Sal Khan, Founder & CEO of Khan Academy, spoke at our Unconference this past September. This is the transcript of that talk, sharing his inspiration and vision for the future.
For those of you familiar with Khan Academy, we’re often associated with a collection of videos that I started making for my family, but as you’ll see, Khan Academy is much, much more than videos. We’re trying to do much, much more than that.
The first Khan Academy had nothing to do with videos. My background was in software. I was tutoring my cousins, and I said, “Hey, I think I could write a little practice software for them so that they can get as much practice as they needed adding fractions or solving equations.” I had all these ideas about how it would be these automatically generated equations and unlimited practice.
I just started uploading the things that I felt like I was covering a lot, just to get more scale. Negative numbers, basic equations, I was going into the sciences as well. I started telling my family members, “Well, why don’t you watch that at your own time and pace and that when we get on the phone we can dig a little bit deeper, do some harder problems, whatever else.” After a month of it, I asked them for feedback and they somewhat famously and backhandedly said that they liked me better on YouTube than in person.
Fast-forward to 2009, there were about 50,000 or 100,000 people who were coming on a monthly basis. I frankly was having trouble focusing on my day job. I actually liked my day job, but I would wake up in the morning and I would get letters from people around the world. I would say, “Oh, what’s the next thing I want to cover?” I would wait until markets close so I could spend my afternoons making new content or whatever else. It was around that time, I said to myself that it feels like there’s something here.
I decided to quit my day job, take a leap of faith. I think this is something that many of you have experienced. I think whether you’re doing something in the not-for-profit sector or the for-profit sector, you almost have to start with that delusional optimism.
Fall of 2010, a year after I had quit my job, Google and the Gate’s Foundation became the first two to support Khan Academy as a real organization. Essentially $2 million each. We get office space, start hiring up a team. What we immediately started working on is an extension of that primitive software that I had started for my family.
There’s really no limit in how far students can get and these are just some other efficacy studies, but we’re generally seeing this pattern when students even put in 20 minutes, 30 minutes a day, they’re able to increase their gains by 20%, 30% more than expected. There’s nothing surprising there, it’s just allowing students to work on what’s appropriate for them.
About a year and a half ago, I get an email saying, “Hey, there’s this girl and she found a friend in the United States somehow through email.” Her name is Sultana. When she was 12 years old the Taliban took over her town in Afghanistan and forbid all the young girls from going to school.
Literally threatening them with acid attacks, so she doesn’t go to school.
She was lucky enough that her family had a computer and had internet and so she decides first to teach herself English over the internet, which is a little bit scary, but it worked for her. When a family member of hers was traveling to Pakistan, she said, “Hey, can you get me any reading material in English? I just want to learn English.” He brought back a Time magazine in English that happened to have an article about Khan Academy in it. She was doing 10 hours of chores a day, but in every waking moment that she had outside of that, she was just trying to learn, learn, learn.
She went from not even a middle school level, from a elementary school level all the way through middle school, high school, learned her algebra, learned her sciences, got to calculus, got to physics, got to chemistry, and decides that she wants to be a physicist. The SAT is not administered in Afghanistan. She smuggles herself into Pakistan, across one of the more dangerous borders, a 30-hour journey to just take the SAT.
Immigration was not an easy matter for her. Luckily, somehow Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times finds out about her as well, writes this op-ed, and then that’s allowed her to get asylum in the U.S. Sultana right now is doing physics research with one of the top physicists at a top university in the United States.
Khan Academy is much more than me now. We’re over 200 full-time employees here in Mountain View. We have thousands of people. We had 14,000 people help translate. There’s millions of people beyond that who have been stakeholders, who donated in some way.
Pretty close to 100% of the population is capable of reading, but if I were to ask any of you all what percentage of the population is capable of understanding calculus or doing genetics research, or being an entrepreneur, I would suspect a lot of you all would say, “Well, right now it’s definitely some 5%. Maybe with a great education system it’s 10%, 15%.”
What if that’s just the same blinders that we have based on the experience we’ve had? We were the lucky ones, where our gaps weren’t so debilitating that we were able to go pretty far, but we saw a lot of family members, we saw a lot of friends that all the sudden hit a wall in algebra. They hit a wall in trigonometry. They’re done for. They hit a wall in chemistry class. They’re done for. The system kind of assumes that, “Well they just weren’t meant for chemistry. They just weren’t meant for engineering or whatever else.” But maybe it was just because they had debilitating gaps.
Every year I do this, I’m more convinced that the answer to the question of who could help find the next cure for cancer or be an entrepreneur, not only is it more than 10% or 20% or 30% of the population, it could be close to all people one day. It’ll be a better world if we can get that level of knowledge to be a fundamental human right.