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Minimize the Frictions — BPR Interviews: Sal Khan

Sal Khan is the founder and CEO of Khan Academy, a not-for-profit educational platform with 120 million registered users that offers free lessons in math, science and the humanities in 50 languages, as well as tools for parents, teachers and districts to track student progress. He is also the founder of Khan Lab School, a laboratory school in Mountain View, and Schoolhouse.world, a new nonprofit that provides math tutoring. In 2012, Khan was named to the Time 100, an annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Neil Sehgal: What is the single most important lasting effect you see in education as a result of COVID, positive or negative?

Sal Khan: Picking one is hard, because I can list like six. But if I were to say one, it’s that people are taking schooling a lot more seriously and a lot less for granted than they have in the past. The whole world now realizes what a crucial piece schooling has in the functioning of our economy, and COVID has renewed interest in making sure that it’s working well for all kids.

NS: Governor Gavin Newsom, Joe Biden, and many other political leaders have started to get behind the idea of extending the school year into the summer to help students make up some of the learning lost due to remote school. Reactions from students, parents, and educators seem to be mixed. Is this something you would like to see?

SK: Well, I’m a big believer that learning should be happening all the time. In my book The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined, I argued that the whole notion of summer vacation is outdated. It developed out of an agrarian culture when people had to work on farms in the summers, including the teachers. Obviously, we’re no longer an agrarian culture. It’s well-documented that summers are a time not only of not learning, but of forgetting — of learning loss. So, I’m a big fan of full year, full day schooling. I started a lab school out here in California in 2014, that has year-round schooling. Now, if we’re going to extend the school year, we shouldn’t just stretch out or extend what’s already there. We should leverage the summer or the places where we extend the school day using other innovative models that don’t have as much inertia associated with them.

NS: Rightly or wrongly, Khan Academy has been criticized for its focus on STEM subjects at the expense of the humanities. Do you still see a value in the humanities?

SK: There’s a huge value. I think some of the core humanities skills, reading and writing, are more important now than ever. If you go back 50 years, not many people had to write, speak, or represent themselves for a living. But in this age where everyone is on social media, writing emails, and representing themselves in different ways, people need these capabilities.

The reason why Khan Academy was so focused on math and science initially is that their nature is very cumulative. And that’s why I believe so many students disproportionately have trouble in these subjects — they accumulate gaps over time. You get to a calculus class and you struggle because you didn’t understand dividing decimals or basic trigonometry well. These gaps are holding so many kids back from being able to reach their potential.

Some people say that the goal of education is just about getting a job. And then others argue, “No, it’s about becoming a fully actualized human being who can have a rich and interesting life.” I say it’s both. If you don’t have a reasonable level of financial safety in whatever economy you’re in, it’s very hard to engage in the journey that we all would like to partake in. We have to make sure people of all ages are equipped with the skills to support themselves and their family, so that they then have the space to explore.

NS: A lot of people have been surprised at how susceptible society has been to false information and conspiracy theories over the past few years. Does Khan Academy have any plans to help with information literacy? Do you think fake news and disinformation is an education issue at heart?

SK: It is an education issue on some level. Part of the education system is critical thinking skills. The ability to sift between what’s real and not real is arguably far more important for both the individual and society than whether or not you can factor a polynomial. And when the education system works well, you are building those muscles — looking at footnotes, learning what credible sources are, analyzing data, etc.

I hope that Khan Academy can be one of the places on the internet that people generally view as an objective source of the truth. I think so far we have avoided being perceived as a biased right-leaning or left-leaning organization.

NS: Educational topics are increasingly being politicized, both domestically and abroad. What are the conversations like within Khan Academy as you expand further into the humanities both domestically and abroad?

SK: There’s a US conversation and there’s an international conversation, and it’s a hard one. We have a lot of content already on Khan Academy in American history, civics and government. And it is important to have both narratives. There’s the traditional narrative of American history that I was taught in school. It wasn’t ‘wrong’ and there were threads of truth to it. But it should be complemented with the narrative we have now that recognizes there was more going on and there’s more nuance and gray areas. Unfortunately, in the public sphere, it’s turned into this debate of our history is all bad versus our history is all wonderful. And the reality is it was both, it was a combination.

I’m pretty proud of what the team at Khan Academy has done. There was a conservative federal judge who heard we were doing a series on the Constitution and said, “Oh this is just going to be some California left-leaning propaganda.” And then he looked at it and said, “Oh, no, they represented the Constitution very well.” And on the other side, there are folks working on The 1619 Project who looked at our work on Reconstruction and said, “Yeah, Khan Academy actually is doing the work to ensure that really important parts of our history are not being overlooked.”

NS: What do you make of the recent controversy over the SF Board of Education initiative to rename 44 of San Francisco’s public schools including Abraham Lincoln High School?

SK: I don’t live in San Francisco, but I read about it. I think people were upset because we’re in the middle of a health crisis, and the kids that we’re trying to serve are suffering because they are not getting the services they need. Names matter, but my view is that it’s a prioritization question. When we are dealing with COVID, and we’re in the middle of an education crisis, do we worry about the names or the substance of what these students are getting?

But the conversation around school names is interesting. There are historical figures that we now realize should not be celebrated as much as they have been and there are historical figures that we have missed that we should celebrate. We should absolutely have this conversation, while also keeping a historical lens. Of course, Abraham Lincoln is not perfect by our standards, but he was pretty damn good by the standards of someone in the 1860s. 

NS: One of Khan Academy’s biggest boosters has been the tech community. Are you wary or encouraged by big tech’s increasing involvement in education? A recent national survey found that 60% of teachers think Big Tech has too much influence in K-12 schools.

SK: I don’t know. If you had asked me 10 years ago if I was worried about social media’s influence on politics and national discourse, I would say, “No, what does social media have to do with that?” And now, I’m very worried about social media’s impact not just on political discourse, but also on mental health. But the things that the Googles and Microsofts are creating are primarily tools. They’re facilitating communication, reducing frictions and overhead, and helping with coordination logistics. Those seem like all positive things. Teachers can spend more time serving their students and less time doing administrative tasks. It seems like a win. I don’t see Big Tech being able to exert a lens on what education has to look like.

Now, on the philanthropic side, there’s also this criticism around influence. But there are philanthropists behind almost every viewpoint in education. I think there’s a lot of value in the philanthropic community being able to do more focused, concentrated kind of entrepreneurial investments to try things out. And when these investments work, they can either be taken up by larger foundations or governments.

NS: Some critics seem to think that private philanthropy and education are at tension and that philanthropy, specifically in public education, is inherently anti-democratic. Is the net gain from philanthropy positive?

SK: I think so. Private funds aren’t going to do everything, and it’s possible it creates distortions — I don’t know that it has, but it’s possible. But on balance, they’re able to run experiments and move faster than what might happen in the purely public sphere. At the end of the day, for something to be truly scaled, the government also has to buy in.

On balance, I think the US is lucky that it has a strong philanthropic spirit in the education realm and especially in the education innovation realm. There are really three players here: for-profit, not-for-profit/philanthropic, and government. With for-profit, we know their incentives are not always aligned with the students, and they’re not always focused on equity. And government can get bogged down. It isn’t always the most efficient and can be especially slow with leveraging new innovations. And so the not-for-profit/philanthropic sector has a role there.

NS: Do you see a future where Khan Academy could be obsolete, at least in the United States? Would you want to see big federal reforms that plug up the gaps that Khan Academy is currently helping to fill?

SK: I mean I wouldn’t mind if it was part of the government. I’ll give it to the government, if they are  going to run it well and keep the innovation. For a mission-driven organization like ours, it’s all about how we best drive the mission forward. If the government, the for-profit sector, or another not-for-profit came up tomorrow with a solution that did everything that Khan Academy is doing but better, I would love that. A little bit of my ego would be like, “Oh, how come we didn’t figure that out?” But for the most part, I would love that because that means the problem is getting addressed better.

But we know the reality: collectively, we all have a long way to go to make sure that all kids are able to tap into their potential. That’s why I’m working on a separate project called Schoolhouse.world, based around providing free access to tutoring. There’s so much to be done, and, frankly, there’s not enough resources being put into the space.

NS: Have you considered making money in any ways outside of philanthropic donations, such as advertisements or through charging nominal fees?

SK: It’s legit if someone else wants to do that, but our philosophy from the beginning is that if someone wants to learn, we want to minimize the frictions for them. Even benign ads can get in the way of learning. Likewise, charging even a nominal fee, even if someone can afford it, creates friction in the learning process. In the future, we might say something along the lines of, “If you can afford it, this is what you should pay to use Khan Academy, but we’re not going to stop you from using it.” 

We’re also exploring revenue models with testing bodies — College Board, ETS, and the LSAT and MCAT — paying us to invest in test prep content. In addition, we’re partnering with school districts. Teachers can use all of our tools for free, but sometimes school districts want more training and more integration with their systems. We co-resource that either from our budget, from local philanthropy, or from the district’s budget itself.

NS: Is there any popular misconception about Khan Academy that you wish you could clear up?

SK: There’s definitely a bunch of misconceptions. First, a lot of people don’t realize we’re not-for-profit or they don’t understand what a not-for-profit is. In the tech world, people are so used to free services — Gmail, Google, whatever — and we don’t fully understand any of their business models, but we know they have for-profit business models. So people don’t fully understand we rely on philanthropic donations.

Second, a lot of people know about our videos, but they don’t realize that most of our resources are actually going into the interactive portion — the exercises, game mechanics, and software. And our content goes well beyond math. We’re doing a push to have middle school, high school, and early college science done by this time next year. And then we have to continue to update it. We started the journey on humanities and I’m hoping, over the next 5 to 10 years, that we can really push all of that out.

And then for the more academic pedagogical crowd, there’s sometimes a stereotype of, “Oh, well, kids like it, but it must just be the bottom layer of Bloom’s taxonomy.” They view us as this consumer thing that kids like. Now, we don’t claim to cover Bloom’s entire pyramid, but students are mastering concepts on Khan Academy. Every benchmark study that we’ve run, and there’ve been over 50 studies, show that students who are getting mastery on Khan Academy are rocking any other type of assessment or indicator that they need to.

NS: What are you most excited about in the next 5 years, either for Khan Academy, Khan Lab School, or Schoolhouse.world?

SK: First, in the next 5 or 10 years, can we take all of the stuff that you really need to know to be an actualized human being and make it available to anyone on the planet as accessible as possible? That’s accessible from a technology point of view and accessible from a language point of view.

Second, how do you make that as engaging as possible? Part of that is the content, exercises, and game mechanics, but it’s also how you support these students with tutoring and communities, and that’s where Schoolhouse.world comes into it. Can you provide better tools for teachers so that they can leverage these types of resources to make classrooms much more engaging?

My dream is that anyone of any age can say, “You know what? I really want to go into X, Y, or Z career,” and they have a pathway and a community to do that. They’re able to develop the capabilities that they need, and it’s frictionless.

NS: When you’re preparing a video, you don’t have Khan Academy to learn from, so what is your go-to learning resource?

SK: I’ve grokked math fairly holistically so I don’t need to prepare a lot for it. But when it’s something else like the Maurya Empire of India, I’ll just read. I’ll have four or five canonical textbooks with me and I’ll look at what’s out there on the internet. And what I’m trying to do when I look at these resources is to put the narrative in my head so that it makes sense, so that I can connect the dots. Historically, textbooks write stuff, but they don’t connect the dots to a high degree or give you the inspiration or passion for it. When I still don’t get something, I’ll contact an expert in the field. And sometimes they might say, “Oh, that’s actually an active area of research.” And I’ll be like, “Well, why didn’t the textbooks say that!” I’m always looking for those little aha moments. They might say, “Oh, the reason Napoleon sold Louisiana for so little was because he had no navy at that point because the British had destroyed it.” And I’m like, “Wow, the American textbooks do not list that. They just make it sound like Thomas Jefferson got a great deal on Louisiana.” Those are the aha moments I’m looking for that explain what is happening.

NS: For our readers who are passionate about education, what’s the best way to help Khan Academy further its mission of a world class-education to anyone, anywhere?

SK: Well, I’m assuming a lot of your readers are poor college students, so I won’t ask for donations, but if they know people who can donate, that’s always helpful. Spreading the word is helpful. A lot of folks use Khan Academy, but there’s still more that could be aware of it. People can also work with local schools, school districts, or volunteer with teachers to get the word out that it exists, and even help support them on the technological side. If you speak other languages, you can help with our localization efforts in over 45 regions around the world. If you have a passion for tutoring, I highly recommend checking out Schoolhouse.world, where you can tutor and reach kids from all over the planet who need your help. And we’re hoping that over time, your reputation as a tutor, beyond just making you feel good about having an impact, is actually going to open up opportunities, helping you get into grad school or get a job.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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