It is possible to change the education system in India for two cents a day, says Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, a non-profit organisation based out of Mountain View, California, that offers free lessons and videos to students around the world. Khan Academy has delivered some 440 million lessons. The videos, viewed over 500 million times, are extremely popular; Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates for example, has gone on record saying he uses the videos to teach his children. Students have completed over three billion exercises so far on Khan Academy, around four million a day, says Khan. That is a lot of studying!
Then again, studying is a thing, Khan, or 'Sal Khan' as he is known, knows a thing or two about. He has a couple of bachelors degrees and a masters from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also holds a Master of Business Administration degree from Harvard Business School. In an interview with Sudarshana Banerjee for Business Standard, Khan, 38, talks about growing up in a Bengali-American household, teaching street kids in Kolkata, the future of education, and what it is like to be among the most influential young business leaders in the world. Edited excerpts:
In your book, The One World Schoolhouse, you have explained how it is possible to change the education system in India for less than two cents per student a day.
Khan Academy's mission is a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere, so increasing access to learning resources, especially for underserved communities, is an issue that's very near and dear to our hearts. I certainly don't know all the answers but I do know technology has the potential to be part of the solution.
As mobile devices become more and more powerful and less and less expensive, they're giving a growing number of students, many of whom had little or no access to education before, a new way to view lessons and practice skills. There's still a lot of work to be done, of course, and Khan Academy can't do it alone. But I hope that we will play an important role in this exciting effort.
A street kid in Kolkata, who is unable to attend school because he has to help his family make ends meet, can brush up on his lessons two hours a day on Khan Academy. This has been part of your dream. What do you think needs to happen for this dream to come true?
I think there are a few challenges here. First, more people need access to technology. Hopefully, Moore's Law and the growth of mobile will help solve this problem.
Translation is another important factor. We want to help all students, not only those who speak English fluently. So, we're working hard with volunteers and partner organisations to translate our free resources into many more languages.
Finally, we need to raise awareness about Khan Academy. In an average month, 12 million users visit Khan Academy but only about four million are from outside the United States. This number is growing, but we have a long way to go to ensure that everyone who could benefit from our free resources knows about them.
Roughly, how many views a month do you get from India? What kind of lessons are accessed?
Each month, about 250,000 unique learners visit Khan Academy from India. In fact, India ranks fourth worldwide in the number of monthly visitors , right after the US, Canada, and the UK. Although our math videos attract the most views, our library covers everything from arithmetic to physics, finance, art history, and more. Khan Academy is being translated into 40+ languages, including Bengali, Urdu, Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, and Oriya.
You are one of the leading proponents of the 'flipped classroom.' What is a flipped classroom?
Although some teachers have used Khan Academy to 'flip' their classrooms, I'm actually more excited about personalising education. 'Flipping the classroom' - having students watch lectures or read texts as homework and then solve problems or discuss the reading during class - is not a new phenomenon. Literature classes have been using this method for centuries.
The goal of the 'one world school house' is to shift from a one-size-fits-all classroom to a more personalised model, and flipping the classroom doesn't necessarily achieve this goal. For example, if all students are required to watch the same videos on the same day, they still aren't learning in a personalised way. What I hope we'll see in the future is a movement toward self-paced, mastery-based education.
You have deliberately kept Khan Academy free. How do you meet operational expenses?
We're funded by donors, ranging from individual families who have found our resources helpful to large education foundations, which have found that Khan Academy is unique in its ability to scale and to reach kids and parents directly. Whether it's a large grant or a five-dollar gift, every donation matters. We're grateful for every contribution, and every dollar helps us provide two hours of free education.
In a given day, roughly four million exercises are solved using Khan Academy, and several thousand hours of videos watched. What is the technology infrastructure that makes this all possible?
When I first started tutoring my cousins online, I realised they needed a way to practice and get feedback. That's what inspired the exercise software. Later, I started filming lessons to complement the exercises. YouTube not only allowed me to share these videos with my cousins but also made it possible for people around the world to find them.
We still host our videos on YouTube, and we're building new exercises every day. The big difference is that now there's a whole team of engineers working on our exercise software, so it's become much more sophisticated and robust - a big leap forward from what I created in my closet!
What is it like to work at Khan Academy?
While our team has grown substantially, one thing that has remained constant is our mission. It's what gets us up every morning, and it's what's allows us to attract some of the best thinkers in the world - in education, programming, and learning analytics. I'm sure our team will continue to evolve. But I'm also confident our mission will always be the core of our culture.
Your book, The One World School House, begins with a quote from Tagore. Do you read authors in Bengali? Do you get to visit Bangladesh/India?
I visited Bangladesh with my family when I was eight, and I've travelled to India twice in the past decade for work. Now that I have a family of my own, I'd love to visit both countries with them. I'd especially like to see Murshidabad, my mother's ancestral village. I taught myself to read Bengali in college but it is now very rusty.
What are some of the ways people (from India) can volunteer to work with Khan Academy?
Translation is a great way to support Khan Academy's mission of a free world-class education for anyone, anywhere. These efforts are largely volunteer-driven, with thousands of people across the world helping us translate or subtitle articles, videos, and exercises. People can get involved by applying to become a translator and getting started with subtitles.
What was it like growing up in a Bengali-American household?
I have what you might call a typical Bengali family. My maternal grandfather was a poet, my paternal grandfather was a politician, our dinner parties often involved singing, along with a tabla and harmonium, and my mom can only be described as a strong Bengali mother.
At the time I was growing up in New Orleans, there were very few South Asians in the region. So, whenever we met other South Asian emigrants, we reached out to them and as a result, I felt very connected to the local Bengali community. In many ways, New Orleans is the one area in the United States that's most similar to Bengal: both places have high humidity, huge cockroaches, and lots of seafood and other spicy dishes!
How do you see the future of education evolving?
My hope is that education will become more personalised. I think technology can really help in this effort, and that's why I started Khan Academy.
In most schools today, students progress through the material at a predetermined speed, whether or not they're really mastering the concepts. Tools such as Khan Academy allow different students to work on different things at the same time in the same room. Students can take as much time as they need to master the basics, and that's what gives everyone the chance to really understand more advanced concepts. That self-paced aspect is key. It's what will allow us to provide a free, world-class education to anyone.
Bill Gates says your impact on education might truly be incalculable and he is only one of the many fans you have. All this is a long way from wanting to be a theoretical physicist to being a hedge fund manager. What was the journey like?
When I first started putting practice problems and video lessons online, I never dreamt that people all around the world would use them. Building Khan Academy has been the adventure of a lifetime, and I'm touched every day by the stories we hear from our community. It was a big risk to quit my job and work on Khan Academy full-time. But when students tell me that Khan Academy was the reason they passed algebra or the reason they were able to go to to college, I know I made the right choice.