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How Bill Gates' Favorite Teacher Wants to Disrupt Education

Gates- and Google-funded Sal Khan seeks to make his popular YouTube lessons universally accessible, and change the nature of education in the process.

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In 2008, Sal Khan had a bright future making millions as a hedge fund manager. He gave it up to produce low-budget math films on YouTube for free. Fortunately, hidden among his millions of loyal students, were the wealthiest of educational philanthropists, Bill Gates and the Google Foundation. Now, with a whole lot of cash and even more street cred, Khan aims to demote the institution of "school" to just one of many educational options.


Khan Academy, the YouTube open-course series, began as verbal contract with a 7th-grade girl. His younger cousin, Nadia, was struggling in math class and had agreed to sit in on remote tutoring sessions. After she skyrocketed a few grade levels in ability, more family and friends wanted in on the action, eventually forcing Khan to record the lectures online.

Since YouTube encouraged universal access, Khan thought "Why not?," and made the lectures public, on the off chance someone beyond his immediate friends and family would ever take an interest in his mathematics lectures. The result was shocking, and the audience exploded.

"Random people started watching it, and I started getting good feedback," Khan tells Fast Company. "People said, ‘Hey, I got an A on my algebra exam because of that video’ or ‘I’m not going to drop out of this high school because of this video,’ or ‘I’m retiring from the military and those videos are the only thing that makes me confident to go back and take College Algebra."

The Success Factor and Company Growth

To his amazement, the videos were far more popular than his dedicated tutoring sessions. The "first feedback my cousins gave was that they preferred me on YouTube than in person." Khan’s explanation, which is now the driving philosophy of the Academy, is that the one-size-fits-all lecture approach suffocates students, who learn at different rates and are often embarrassed to ask questions. At home, students can review basic material, repeat lessons, or skip ahead—all without the judging eyes of frustrated peers.

Five years and dozens of lessons later, the YouTube series was reaching tens of thousands of views a day. "It was becoming kind of obvious at this point that this was maybe a bigger deal than what I was doing at my day job." So, with the approval of his loving wife, Khan quit a multi-million-dollar career with no plans as to how he would support his new family. "Hopefully people would realize the value that’s being created here," recalls, Khan. "I took the most naïve approached to starting a nonprofit possible: I literally just kept making videos."

Teetering on near desperation, Kahn got a text from his first donor, Ann Doerr, telling him that Bill Gates was talking about the Academy at the prestigious Aspen Ideas Festival—and that Gates used the lessons with his own children! Now, with cash injections from Google and Gates, the Khan Academy is rapidly expanding its offerings, polishing up the user interface and interactive software, and looking to reach a whole new audience.

The Motivation

What inspires a financial trader to give up millions for education? "I wanted to optimize my life for happiness and satisfaction." So, he projected a "mental simulation" of himself at 80 years old, looking back at two scenarios: himself as billionaire or himself as creator of an educational institution. "I don’t think I’m like Gandhi, or anything," says Khan. "If anyone really did that simulation in their brain, I think its pretty clear that they’d prefer the latter."

This decision might have been easier for Khan, since, unlike some who enter Wall Street, his decision to become a hedge fund manager was simple fascination with how math and psychology can predict human behavior. Even during his manager days, he looked forward to tutoring his family immediately after work. Had piles of cash and gold-plated shower curtains been the primary driving force, it's safe to say the Academy never would have existed.

Changes to the System

How would he change education? By turning it upside down. First, he says, we should "decouple credentialing from learning." Instead of handing out degrees, standardized assessments would be the measure of employee competence. Anyone could learn at their own pace in their own way: in an internship, as an entrepreneur, or at home on the Internet. Then, everyone, no matter how they were educated, would be equal before the evaluation. Additionally, he thinks the assessment could be more meaningful than whatever abilities a college degree actually signals to employers.

Second, lectures would become homework and teacher tutoring would occur during class time. In traditional classrooms "despite the fact that you have 30 humans in the room, it’s a very unhuman experience." Some of Khan's devoted following of teachers are already substituting his lectures for their own, and assigning the videos as homework. It saves them time and allows more personalized education during school hours.

As thousands of college students graduate with no hope for employment, and the United States continues to lag behind others in math and science, citizens will be seeking some type of change. Perhaps Khan’s proposals are as likely as any.

Follow Gregory Ferenstein on Twitter or email him.

[Image courtesy of Khan Academy]

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  • Marshal

    The comments here are at least as interesting as the article. I'll take no time here except to say that each time some new educational killer app comes along (in any medium) it's worst enemies are its supporters. I use Khan Academy stuff with some of my students; it's pretty straight-forward and contributes something to a mix of methods. Integrated into some structured courses along with a variety of learning experiences it clearly has value and it makes a great contribution to the idea of the course mash-up, especially because it's free.

    It is not, however, transformational; it is not doing anything new. It's someone in front of a blackboard explaining something. It criticizes one-size-fits-all teaching (because, we, as teachers never thought of differentiating and still use Goodbye Mr Chips as our educational model - sorry, I'm a Brit) and yet simply offers a different size, it still expects it to fit all. It assumes all students learn best alone, without the judging eyes of frustrated peers, and without their support as well. It's as if no teacher ever thought to take the extra time with a student they could see was struggling.

    The teaching profession works damn hard, usually with limited resources, to bring out the best in every student. It's not a science (yet) and to continuing pressure from governments and the business world to apply this or that new fad is unhelpful.

    Mr Khan has added a great tool to our toolbox, we are grateful for it and will use it, but please don't use it as stick to beat us with and tell us we've been doing it all wrong all these 5000 years and how much more Plato would have learned if only Socrates had turned his dialogues into a series of 1000 short videos.      

  • MN

    I don't think the point is to get rid of k-12 schools.  Seems more like an opportunity for people who can't afford higher education.  Larry, your notion that our public schools are a "bastion of preserving a structure and system for adult jobs" is absolutely ridiculous.  I'm curious how long it's been since you entered a grade school.  The problem with our schools is that parents don't teach their kids anything anymore and view school as extended daycare.  Khan's system will not help in these cases but could be a huge opportunity for people with a desire for education but no access.  

  • J McMullin

    "The function of education is not information but 'learning how to learn.'" (I quote from above). Who says? The last thing clever humans need to learn is how to learn. They already know how. Extrapolating the rules of grammer occurs before age 7. No one has to give lectures on learning theory in order for kids to obtain this most complex symbolic knowledge. People need exposure to facts and ideas, reinforcement, and an environment that allows for synthesis. Khan isn't the panacea, but he demonstrates one critical notion: that there are alternatives to one human standing in front of 30 to 60 distracted children "teaching".

  • Bruce Wilcox

    Excellent article. When I checked Khan Academy usage stats (as published at the website) nearly 40 million lessons have been delivered/downloaded by users. At about ~ 5 minutes per lesson, Sal has delivered 3k years of instructional support in his five years running the Academy (assumes 180 day school year, six hours of instruction per day). You could say that he delivered one-on-one support to 40m students or a year of one-on-one support to 18.5k students. No matter the model used to divvy up the pie, Sal has proven that one educator can reach many, far beyond the typical 30:1 student teacher ratio assumed in the traditional education model (unless you’re in Detroit schools where 60:1 is proposed). Learning Assistance Professionals (tutors) should rejoice in that Sal is providing a scalable model for each student/learner to access the resources needed with the technology allowing this on-demand model to scale to large numbers of users, and he is doing so from the point-of-view of a 'just in time' tutoring model. Sal is a "Free Agent Educator" and the students who find him, "Free Agent Learners". And, to each their own unique aspirations, learning style, and model of engagement. What might be helpful, and accelerate this model of 'supplemental' learning is to fully expose the curriculum and context for learning so as to create a learning scaffold for each student? If you can share with the learner that they are, say, 80% along the way to 100% mastery of Algebra, and show the context in which Algebra is used in an occupation, then perhaps this will motivate their persistence, their aspirations? Perhaps we can also provide an occupational context for the lessons, aligning the Sal modules to various occupations? How is STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) used in exciting jobs, or careers?

    All this said, I wonder how the 'learner' finds Sal? Is it through a social network, a recommendation by their teacher, or some other means? Assuming that the population of young learners that find Sal, and adult learners also, have AORTA to the Internet, and mobile device adoption is approaching 100%, then likely Sal is but a glimmer today of what he (and his service) will be in just a few years. Ultimately, as stated in the article, this model will challenge accreditation models and it does suggest that the process of accreditation will shift away from the institution and to the learner. Academic Provosts might want to consider building a 'Prometric' organization to vet learner skills, and assess these skills against a widely adopted model for credentialing learning. A super massive uplift in the number and scope of persons participating in informal learning systems is emerging, and this will challenge a lot of orthodoxies of seat time, units of instruction, enrollment, etc...

    Opportunity abounds! Way to go Sal!

    Bruce Wilcox - eduCloud Consortium

  • Keith Kelly III

    When I studied design in college, a class covering the basics of marketing was required. I took the class twice: once in person, and once online.

    In person, I asked very few questions, did poorly on tests and homework assignments, and managed to scrape by with a D (partially because they teacher didn't remember me and gave me a grade).

    Online, I did very well. We were given a set of VHS tapes for lectures, a textbook, and homework assignments were e-mailed to the professor/posted to a class forum. I generally skimmed the lectures and read through the book to study for tests and answer homework questions. I learned quite a bit more that way, and have been a fan of mostly self-directed learning ever since.

    I wish I would have had access to something like this for math and math-heavy science courses in high school. I probably wouldn't have become a graphic designer.

  • Gregory Ferenstein

    Great comments, all! I think @Michael's concerns are valid: teaching is more than lecturing. And, Khan would agree. He's developed interactive software and incorporated his lesson plans into existing classrooms. The important thing about khan academy is that everything is tailored to the pace of each individual student. Since most education is cumulative, this aspect can't underestimated.

    Khan academy is best viewed as a supplement, rather than a substitute. And, even then, there needs to be a lot more research about how to improve online learning. Its a process...but at least its going in the right direction

  • Chris Jones

    I viewed a couple of videos on stoichiometry, a subject that I hadn't followed closely enough in my high school chemistry class, and they were excellent—careful, logical, systematic enough that they would have been easy to apply in, say, a problem set I was working for homework (back in high school). As a teacher educator, however, I am quite aware that clear explanations is only one part of the whole picture of quality education, and piecing together all of the parts of the picture would be very difficult to do from a website such as the Khan Academy, no matter how motivated a student might be. Where, for example, does one get to conduct a lab experiment where one sees stoichiometry in action. Where, for example, does one start to understand why some chemicals are highly reactive and others not. Who's going to stitch together the chemistry and the nuclear physics that needs to be understood to really grasp the chemistry?

    It's my best guess that gaining expertise in any area requires the guidance of a master teacher or coach, one who knows the full territory, is excited about it, and ready to share that knowledge and passion with another. In fact, ultimately, learning anything in depth requires connecting with someone you can see yourself becoming and whose deep ownership of the knowledge you can emulate.

    Thus, like the last commentator, I see these lectures as being a great adjunct to classroom instruction, especially for novice teachers, but as ultimately only substituting for a component of the full picture of quality education. I'm not advocating going back to chalk and talk, only not going back to solving sets of problems, with little understanding or why or where we go from here.

  • Zak Able

    As a high school science student, I have to disagree

    "Where, for example, does one start to understand why some chemicals are highly reactive and others not."

    "Who's going to stitch together the chemistry and the nuclear physics that needs to be understood to really grasp the chemistry?"
    First of all, they wouldn't teach this in a high school chemistry course unless you specifically asked (and they would probably end up having to google it) but here it is:

    ", with little understanding or why or where we go from here." If you've ever used wikipedia extensively, you're probably familiar with the web of citations, references and links to other pages that characterize the experience. Something like this is equally possible, and already partially exists in the videos in the form of khan saying something like, "I can't cover this concept in detail right now, but if you check the cosmology playlist... blah blah blah"

    " In fact, ultimately, learning anything in depth requires connecting with someone you can see yourself becoming and whose deep ownership of the knowledge you can emulate. "
    If you can see yourself becoming a teacher, then the current setup is good for you; if you want to be an engineer, there are no engineers in high school (the ones that are there are obviously retired for a variety of reasons). You could though, find communities of engineers on the internet.

    In summary, education is all about transmitting information, and transmitting information is what the web specializes in; this paradigm shift was inevitable, and personally, I am very glad I get to see it in my lifetime. I hate the stifling, suffocating, downright intellectually frozen high school environment. I say all of this out of 13 or so (and counting) years of personal experience with all of these systems.

  • Jen

    Great to hear from you, a student!
    @Chris Jone: Love your point about all the information being at our fingertips-true! I do take issue, however, with the idea that the development of character, kindness, thoughtfulness and so forth are somehow learned solely from teachers and others in a school system.

    Seems to me that less time in a constrictive, authoritarian, industrial schooling environment would leave a lot more time for the soul-forming, heart-warming training that comes from ever deepening conversations and time spent with loving family members. I can pass on these qualities to my son quite well without the assistance of government school, and I have--not only as a parent, but also an independent educator for the past 7 years.


  • Chris Jones

    If education is all about transmitting information, then there is no reason to go to school. All the information that you want is at your fingertips. But what about development of character, kindness, thoughtfulness, moral reasoning, critical thinking, creative problem solving, insight, inspiration, etc.? These are traits that are deeply embedded in humans, not in texts or talking heads.

  • Michael Paul Goldenberg

    Like most things advocated for regarding education by Gates and other "Billionaire Boys' Club" members, this 'miracle' panacea is simplistic, with the focus on the mechanistic aspects of education (i.e., those aspects which appear readily replaced by machines), and utterly missing the human. Having viewed Khan's take on a variety of topics, I am, to put it mildly, underwhelmed. Not that they're WORSE than what we find in the vast majority of K-12 math texts: they're just no better, and if they were really the miracle that Gates and others would like them to be, they'd need to be a lot better. Inspiring, insightful, challenging, and a host of other things that I suspect Mr. Gates doesn't think much about when it comes to education.

    If you're interested in seeing some truly interesting mathematics videos, see James Tanton's YouTube channel, for starters. Or look at what the folks at Computer Science Unplugged have to offer. There is, of course, excellent, high-quality mathematics instruction available on-line. But I don't find it at Khan's overly-hyped site. The principle may be okay, but the execution is sadly lacking. His take on various standardized test math problems left me trying to decide whether to laugh or cry. But then, such problems aren't even where the mathematical rubber meets the road. If he can't do THOSE right, it hardly bodes well for how he handles deep mathematical concepts (and I don't necessarily mean for advanced mathematics).

    The tragedy is that people with tons of money like Mr. Gates are able to exert undo influence on public education. I admire his contributions to fighting disease, hunger, and other social ills, but I suspect he relies there on more than his own knowledge to choose what to fund. When it comes to education, however, like many Americans, Mr. Gates thinks he's well-positioned to know how to do it better. And there is ample evidence that he does not. Not even close.

  • Herbert Guerrero

    If James Tanton's YouTube channel or Computer Science Unplugged are so great, why we don't hear about them? Why aren't millions of users glued to their recordings? If you know anything about teaching, it is about understanding the person doing the teaching. if you can't understand him, then forget, students won't listen. You can't understand James Tanton's recordings. It's all about presentation and simplicity to catch the audience. On the other hand, The Computer Science Unplugged uses a different way to attract the attention. The first key is to attract and to make the audience see that they understand the topic. The more complicated the topic, the quicker the audience will run away. Making math easy to understand is not fooling people, it makes the student confident that they can continue study into this field.

  • TheRightSign

    I have to politely disagree. I am in my second year of college and every math course I have had has used online programs accompanied by online videos to administer the course. These videos and problems cost huge sums of money and the quality pales in comparison. Kahn has the unique ability to make complex problems digestible. tutorials are not just the future of education, they are education right now. If it's good enough for Bill Gates kids, it's good enough for mine.

  • Mike Bosko

    Mr. Goldenberg, I suggest you watch several of the videos. And, put yourself in the position of a student. I have had that very opportunity - as a returning post-bach student of 'older' years. This works.

  • David Kaiser

    Learning is incredibly important to me. I am saddened by how many kids struggle with math, this is no less of a disaster than struggling to read, and if this series helps them learn, wonderful. I am also intrigued by the impolications of this idea, decoupling credentialing and learning. I will have to check this out and try with my daughter.

    David Kaiser PhD
    Executive Coach and CEO

  • Bud Thompson

    Great piece! Well-written....important....and no reverential references to Apple!

    Is someone at Fast Company growing up?

  • Patricia Kokinos

    This is a great concept by someone who just can't help teaching, and a brilliant application of his talent. I love finding a guy who can actually explain math to kids and help them understand it, but more importantly, show them how the various aspects of math interlink and interact. That's the aspect that school as we know it is missing: The connections, the linkages, without the medieval subject matter focus that is narrowly conceived--and not, by the way, by school administrators (LOL!!). Indeed, after 30 years of being involved in school change in a hands-on, real way, I can tell you bluntly that the public wants what it wants, which is TRADITION, Tevye, Tradition. That, and the way our current system absolutely mirrors the values we hold as a society.

    That mirror is cracking as we speak, from inside the system, as well as outside the system, and lots of that movement is due to Web access spreading, at last, to the most undernourished of all institutions, our schools. All that money we're spending on testing, textbooks, political infighting, cosmetic program improvements, consultants, accountability systems and the million other ways people make MONEY off of our kids and teachers and parents is feeding the construct of the 1950s that all of us are caught within, despite our best efforts to get free. One of the most troublesome strangling strands is the one being talked about in US Congress right now, the slavish obeisance to statistics and testing as if those numbers really told us anything about kids, teachers, or schools (we don't have space to argue this right here, but see the free report on my website if you want to know more: ).

    Thus, I'm all for creative ways of turning the system upside down and inside out, and so are thousands of teachers, like me, who have labored within and without the system to make things better for kids. I especially love the concept of "lectures as homework," since that would involve more parents in their students' lives and give some meaning to the concept of homework, at last. But rather than poo-poo the role of teachers in this modern age, as though computers and YouTube could do it all, let's work to lift the system OFF the teachers, leaders, parents and kids so creativity, brains, critical thought, and collaborative work can flourish for a change! When colleges stop requiring SAT exams for entrance and ask for kids' video portfolios of actual progress and accomplishments and self-expression, the lid will be off, and the system itself can morph overnight. (That goes for all rigid testing systems, and especially the edicts of No Child Left Behind and its punitive aftermath.)

    What kids need most these days is not more information, but some CONNECTION. We can put all of our knowledge on YouTube and the Web, kids can find it there, and a great deal of time and effort will be saved. But kids and adults will still need, and want, that human connection that will allow them to use, work with, understand, and reflect upon the knowledge and their ideas about it: That's the new purpose of school in this information-laden age. I agree that "trickle down education" is what we're getting now and have used that phrase myself, but what I mean by that is the way school is designed to winnow out all but the top performers, the same way the elites created the absurdity of "trickle down economics." All of us need to put our heads together to create a new VISION for our schools to reflect, one that more accurately speaks to the democratic need for every child to find and use his/her gifts. If you want to know more, here is a little brand-new Facebook campaign that you can join: Thanks, Fast Company, for this great story and for your dedication to bringing us what's new! Patricia Kokinos

  • Jym Allyn

    "Trickle down education" is as counter-productive as "trickle down economics" (unless you are the authoritarian dictator or the banking executive who writes the banking legislation.

    The function of education is not information but "learning how to learn."

    This YouTube approach may finally circumvent the educational administrators whose goal is control over "education" rather than the education of students. (Have you ever thought why some teachers become administrators or principals? Much of the time it isn't for the benefit of the students.)

    Thank you.

  • Adrian Meli

    Can't think highly enough of what Sal is doing. I first read an article about him months ago and am glad to see people are following him and now teachers are using his lectures. It will be interesting to see if this makes its way through the college scene as well over time. It seems logical that if we have a very gifted teacher/lecturer/or other talent that it will be better for society for more people to learn from that person rather than having 100 students at an ivy league school dominate that relationship. The credentialing vs. learning question is harder to solve as ultimately credentialing is a form of validating learning. You try to get good grades, you study for the SATs, you try to go to a good college, and then you try to get a good job, etc. Those are all credentials. That is not to say that we couldn't come up with an alternative credentialing system that has fewer barriers to entry and test for different things but ultimately we will have some form of credentialing. The idea of educating through the broadcasting of the smartest and best teachers is very exciting for society and may help us close the knowledge gap with other countries. I thought the idea of using the lectures outside of class and teachers to do the tutoring is brilliant. Rather than the discussion centering around the problem with schools and teachers, it seems much more productive to figure out how to use all of our great teachers/teaching resource more productively. This seems like a step in the right direction. - Adrian Meli