The Promise of Online Learning: A Q&A with Salman Khan

The groundbreaking educator talks about using technology to supercharge traditional education.

By John Scorza May 1, 2016
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SalKhanPhoto2-for-web.jpgTechnologies used in teaching have transformed dramatically over the past decade, but the underlying theories about what makes for a good education haven’t changed much. The “learning revolution” we keep hearing about doesn’t focus as much on using new tools to change the way people learn as it does on leveraging the tools to give education a broader reach. That’s what drives Salman “Sal” Khan, founder of the Khan Academy—a nonprofit organization with the mission of providing free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere.

His organization offers online educational videos and other tools to more than 26 million registered students in 190 countries. Khan also has a lesson or two for HR professionals who want to harness the power of virtual learning, which he’ll share as a keynote speaker at the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition in Washington, D.C., to be held June 19-22. Here’s a preview:

Are traditional schools giving our kids the knowledge and skills they need to excel in the workplace?

There are definitely kids coming out of the system ready to work. But it’s not clear whether that is in spite of the traditional academic model or because of it. For example, most students who know computer programming well enough to get jobs at Google or Facebook didn’t learn that skill in a classroom; they developed it on their own.

I’d argue that a lot of the students who do well in any field have great communication skills. Writing is an incredibly powerful tool that is fostered to different degrees at various schools.

In general, though, with traditional educational models, the thinking is very much, “You’re the student and I’m the teacher; follow my instructions.” The byproduct of that is that students are so accustomed to being told what to do that they’re not sure how to proceed when they are given an open-ended problem that requires them to take initiative.

How can online learning fill students’ educational gaps?

I’ve never viewed online learning as a replacement for a traditional education but rather as something that could supercharge or liberate it. With virtual tools, you can do on-demand exercises and progress at your own pace. And then when you go to the classroom, there can be much more human interaction with peers and teachers. When human beings get together, they can do the things computers could never do. But computers can be leveraged to allow for the personalization of learning.

What needs to happen for online learning to reach its full potential?

Lots has happened, and progress is occurring faster than I would have guessed. If you need help in almost any subject—especially math and science—you can get it online. I think in the next 5 to 10 years, if you want practice or feedback or explanations, you will be able to get that in practically any field. Then you’ll be able to take proof of that knowledge to the local college or to an employer—and that should carry some weight. And there will even be mechanisms for people to tutor each other virtually. I don’t think the most powerful credential of the future will be your SAT score; it will be how good of a mentor or tutor you are in a specific domain. Those are the people I would want to hire—the good tutors—because not only do they know the content, but they can also communicate well and have empathy.

What can HR do to help employees learn and develop in a business setting?

Make the knowledge accessible when it’s convenient for workers and let them learn at their own pace and in a way that won’t embarrass them. In every job I’ve ever had, I had at least 10 silly questions that I was always afraid to ask. But if you make the information available on demand, and there’s no stigma and no shame, people will access it. And make sure employees know that if they can demonstrate that they’ve reached a high competency level, their salary is going to go up or they’re more likely to get a promotion. That’s a natural incentive for people to want to learn—on their own time, at their own pace. HR could also set up support networks made up of small groups of people to help each other as they try to reach a goal, making all the tools available to them virtually.

How can HR professionals take advantage of the Khan Academy to train and develop workers?

They could use our courses at no cost to help employees learn core academic skills, such as algebra, basic reading comprehension or writing. On top of that, if you’re in an environment that touches on technology, which is almost all workplaces today, I would encourage employees—even those who are not traditionally considered to be technical people—to go through the Khan Academy’s computer programming curriculum. Of course, they shouldn’t go in with the expectation that they’re going to become programmers, but the coursework will give them a lot more context about what happens inside their organizations, what’s possible with technology and what’s not.

In 2014, you opened the brick-and-mortar Kahn Lab School. Do physical classrooms offer learning opportunities that aren’t available online?

The online Khan Academy dives pretty deeply into fundamental subjects such as math, but it isn’t a holistic learning experience. In my book The One World Schoolhouse (Grand Central Publishing, 2012), I envisioned what a school of the future could look like in a world where you have access to virtual learning tools. That’s what the Lab School is. There’s a huge emphasis on students building their metacognitive traits—that is, their ability to think about thinking—and learning entrepreneurship, empathy and teamwork. They use technology to master all the core ideas in math, science, reading and writing. But a lot of the day is spent on dialogue, simulations and more open-ended projects—whatever interests the students.

Should college education be free for everyone?

I think a little bit of cost is a good thing. When you’re a kid, your education is paid for, whether by the state or by your parents, and you take it for granted. But when you’re 17 or 18 years old and deciding what you want to major in, it helps to have some skin in the game.

That said, current tuitions are ridiculous. The costs become debilitating for students as they’re trying to start their lives. Schools need to do a much better job of making transparent the actual outcomes for graduates. If you want to take on a $200,000 debt to go to college, you need to know that 30 percent of the people who are studying what you’re about to major in aren’t getting jobs in their field—and the other 70 percent are making a salary that will make it very hard to pay off that $200,000 debt. That, along with alternate educational paths that might be more cost-effective, would have the natural effect of bringing down tuition prices through competition.

How do you balance work and family?

I take that pretty seriously. I try to be home by 6 every night when I’m not traveling. When I’m home, I don’t look at my phone or e-mail. On weekends, I’m relatively inaccessible from a digital point of view. I try to keep to a minimum of two or three out-of-town work trips a month, and they’re often only for the day or one night. If you don’t do things lke that, you’re just going to burn out.  

John Scorza is associate editor of HR Magazine.

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