Salman Khan/ Khan Academy

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This is a collection of articles archived for the excellence of their content.

The man and his journey

July 25, 2021: The Times of India

He is the very definition of an outlier the child of immigrants in the US who wanted the financial success of doctors, lawyers or engineers, but ended up setting up a non-profit company in the field of education. When Salman Khan set up Khan Academy, he didn’t dream that it would one day be among the most recognised names in the field of online and distance education.

At a time when edtech is seen as the next big thing, and when smart money wants to invest in this space, Khan is adamant about keeping his platform free. Will that work, especially in countries like India where the more you pay, the more value you think you get? So far, it seems to have worked despite going up against big guns like Byju’s with millions of dollars to spend.

How did it start? Brought up by a single mother, Khan understood early on the importance of financial security. He had seen other children of professionals — doctors and engineers — and wanted that security. In high school, “I thought I was going to be some type of an artist or cartoonist or something,” he says. At the same time, he discovered a love for physics and applied to MIT and got admission there.

“Initially I thought I was gonna do physics and then math and then computer science and my first job was in tech.” He worked in tech till the dotcom bubble burst, and then decided to “take shelter in business school”. At Harvard Business School, he discovered a deep interest in finance, and joined a hedge fund soon after he graduated from Harvard. That’s when things changed for him.

“I had just gotten married in 2004. My family was visiting me in Boston. And it came out of conversation that my cousin Nadia was having trouble in math, and I offered to tutor her and that was the beginning of my journey into Khan Academy.”

Serendipity or subconscious intent?

It sounds like a good dinner-table story, but was Khan Academy really just an accidental innovation? “I would say that there has been a fair amount of serendipity,” says Khan. He jokes about it, saying that it sometimes feels like “benevolent aliens are using Khan Academy as a vector to prepare humanity for first contact, because so many things seem to fall into place”. But more seriously, he says it’s also “some type of subconscious intent that’s constantly looking for expression.”

For instance, even as he followed his interest in physics and finance, he says “my journey was clearly impacted by education, I wouldn't have gotten where I got without education”.

Philosophical, yes. But Khan also shows a keen sense of history, especially when he talks of the evolution of education. For 200 years, he says, education hasn’t changed. But, he says, go back 500 years or so, and things were very different. “Very few people got an education, but those few who did... Let's say you're a prince, and you were getting an education, you would have an army of tutors and those tutors, if you didn't learn to read a certain type of writing, they would keep working with you until you've mastered it, if your military strategy was weak, they'd keep working until you've mastered it, if your history was weak, they'd keep working with you until you've mastered it because you're going to be king one day. The king can't be 80% good at military strategy!”

That kind of personalised learning could not be offered when nations decided to expand learning to the middle classes — mass free public education. That was when students were grouped according to age or learning ability, and groups were taught together.

Khan’s idea is to bring back the personalised learning days — but still keep education free and for the masses. His belief that “anyone could really learn anything if they just viewed it the right way” is pretty much the foundation of Khan Academy.

It started off with Khan sharing his ideas and concepts on various subjects using an evolved form of a program that he had toyed with in his early techie days. Someone suggested that he leverage YouTube as well, and despite a certain initial reluctance, Khan began putting up videos on YouTube as well. The combination of platforms saw his educational resources reach 50,000-100,000 people by 2009.

Khan still had his “day job” at the hedge fund, which, he admits, he had trouble focusing on. “I was getting letters from people all over the world saying how it was helping them pass their class or how it was letting their children keep up with school or even people who were deployed in the military saying how they were able to use these resources so that when they went back to their country, they could they could engage in college.”

That made Khan rethink his priorities. He and his wife had been saving to make a down payment on a house, but they decided to use that money to create Khan Academy, a not-for-profit company with a mission to provide “free, world-class education for anyone anywhere”.

What’s the problem with profit?

Khan Academy could have been a for-profit company’ “it could be the next Google or the next Facebook”. Khan, as a former hedge fund analyst, says: “I saw a pattern of how much ownership and capital structure drove the motivations and I think there's many very good, very innovative motivations in the profit sector”. But, he adds, he also saw that for-profit organisations’ “missions would change” over time, often vastly “different than what the founder wanted”.

The other reason to look at a not-for-profit format is because, as he says, “education was a bit of a weird space where the markets don't work well”. Khan is clear that markets do not have much of a role in education and healthcare. “If someone wants to learn, they should learn regardless of how much money they or their family makes. Likewise, if someone's bleeding, they should be treated, regardless of how much they or their family makes.”

Khan always wanted his organisation to stick to its mission of providing free, good quality education to all. “If we were for profit, it could have been acquired…[even] if I was still CEO, there would be a huge pressure to make quarterly earnings have growth for growth's sake.” So, instead of aiming to be the next Google, Khan decided to be the next Oxford or Smithsonian — a great institution that doesn't run on profits.

So, what’s the dream?

Khan sounds like a visionary when he says what he hopes is “if we actually can create a world where everyone has a free world class education, that the world of the future is going to make today look like a dark ages, where today not everyone can participate in the knowledge economy.”

Khan Academy

Sal's India dream: Coaching 450m in 10yrs

Dec 04 2015 : The Times of India (Delhi)

Surojit Gupta

As Khan Academy, the American not-for-profit coaching blockbuster, arrives in India, The Times of India caught up with its founder

He makes mathematics and science easier for students. Meet Salman Khan, the founder and CEO of Khan Academy , a non-profit with the mission of “providing a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere“. Khan was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, and graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1998 with three degrees: two BS degrees in mathematics and electrical engineering and computer science and an MS degree in electrical engineering. He then did his MBA from Harvard Business School.

From designing tutorial videos for his cousins in the initial days, Khan's academy has over 26 million registered students in mathematics, science history, economics and computer science. It has delivered more than 580 million lessons and over 4 billion exercises, some of which have been translated into 36 languages across 190 countries. The venture has been backed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Google, helping transform mathematics and science teaching to young children in the US. Gates is a big admirer of Khan's work, leading him to gain the sobriquet of being the Microsoft founder's favourite teacher.

In an interview to TOI, Khan, whose mother was born in Murshidabad and father is from Bangladesh, speaks about his philanthropic venture and his plans to educate 450 million children in India in the next 10 years through his online plat form. It now employs nearly 100 people and has been funded by some of the leading philanthropists in the world. He has been called the “Messiah of Mathematics“ and figured in the TIME magazine's 100 most influential people in the world.

How did it all begin?

In 2004 relatives were visiting. Salman Khan was based in Boston then and they had come over from New Orleans, which is where he was born. During a conversation he got to know that his 12-year-old cousin Nadia was having trouble with mathematics. After she went back to New Orleans he offered to tutor her remotely. Working on phone, he helped. She caught up with her class. Then he started working with her younger brothers. Soon, word got around the family that free tutoring was going on. Over the next 18 months or so, he found himself working with 10-15 cousins.

The first Khan Academy was a web software to help cousins practise. Khan noticed they had gaps in their knowledge and a friend suggested he make videos to scale up. First, he thought it was a horrible idea but gave it a shot. His cousins enjoyed the videos and soon it became clear that people were watching these. During these years his day job was that of an analyst at an investment firm. By 2009, people were using the videos and this software to an extent. Khan figured his content had potential and it made sense to start a not-for profit to give this stuff away . He quit his job in 2009 to see if he could get support for this. By 2010 he got his first significant support from Google and the Gates Foundation and since then many others.

What did he study?

Mathematics, computer science. Coming out of college his first job was in Silicon Valley as a product manager for Oracle. Then he worked at a start-up. This was in the late 1990s.When the dotcom bubble burst, he went to business school. He re alized he liked finance as well.That's how he found himself working for a hedge fund. Obviously all the Khan Academy software came from his background in software.

How is the academy run?

Khan Academy is much more than just Salman. It approaches 100 full-time people, about two-thirds of them are associated with software product design. They help Khan Academy students take a diagnostic exercise. And, based on that, understand what they know and what they don't. Students get as much practice as they need. That's where a lot of effort goes. Salman still creates videos. But the Academy is also finding others to create videos in English.A big part of why it is there is its mission; free world-class education for anyone, anywhere. The academy wants to ensure this type of content is available in every major region. Obviously , India is a key area. In India it is always looking for people who can help them create local language content.

How does the Academy sustain operations?

It's a philanthropic model. They are a not-for-profit. Khan estimates 70% to 80% of his budget comes from donations, big and small.

His advice to students scared of mathematics?

That's one of those universal things. It happens not because mathematics is difficult or students aren't bright. Let's say we're in Class VII and learning exponents. In an exam, you get 80%. Salman gets 70%.You didn't know 20% of the material. Salman didn't know 30%.They give you a C and move on to the next subject. But the gap remains. The next subject will be logarithm or negative exponents. It'll be that much harder because of the gap in basic exponents. That process is continuous. Algebra seems hard. Not that algebra is hard, but you don't understand exponents, you don't understand negative numbers. Calculus seems hard because you don't understand Algebra.

Khan Academy is about no shame, no stigma. You could be 50, go where you need to go, learn at your own time and pace. Look at videos, look at practice problems. Every day the Academy gets letters from people who say: ‘I thought I hated maths or thought I wasn't good at maths. But when I went back and filled in my gaps I realised it's not only easy but I really enjoy it and it is my passion.’

Khan doesn’t think there is something inherent about maths. He thinks it is just the importance of having a good foundation and being able to fill in your gaps and move at your own pace.

Is the maths fear related to tough teachers? What has been Khan’s experience?

True. Khan thinks he was lucky early on when he was learning the subject, the class was ready to move. But he'd ask why does this make sense? When you internalise those foundations the things that come later become more intuitive. Lot of what he talks about, lot of what Khan Academy talks about is that people who do well are those with very strong foundations. They didn't have too many gaps. Then, later on mathematics seems very intuitive.

Why this philanthropic model?

In 2008, Salman was an analyst at a hedge fund, it was a good career. He was thinking the stuff he was making would be great. Won't it be great if it's there just as a public good? He had some friends, he knew venture capitalists. The first conversation (with them) was always interesting. It went: This is free but this you need to pay for. You need to put ads. For what he wanted to do, it didn't feel right. If someone wants to learn algebra they shouldn't have to look at an ad...they shouldn't have to pay .

This was somewhat delusional when he was operating out of a walk-in closet. What if this Khan Academy thing became an institution for the next generations? Look at history, the only organisations that have stayed true to their mission over multiple generations have been not-for-profits.

Khan’s parents

His mother's village is in Murshidabad, West Bengal. She grew up in Delhi and went to Mater Dei convent. She has very close ties with India. His father is from Barishal in Bangladesh.

What keeps Salman Khan going?

He enjoys what he does. He works with great minds in technology and education who are now part of Khan Academy . Their mission is free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere. That's a big statement. It's not going to happen magically tomorrow. In the next 10-15 years, anywhere in the world, a child or adult would educate himself using his mobile phone. The need for expensive textbooks will go down. If you don't have access to a teacher who knows calculus or physics, you'll have the phone. Khan hopes to be a catalyst working with partners. That's why the Academy is here, so that it can find partners, philanthropic and corporate, who can help it with distribution and access.

What has been the response from companies and government?

When PM Modi came to Silicon Valley Khan says that he had the honour of meeting him. Mr Modi seemed very enthusiastic about what Khan Academy was doing. Khan Academy started having conversations. The Tata Trust has been supportive and Khan’s hope is that it will get together a group of visionaries, philanthropists and corporations who will realise what Khan Academy really can do over 10 years -educate hundreds of millions of children. This could change the world. Khan Academy has had some initial conversations with the government. It wants to interface whatever way it makes sense.

Tata Trust brings Khan to Indian education

Tata trusts fund free virtual school of Khan Academy

Dec 07 2015 : The Times of India (Delhi)



Khan Academy and Tata trusts have teamed up to build a quality , free virtual school. The philanthropic arm of the Tata Group has granted an undisclosed sum to the academy

[During 2016-21] Khan will build a platform, adapt Indian courseware and scale up to provide free access to education to students in India. The first two years will focus on designing a set of educational resources for middle and low-income students in urban India with an early focus on math and science that is aligned to local curricula. Additio nal content will be developed in the next three years. It may also get into the test preparation space as it has done with SAT in the US.

A Hindi portal has rolled out. “We have a large body of work and when we build our team in India, we will start with developing content creation capacity . We have English videos that we will subtitle and also some will be dubbed. But we are looking for other Sals here,“ said Khan, who is often described as the first global rockstar teacher.

Khan Academy will set up office in Delhi and this partnership will look at hiring Indian teachers and teach in Indian languages through videos that are mapped to the Indian education system, especially NCERT textbooks.

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