Up Close and Personal with Salman Khan

The other day, I joined the current Learning, Design, and Technology cohort at Stanford for a small group discussion with Salman Khan, the founder of the Khan Academy — a free online education platform that features homemade YouTube video tutorials (viewed nearly 100,000 times around the world each day) in math, science, and history. Salman has received phenomenal praise and widespread recognition for using video/social media to provide “a world-class education available to anyone, anywhere”.

Salman began the discussion by sharing how he conceived the idea for Khan Academy after he started helping his young cousin (long-distance) with math in his spare time. The concept for Khan Academy was “simple, but it didn’t exist”. He found fundamental problems with the way that most schools teach math, in which kids are forced to move along through math class regardless of whether they have mastered the concepts. As a result, Salman saw the need for a better way to teach math for slow kids, average kids and whiz kids. He aimed to solve this problem through straightforward, custom-paced, practical instruction using online videos: short (roughly 10-15 minutes long), interactive video lectures with handwritten equations and drawings on a digital notepad. To Salman’s delight, the YouTube parent/student/educator community exploded with approval for his unique and invigorating approach to education. Since 2006, he has single-handedly cranked out about 2,200 different educational videos.

Sitting in the same room as Salman, you can tell that he’s a natural math/science whiz (he’s got multiple degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard), and he clearly has a gift for making complex concepts playful and easy to understand.

The thing that I found remarkable is that Salman doesn’t rehearse before producing his videos. In fact, he just hits the record button and starts. He admits to making mistakes while solving his problems, but the videos are NEVER edited. Instead, Salman corrects himself in the middle of a problem, which actually enables the online students to better comprehend and remember the process for arriving at the correct answer. His approach is actually quite interesting because for most professionals (especially a perfectionist like me!), it’s important to push out a really polished product. Meanwhile, Salman believes in an “organic process” of iteration and putting something out there (“don’t be afraid”, he warns) to see if it works. And yes, lucky for him, his model sure does work!

I teach the way that I wish I was taught. The lectures are coming from me, an actual human being who is fascinated by the world around him.
— Sal