting with an advertiser-based revenue model, Khan decided that advertising interfered with the site’s serenity, a feature he prized as integral to

Cover Profile Salman Khan

With almost 4,000 videos to learn from, the site has accumulated more than 235 million views to date.

its popularity. Instead, Khan Academy would, in its early days, rely on a steady stream of small donations from individual users. That, however, would soon change. Born in New Orleans in 1976, his parents separated when he was just 18 months old. His father moved to Philadelphia and Khan had very little contact with him until his death, when Khan was 13. He has one sibling, an older sister, Farah, currently an acupuncturist in Montreal, whom he credits with being an early instructional role model. And while he discredits a recent article that attributes the supposedly inspirational motto “A teacher is not a sage on a stage but a guide on the side” to his mother (“That’s false,” he asserts over the phone from his home in Mountain View, California, where he lives with his wife, Umaima, a physician, with whom he has two small children. “That’s spurious. That can’t be attributed to me, much less to my mother”), he does suspect that his talk-filled home played a role in his development. “We had a very verbal family,” he says. “Our arguments were professional grade. I actually do think that makes you a better talker.” Even now, with all he’s accomplished, it’s interesting to note that he describes himself, if only by allusion, as a talker, not a teacher. This preference may reflect nothing more than simple professional respect for those teachers who’ve come by the appellation honestly, which is to say, who’ve earned their stripes at teachers colleges and stared down three-dimensional sixth graders in actual, chalk-clouded classrooms. But it may also be a function of the criticisms he’s faced from a small but vocal coterie of professionally desig-

nated educators. The charges fall into three broad categories: that the content of Khan Academy videos is, on occasion, incorrect; that, even when the content is technically correct, it’s not optimally taught; and, finally, that there’s no “there” there (i.e., that there’s nothing new behind the digital dross, just the lectures and drills as ever before). On the first point, while clear inaccuracies are corrected (usually by freshly recorded videos), Khan’s detractors say they’re the inevitable result of his famously cavalier approach to pre-tape preparation. Khan has said that he deliberately avoids overpreparing, preferring instead to sit with a subject until he feels like he’s got a decent grasp of it, at which point he’ll bang out a video. The result, he feels, is a more relatable presentation. And when he makes a mistake, the cloud crowd lets him know it pretty fast. “When we put a video up,” he says, “within an hour several hundred people have watched it, and if there’s one, even minor error, it’s usually pointed out very, very quickly.” And, he notes, it’s not just students watching, but teachers and university faculty also. “I’d argue we get more feedback than through a traditional editorial process.” The second point may have a bit more heft. The idea that there are better ways of teaching a given subject, based on educational research and professional experience, is expressed in educational circles through the concept of pedagogical content knowledge. PCK is related to, but distinct from, content knowledge. It’s one thing to know a subject; it’s something else to know how best to teach it. And PCK is sacrificed in Khan’s admittedly amateurish approach to instruction. To both these points, a corrective may be in the works. Asked whether there’s a formal feedback process in relation to the videos, Khan says, “Historically, when it was just me, there was no formal process. In the last several months, we’ve been looking to get a formal angle on it. We’re starting to ramp up hiring more and more teachers as contractors and fellows, not just to correct errors, but to say, ‘Hey, you’re missing this aspect of this concept,’ or, ‘It would be cool if you structured things this way or that way.’” To the charge that Khan Academy represents nothing new, the fact that the videos (there are close to 4,000 available on the site) have been watched over 235 million times would seem to suggest otherwise. Dr. Douglas McDougall is chair of the Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning at the University of

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Cover Profile Salman Khan

Photo by Hugh Hamilton

“When we put a video up, within an hour several hundred people have watched it, and if there’s one, even minor error, it’s usually pointed out very, very quickly.”

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Toronto’s teachers’ ed faculty, OISE (the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education). In an email exchange he acknowledges that “Khan Academy videos do not advance mathematical pedagogy. However, it is not intended to change the teaching of mathematics. [Khan] is advocating open access to education and that is an important component of the future of education.” And while he says that superior online math resources exist, he expresses confidence that Khan Academy materials “will improve over time.” Similarly, Karima Fuentes, a math and science teacher with 15 years of experience in the Los Angeles Unified School District, says that while it has its limitations, and while online tutorials are no substitute for “a good, caring teacher,” Khan Academy is “wonderful, an added bonus as a resource, with way more pros than cons.” She notes that it’s now listed as an approved resource on the district’s website, and says that while not integrated into her lesson plans, she does turn to it, albeit sporadically, several times a year. For nine long months after quitting his job, Khan slowly depleted his savings as he focused on building the site. A small but sizeable initial donation from Ann Doerr, the wife of Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr, was the first indication that the project might be viable. Indeed, when Khan learned that Bill Gates was extolling the site, he describes his reaction in terms not fit for print in this publication. Sure enough, in September 2010, Khan Academy received $1.5 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Gates, who says he uses the site with his own kids, wrote the article that featured Khan as one of the

world’s 100 most influential people), and $2 million from Google. Now, in addition to expanding beyond the core STEM subject areas (science, technology, engineering, and math), Khan Academy is trying to understand how to measure a student’s “knowledge state.” Says Khan, “We want to experimentally verify which approach is doing better with which student.” This “holy grail,” as he calls it, could conceivably lead to individualized lesson plans for each student, which would represent a quantum leap in online learning. “We’re not there yet,” he cautions, but Khan Academy’s users represent a massive database on which to draw; given what he’s achieved in just a few short years, one would be wise not to bet against him. So what’s become of Nadia, his first pupil? “She’s a junior at Sarah Lawrence. She’s a writing major and she’s also pre-med.” She’s a bit of a legend in the Khan Academy universe, isn’t she? “Oh, yeah,” says Khan. “I tell her there’s a lot riding on her success.” But Khan modestly misses the point: In spurring her older cousin to do what he’s done to date, Nadia has already succeeded.
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Photo by Jim Wilson/The New York Times