Education for everyone: An interview with Sal Khan

Khan:classroomHere is a portion of the transcript of an interview of Sal Khan, featured online among McKinsey & Company’s Insights & Publications. To watch the video, read the complete transcript, download it (PDF), check out other resources, earn more about the firm, and register for email alerts, please click here.

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Online learning is revolutionizing access to education. As Khan Academy founder Sal Khan explains, it may also revolutionize how organizations find the workers they need.

Sal Khan began tutoring his cousin using online videos in 2004, and demand from relatives and friends prompted him to create a YouTube channel in 2006 to distribute his lessons. Three years and millions of views later, Khan left his career as a hedge-fund analyst to concentrate on developing the Khan Academy, a not-for-profit that offers free online education on a variety of subjects. In this interview, Khan explains how online learning complements rather than competes with traditional education and why expanding access helps individuals learn the skills companies need. The following is an edited transcript of his remarks.

Personalized learning

Whenever people imagine virtual something, they sometimes put it at odds with the physical incarnation of it. That is exactly not what we imagine when we think of Khan Academy. When we think of Khan Academy, yes, if you have nothing, if you are a villager in some rural part of India and you have no school, hopefully we can get a device out to you and then get you access. We can help you learn and move up your knowledge edge.

But the ideal is you have a physical environment. You have inspiring mentors and adults and teachers around you. You have your peers around you in a social environment. And in that context, we see ourselves as a tool to enable really personalized instruction. That ability to move to a competency-based model as opposed to a seat-time model, that ability to move to a differentiated model as opposed to a one-pace-fits-all model is really a necessary ingredient to actually moving the dial. At the end of the day, we are a tool to empower teachers. And it is up to the teacher to decide how that tool is used.

Big data in education

In the Internet world, there’s this phenomenon of A/B testing, where, “Hey, you want people to click ‘purchase’ on your e-commerce store? Well, why don’t you have 5 percent of your users see a slightly different button? Instead of saying ‘buy now,’ it says ‘I want this.’ And see, does that increase purchases? Does that decrease purchases? Does it have other side effects?”

We get to now do that same type of thing, but not with trying to get someone to buy a widget. Instead, we test to make sure that they get engaged with the material, to make sure that they get proficient in the material, and to try to see if they retain the material.

We are running experiments about if you explain a concept—seeing negative exponents in a different way, using certain text or not using certain text—how does it affect how quickly a student gets to proficiency? How does it affect their attention one week later, two weeks later, their actual forgetting curve? We do a 5 percent study, we get 40,000 data points by tomorrow, which is unheard of in the traditional world. And we can control for all sorts of things and we can measure all sorts of variables.

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To read the complete transcript, please click here.

Being founder and faculty means Sal’s busy setting the vision for the Khan Academy and expanding our library of educational videos. Before quitting his job as manager of a hedge fund to run the Khan Academy full time, Sal also found time to get three degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard.

To learn more about him and Khan Academy, please click here.

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