Providing Anyone, Anywhere, a World-Class Education for Free

Khan Academy mission attracts talent and support

By Dana Wilkie Jun 22, 2016
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Salman “Sal” Khan said he is able to hire people who are offered much higher pay at other companies because of his online academy’s inspiring mission: leveling the educational playing field by providing free, quality courses to “anyone, anywhere”—including minorities, the poor and students in third-world countries.

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“What really motivates people is, you give them a mission they can believe in … really intellectually meaningful, challenging work,” Khan said June 22 at the final general session of the Society for Human Resource Management 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition in Washington, D.C. “The lesson is: Pay enough. But, after that, it’s all about mission and [that] when you come into work you feel like you’re doing something interesting and moving the dial.”

A former hedge fund analyst with degrees from MIT and Harvard, Khan is founder of the Khan Academy, which provides free, online education to more than 26 million registered students in 190 countries.

The inspiration for his not-for-profit academy was a younger cousin who was struggling with middle-school math. After communicating with his cousin, Nadia, by phone and with an interactive notepad, Khan was able to boost Nadia’s math skills—and confidence—such that, by age 14, she was taking calculus at the University of New Orleans.

As many as 15 more relatives asked for his help and when the logistics became unwieldy, he posted videos of his tutorials on YouTube and made the videos public. Public views began to climb. Comments started coming in, many of them describing how viewers excelled in math after taking Khan’s courses. By 2009, 50,000 people were using his site regularly. So he quit his day job, set up the Khan Academy as a nonprofit organization, and began living off his and his wife’s savings, which quickly dwindled.

“It was in one of those darker moments that I saw a $10,000 donation come in [from] a woman from Palo Alto [Calif.],” said Khan, who is author of The One World Schoolhouse (Grand Central Publishing, 2012), which explores the impact of the web as a teaching tool. The woman and Khan met for lunch and she asked about his vision for the academy; Khan replied that it was to provide a free, world-class education that would be accessible to all.

At the end of the lunch, she said, “How are you supporting yourself?” Khan recalled. “And in as proud a way as possible, I said, ‘I’m not.’ Ten minutes later I get a text from [her], and it says, ‘I’ve just wired you $100K.’ ”

From there, support snowballed. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Google collectively offered about $4 million in support. Today’s supporters also include Hyatt, Disney Pixar and Bank of America. Khan was able to expand his course offerings and translate his videos into numerous languages.

The academy courses operate much like a video game, with “levels.” A student starts at Level 1, and once she’s mastered that level—at her own pace, through videos and exercises—she moves to Level 2.

“This is not the way the traditional academic model works,” Khan said. “In the traditional model, we group students together—usually by age and perceived ability—and shepherd them all together at the same pace. [On a test], I may get a 70, you might get an 80 and you might get a 95. Even with that ‘A’ student, what was that 5 percent she didn’t know? Even if there were gaps [in knowledge], the class will move to the next concept. To appreciate how absurd this is … imagine if we did this in other areas of our life—say in homebuilding.”

Today the Khan Academy has a library of some 7,000 video lessons in more than 36 languages on a wide range of subjects, including math, science, computer programming, history and economics. Up to 14 million learners visit the website each month and, as of August 2015, those visitors had received 580 million lessons and completed 3.8 billion practice problems.

Khan said a recent academy survey of first-generation college students at selective institutions such as Harvard and Stanford found that 64 percent said the Khan Academy had a meaningful impact on their education.

“A lot of them said this was the private tutor that their family couldn’t afford.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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