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Chat with Khan Academys Founder, Sal Khan - Afraj Gill

Two years ago, Sal and I met at his office in Mountain View. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to post the transcript of our chat until today. I felt guilty having this locked away, so Im sharing it with the hope that someone might find it useful or interesting to read.

These are some excerpts I thought would be good to share. I think Sal would be okay with me sharing this as well. Enjoy!

(By the way, if this is a tl;dr, and youre just interested in reading education focused stuff, skip to the last 2-3 questions.)

The chat:

AG: What was the turning pointwhen did you realize this was something you wanted to pursue full-time? Was it a progression?SK: Yes, Id say it was more of a progression. It started of as something like, Wow, this is a really fun way to spend my time.

The progression started when I began working on the software stuff you know, any time you write a piece of software, you always dream that one day itll be used by a lot of people. But at the time, a few people, mainly my cousins, were using it.

By 2007, when the viewership started growing rapidly, I got hooked and made more and more content. And by that point, it did get to my head that one day this might be something Ill be able to do for a living. I did know at that time that I wanted to give it away for free, but I didnt know whether itd be a non-profit, or a for-profit. I would daydream a lot about it.

AG: Interesting. Lets talk about that. Why a non-profit? Im sure there are multiple for-profit models that you could have used, while still being able to offer the core product to people for free. I mean, dont get me wrong I obviously appreciate and respect (along with millions of others) that you stuck with a non-profit model.SK: Yeah, first I would say that the decision to keep it a non-profit was from a basic, non-thinking gut level. I was just getting so much satisfaction from people saying, Hey, thank you!

I was also a hedge fund analyst. I would look at a lot of for-profit companies that were doing good. But the one thing that always bugged me, and still bugs me, is someone who is [pause]. Okay, let me put it this way: Apple or Google, theyre doing good things for the world. But they dont try to have it both ways; theyre honest. They say, Okay, were here to make products for you that you find valuable and will help us create more value for our shareholders. This is a virtuous circle. Theyre very credible and open about that. I love that.

What I dont like are for-profit entities that say, Were here to help the world, do good, and our top priority is to help you. Oh, and by the way, it might help us, too. Oh and by the way, our Founder just cashed out for $50 million. But hes really here to help you!"

I just find that to be a very disingenuous place. I would say, even worse, there are for-profits that use this kind of social angle almost as a marketing tool.

I never wanted people to doubt my own motivations.

So thats kind of the base, primitive gut level. Another level is when I met with some VCs in around 2008 that did want to fund it, as a for-profit entity. At first, it was somewhat enticing. But by the second meeting, since theyre investors, they started asking, How about we charge for test prep or SAT prep?

Then I started to really think hard about it. So I asked, what is success here if it became a for-profit? Success is basically getting sold to someone or an IPO. Decisions in that case would be driven quarter by quarter, as opposed to what is the long-term good. That didnt feel exactly right.

And then theres more of the delusional feeling, like how cool would it be if Khan Academy were still helping people learn in 500 years. The only model that could support that idea that somewhat delusional idea is a not-for-profit entity. There is no ownership. Its not about my spoiled kids ruining it, or someone buying it, or someone breaking it apart. Maybe its philanthropically supported; maybe it finds its way to generate revenue. But at the end of the day over multiple generations, its mission is what matters.

AG: Interesting you say that. Let me share a quick story. My moms been a teacher for over a decade, and when I initially told her about Khan Academy, she was a bit skeptical. Teachers are always being approached with new tools from a ton of education companies. But as soon as I told her that you guys were a non-profit, there seemed to be more interest. Any skepticism pretty much went out the window.

SK: I dont think we would have been as successful as a for-profit. We benefited a lot from that reaction that youre describing, where people felt goodwill. I dont think you can underestimate the power of that.

AG: Lets switch gears. What do you think universities and K-12 educators need to work on the most?

SK: Reassessing what is the best use of class time, and how does one make class time as engaging and interactive for the students as possible. In my opinion, thats reassessing the importance of the lecture, the value of the lecture, and trying to move in the direction of students doing things in a more hands-on way, collaborating with each other, spending one-on-one time with the teacher, and peer tutoring. Thats my inclination.

AG: Whats your creative process?

SK: I think step 1 in anything is understanding a subject I want to tackle, really, really well. I get myself to a state where Im excited about it. Then you think a little bit about how you want to communicate it. Sometimes its obvious, and you just press record. But sometimes you just need more time to think about it.

AG:So how many iterations of videos do you end up doing?

SK: Sometimes its zero iterations, and sometimes its as high as 10. But the average is closer to 1.

AG: Where do you see Khan Academy in 10 years?

SK: Over the next 10 years, I hope we can say that Khan Academy should be the core of your learning. We shouldnt need textbooks anymore.

This isnt about replacing teachers or anything. In fact, I imagine a school of the future, which I write about in my book, and it has teachersvery much so. But theyre using a tool that helps coordinate and engage people at their level. It also helps teachers figure out whats the next best thing for students to work on. It helps them evaluate, and get feedback on progress.

In 10 years, whether youre doing reading or writing or math, this has to be a part of it. This frees up the teachers time to do something else.

AG: On that note, here comes the big question. What should the future of education actually look like?

SK: It is a big question!

We can think about it in two different dimensions. One is what the classroom is going to look like and the second is how do we actually give people credentials, or what is the credential of the future?

In terms of what the classroom looks like, I imagine it being much more personalized to the individual student. This means that the curriculum needs to match the student, as opposed to the student being pushed ahead or pulled back to match the curriculum. In a world like this, because it isnt a one-pace-fits-all, the lecture is no longer the center of the academic experience. The academic experience, the physical experienceand I think there is a very physical aspect of thisis coming to a classroom, using tools like Khan Academy to work at your own pace, to get feedback, to give the teacher data on how all the students are doing. But the fundamental core of the entire experience is those human interactions with your teachers, with your peers, and being able to work on problems and projects together.

AG: Lets dive into the details about assessment.

SK: What I imagine about how people are going to be assessed, I dont think were going to use this grading mechanism any more. My personal opinion is that its fundamentally flawed. If someone has a B in algebra, to me it means that they should work on their algebra until they get to that A level as opposed to going on to algebra 2 or calculus or whatever else. And so the credentialing reality that I think is going to happenand weve already seen the first signs of itare really what I would call a competency-based system. As opposed to you sitting in a seat for a fixed amount of time and youre gradedso its a variable level of competencythe variable is how long you work on something and whats fixed is when you know algebra, you just know algebra! You dont get a B or a C. You just know algebrayou get an A.

So in that reality, youll have your academic competency but I think there will be two other important data points or credentials that youll see.

One would be your portfolio of creative works. I think all fields should fundamentally be creative. The creative aspects of any field are the ones that are not going to be marginalized by outsourcing or by technology. And by the way, every field does have a creative aspect. And since the creative aspect of every field is whats going to be most important, everyone is going to have a portfolio of their writing, of their computer science projects, of the music that theyve composed, of whatever matters to them.

AG: Interesting. So then whats the third dimension of credentialing you see?

SK: In the traditional model right now, its all about the individual student. Its all about yourself. What are my scores? Did I pass? How am I doing? What is my class rank? Its actually a little bit competitive relative to your peers. I see it going the other way. When I want to bring someone into my university, or if I want to hire someone in my organization, yeah being academically strong is very important. But whats at least as important or even more important is, how good is that person at communicating with others, at managing others, at empathizing with others, and at relating to others.

So you have academic achievement competence, you have your portfolio of creative works, and you also have your peer ratings. That is, how good were you to work with in groups, how good of a peer tutor were you, how good of a communicator were you?

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