Khan Academy: A hedge fund dreamer and a visionary revolution in education

“Innovation never comes from the established institutions.  It’s always a graduate student, or a crazy person or somebody with a great vision.  Sal Khan is that person, in education, in my view.  He built a platform – if that platform works – that platform can completely change education in America.” 

           – Eric Schmidt, Google Chairman 

A transformative vision of the future of education is unfolding right before our eyes, although few people are even aware that it’s happening.  It’s the kind of thing that happens out of nowhere, with simple or humble origins – like some of our greatest entrepreneurial success stories – but eventually reaches a “critical path” that can have enormous impact upon the way people do things or on some aspect of society.

In 2004, Sal Khan was working as a hedge fund analyst in Boston, when his cousin Nadia, a 7th grader in New Orleans, was struggling with algebra and asked him for help.  Khan agreed help tutor his cousin remotely, by uploading video lessons using YouTube.  The addition video lessons helped, but oddly enough, Khan started noticing that strangers were using his YouTube videos and were grateful for the additional help.

With time, more and more users found out about Khan’s videos and word spread, and the user comments showed strong, positive feedback, at time with profound gratitude and appreciation.  Someone told Khan that their child was dyslexic, and his videos were the only thing that helped her master her math lessons; other people said things like, “We’re praying for you and your family.”

With three degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard, Khan had experienced success in the world of hedge fund financing, but he began to feel drawn to use his academic talents for a broader purpose, sensing that he had barely begun to tap the potential for a new schema for online learning.  So in 2009 he quit his job and formed Khan Academy, a nonprofit educational organization whose audacious mission is to provide “A free, world class education to everybody, everywhere.”

Not long after Khan devoted himself full time to his Academy, Bill Gates mentioned that at an Ideas Festival forum that he had been helping his daughters with their homework on Khan Academy’s web site.  Word got back to Khan and Gates eventually invited him to Seattle.  The meeting led to $30 million in funding from Microsoft and Google to hire top tier software engineers, designers and programmers to help Khan Academy develop its curriculum and platform.  Since its early years Khan Academy has experienced explosive growth and now offers regular video tutorials to 6 million students per month in the United States and throughout the world.  Khan Academy lessons cover all levels of math from basic additions to advanced calculus, and also includes tutorials in physics, biology, astronomy, history and medicine.

The buzzword for this new educational concept is known as “flipping the classroom.”  The idea is that by providing students with video lectures which they can watch at home, they come into the classroom better prepared to understand the subject – and the teacher, instead of spending time continually going over the lecture, can spend more quality time addressing each individual student’s needs, helping them work through the areas where they are getting stuck.

Khan himself has some slight reservations about the term.  He believes the ideal goal is not so much flipping the classroom, but expanding the concept to have students moving at their own pace, mastering subjects and moving on, so a teacher in a classroom of 30 students can work with each student at their own level .

Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, is overjoyed at the possibilities.

“Innovation never comes from the established institutions.  It’s always a graduate student, or a crazy person or somebody with a great vision.  Sal Khan is that person, in education, in my view,” Schmidt says.  “He built a platform – if that platform works – that platform can completely change education in America.”

“Khan is giving us all a glimpse into the future of education,” says Bill Gates.

Khan Academy teachers work from a central dashboard, which tells the teacher about each student’s progress, including what module they are working on and how much time they spend with each lesson.  Once a student begins to struggle or spend an inordinate amount of time on one lesson, the dashboard lights up, and the teacher can give the student more individualized instruction.

Khan Academy has been running pilot programs in California, and the results have been encouraging.  Some schools, administrators and districts are beginning to catch on the “flipping the classroom” concept and are showing dramatic, measurable improvements not just in California, but throughout the United States.

In Clintondale High School near Detroit – one of the country’s first completely “flipped” schools – 50 percent of freshman students failed English and 44 percent failed math before the implementation of the new video lecture program; in one year the fail rate dropped to 19 percent in English and 13 percent in math. Other experiments are being carried out across the country with similar results.

The Khan Academy materials have far-reaching implications in developing countries.  With some government and international aid support, schools in underdeveloped regions can use inexpensive tablets, DVD players and mobile cell phones to support these new curriculum platforms.  For more progressive governments, developing a digital television broadcasting system with decoder boxes would pay fabulous dividends in human capital, skill acquisition and entrepreneurial potentials for impoverished, under-served communities.  Globally – and in the United States – the end result will be a future where vastly greater masses of people are able to achieve a far greater knowledge and proficiency in a wider range of academic subjects in elementary, middle and high school and college, in a world the pushes the edge of our imagination.

Khan Academy About



This article is part of a blog series I am writing called, “Signs of the Times: Hidden Seeds of a Benevolent Future.” The series is sponsored by Solution Link, a digital marketing firm, and highlights critical developments, technologies and innovations that are creating constructive and far-reaching societal change.  You can find the Hidden Seeds series, as well as Solution Link’s free digital marketing e-book on the Solution Link web site and blog.


Categories: Hidden Seeds of a Benevolent Future, Trends, Observations, Evolution

Tags: , , , , , ,

3 replies

  1. May I put part of this on my site if I post a link back to this webpage?

    • Thank you, Hina – I’m glad you found the post interesting. I would be happy if you put this post on your site, and I appreciate you providing a link back to my blog.

    • Hina – I thought about this, and I just wanted to wish you a joyous Eid! I am honored that you saw my post and you found interest in it, especially at this time. I am a Christian, and I try to see beauty, love and dignity in all religions. I lived in South Africa for 8 years, and I once by chance and circumstance prayed together with a young Muslim from Somalia, who was in his mid 20s; he prayed his Arabic prayers, facing Mecca, and I stood beside him, and prayed my Christian prayers in a soft, silent voice. The prayers protected me from danger in a very obvious way that demonstrated it was God/Allah who intervened. I am always grateful, whenever I think about that experience. With the greatest joy I will pray during this Eid, and I will also pray for you and all women in Pakistan and around the world who are seeking education.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: