The Interview: Sal Khan

Khan Academy Founder Sal Khan sits down with Raj Mathai

Read Raj Mathai's full interview with Khan Academy founder Sal Khan. His book, "The One World School House," comes out next week.

Raj: "Has it snowballed or is it just slow snowball, the success and the exposure?"
Sal  “Back when it was just me operating in a closet in 2006, it was already beginning to snowball, you know the user traffic was growing 30 percent a month but it was going from 10 to 13 people, but you keep doing that and it goes from 10,000 to 13,000 or 100,000 to 130,000 now it’s at millions, but yeah it’s been crazy."

Raj  “Aside from the education part of it, aside from the politics, the praise, the controversy, whatever, are you surprised at the success that you’re having."
Sal  “Yes, I’m definitely surprised at the speed at which all this has happened. I think when a lot of people anyone when you’re working on a project, it takes awhile for traction to happen, even for me, when I was in my closet, I was like a lot of people seem to be getting value from this but the world hasn't’t really noticed, and then all of a sudden, it happened, and once it started to happen, it started to happen really really fast .  We’ve been shocked at just the number of users worldwide using it, the number of teachers worldwide that are using it, kind of our ability to at least be part of the conversation of even what a classroom should be."

Raj: “What did you want to be when you grew up as a kid?"
Sal:  “When I was a kid depending at what stage a kid I was, I wanted to be an animator at one point, an architect, and them um, and then later and I think for all students whenever you get a lot of positive feed back, I started thinking of maybe an engineer or physicist, and then computer science came into existence. I was always fascinated with making things."

Raj:  "Bill Gates I love this story in the book, the first meeting with Bill how was it? Describe it."
Sal  “Bill Gates is like an icon, especially for me, and so for the first time even his team invited me to come visit with him. Just the first time I caught wind that he was using the site was a surreal experience, because I joke those videos were for Nadia not for Bill Gates and so it just elevated what was going on, the whole world seemed to be connected in some way. Then when they asked if I could fly up, if I had some free time, you know my calendar was completely blank so I said sure I can come up for that. Meeting him was the kind of the memory in my life that will always be burned in my brain. I think for me it’s meeting an icon, meeting a hero, and then on top of that one of the most intelligent people on the planet.  When I was meeting him, 20 percent of my brain was engaged in the conversation and then the other 80 percent was saying you’re talking to Bill Gates right now. You realize that’s Bill Gates right across the table?  I kind of had to keep suppressing that part.”

Raj  “After you met with him, what was that first phone call or the email or the text  to say hey thumbs up we’re going to give you millions of dollars?"
Sal  “I first heard in the summer of 2010 that Bill Gates did this as a conference at the Aspen ideas festival. I had never had any idea, in front of everybody he just starts talking about how he uses Khan Academy himself, how he uses it with his kids, and the next two weeks were a bit awkward for me because I didn’t know what to do, do I call him up? What’s the protocol?  I suspected he wasn’t listed. Then they reached out shortly afterward, and this was the phone call where they asked if I’d like to fly up and talk to Bill about how we could work together. By the time I flew up, there was a strong indication that something was likely to happen. At the end of the meeting,  Bill and the rest of the team from the Foundation said well where do you see this going? I said, look, I want to keep doing this, I want to translate this into the world languages, I want to turn this into a true virtual school where you can have exercises, where you can have feedback, there’s software, and in that meeting, we talked about what that would take, and at the time I said a 5 person team and some office space. So there was some indication that something was going to happen. By October of 2010 we sort of had the green light, and we were up and running and that’s when we got this space.”

Raj  “You’re a non-profit, you could make a lot of money doing what you do, knowing what you know. Why not make it a for profit, like so many people around you in the Silicon Valley make a bunch of money?"
Sal  “There’s nothing wrong with a for-profit. I come from a very for-profit industry. But when I started with Khan Academy, I started it as a hobby, and I would get all these letters from people, and 'wow this really helped me' or 'this really helped my children,' or 'this helped me go to back to college,' or 'this helped me pass Algebra or stay in high school,' and I was getting all this psychic reward, emotional reward from all these letters, and so when it became clear that this was a real thing, and it could be a real entity of some kind, there was a lot temptation of some kind. I lived in the middle of Silicon Valley and some VC’s were talking to me about funding it and we can still give the content away for free, and figure out some way eventually to monetize it, there was an appeal to that. But then I started thinking about how many people it could reach, and not only how much it could reach right now but, how many people it could reach over time, maybe over the next 10, 50, 100 years, and when I thought about it that way, there were very few, in fact there were no for-profit  companies that kind of get that institutional status over that a large period of time can continue to deliver on their mission. The only entities that have done this is institutions like Stanford or Berkeley. They transcend any one owner. Their mission is always first, and for me the thought experiment was well and keep in mind I was literally operating out of a closet so it was delusional either way but if I were to be very successful as a for-profit, sure grow fast, get a lot of revenue, maybe we IPO, you know I can become fairly well off, buy some new clothing, and that would be nice. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s great. But then the other option especially for this organization was well maybe we could reach a billion people  in my lifetime, and maybe after I’m gone if this organization keeps doing this mission, we can make education like clean drinking water electricity, something people just expect to have. We could reach tens of billions of people over the next 200, (I read a lot of science fiction) or 500 years. So for me when I thought I’m 80 years old or 90 years old and looking back on my life, the later is what I would want to do and so that’s why I set it up as not for profit.”

Raj:  “Do you consider yourself as someone who is revolutionizing education in a modern way?"
Sal: “I try and stay away from any hyperbole. I mean you see from well basically from looking at me, and where we are, that things are still in their humble beginnings. I’m excited about the potential. Raj "But you are changing things you do know that?" 

Sal:  "Yeah, I’m excited. The conversation has changed and I don’t know if we’re kind of growing at the right time, and kind of capturing people’s imagination, or maybe we are the catalyst. I don’t know the answer to that but the reality is there is a change in the conversation as to what is the role of technology, how can it be used to supercharge classrooms, should teachers be giving lectures anymore? Can we move to a model where students move at their own pace as opposed to you know one piece fits all? In that way hopefully we’ve already moved the dial, but I don’t think we’re no where near our potential. I stay up at night fearing that in two, three, four years, oh that Khan Academy thing was a good idea. Whatever happened, I don’t want that and I hope in 10 years we’re doing another interview and we look back at 2012 and we say oh that was just the beginning.

Raj:  “Are you surprised by the controversy that you’ve elicited in terms of you’re changing the way education is in a dangerous direction?"
Sal:  “Yeah you know the controversy I mean there’s different kinds of tacts on the controversy. I think most of the controversy comes from people misperceiving what we are. You know when people see any kind of online tool, they imagine it as it’s going to be Amazon vs. Barnes and Noble. It’s going to be virtual vs. physical. The one thing I’ve always been clear and everyone on our team has always been clear about, it’s not an either or proposition. We think it’s about both. We think it’s about using tools like the Khan Academy to supercharge a classroom, we think it’s about making classtime more active, more human. I have a 3 ½ year old and a 14 month old, and I want both of them to go to very interactive physical experiences. And I want them to have amazing teachers and amazing peers around them for most of the day and so in that reality we see khan academy as just supercharging the teacher and empowering them. I think viewed that way it addresses some of the fears out there.”

Raj: "You said you don’t really know what you’re going to say before a video. If you need to refresh you’ll Google for a couple of minutes. You said that but I think you insulted a lot of teachers by saying that. Do you regret it?"
Sal:   “I think I’m learning things can be interpreted in multiple ways. When I say I don’t script videos, when I say yeah, I’ve used Wikipedia, I’m not saying I look at Wikipedia for two seconds and then make a video. What I’m saying is yeah, that’s my starting point, and when I say I don’t script videos, I’m saying I think deeply about what I want to do, so I am prepared in that sense, but I don’t read a script. A lot of the great teachers I talk to say that’s their methodology too. They don’t read their lecture notes. They internalize the information, so it gives them more of a chance to be real time, but by no means is there the intent to offend anybody, or to make anything look easy or anything like that. The other thing I want to emphasize is I don’t view myself, I mean people can call me anything they want, whether it’s a virtual tutor or a web teacher or anything, but people should not equate me with the in the trenches kind of work real teachers have to do. You know it’s very easy for me to sit and record a lesson. I do prepare a lot for them, and I do a lot of research, but I still don’t have to you know. That’s only a small fraction of the work a teacher has to do. A teacher has to deal with the human element. What’s going on in the student’s mind? What’s going on in their life? How do we connect them?  What I’m hoping the tools at Khan Academy to do is taking that one piece you know here’s a small explanation, here’s some exercises you can do, it frees the teacher to focus on the higher value things."

Raj  "Are you learning now though that whatever you say because you’re such a high profile person is that whatever you do say teachers are listening and even little soundbites can be taken in the wrong way?"

Sal: "Oh yeah, oh yeah, I completely appreciate now and what I emphasize now is the intention was never to downplay the art of giving lessons or whatever else, it’s really a conversation human to human, that’s why I said some of that stuff.”

Raj : “At some point, do you need to have a virtual town hall with teachers? And just say hey this is what I’m all about because there’s probably a lot of misunderstanding out there."
Sal  “Yeah there is a lot of misunderstanding. That’s one of the things I hope this book helps solve. The book is all about empowering teachers. And the other thing is we and I don’t think there’s enough about this is that a lot of the work we’re doing is with teachers. You know we started famously in Los Altos. It was those teachers who spaced out a lot of what Khan Academy is and then we started working with all the teachers in the district, and now there’s 14,000, 15,000 teachers nationwide that are using Khan Academy. A lot of the places where I speak the audiences are teachers and I think the teachers who understand what we’re doing and understand our mission, they’re fully supportive especially the ones that have used us. I think it’s sometimes and you learn, upon coming out of the closet, you learn there’s this broader world out there and people will misinterpret or view things with a certain lens but I do agree we do have to get the message out better.”

Raj: “Your dream scenario, let’s talk locally here even though you act globally abut your dream scenario for a local situation is about a kid in a certain school district, tell me about it. The kid who isn’t getting the proper instruction and how can he get it?"
Sal:  “Any student here in the Bay Area has a free tutor. It’s Khan Academy, and they have exercises and get feedback, and they can use it tomorrow. That’s a minimum case. The next layer is ok, you’re in a classroom, um how do we make that classroom more interactive, and that’s where we’re seeing a lot of these pilots, all over the Bay Area where they’re saying let’s take a lecture out of class time, let’s do more interactive things, so it can be one-on-one time with the teacher, it can be peers teaching each other, and the next level I think that’s getting closer to your question, the dream is I imagine in the Bay Area and hopefully the rest of the world, schools of all sorts, public, private, charter, where students are allowed to work at their own pace, master concepts, before moving on. There’s no use having a C understanding of algebra, a C understanding of geometry, and the best you can do with calculus is get a D. We want you to get a very high level of mastery throughout. It will be all at your own pace, and then really pushing the envelope at what a classroom can be. There’s a school, Summit Prep, here in San Jose that is starting to experiment with some of these things, saying hey let’s break down these walls between classrooms, let’s have teachers teaching together, and let’s make it all interactive."

Raj:  “Ok, nuts and bolts, obviously your time is getting pulled in a lot of directions, and ways. How often are you in this office doing your videos?"
Sal:  “Depending on the week, but most days I’m here for essentially the entire morning, I’m here from 3 to 5 hours days making stuff."

Raj  "Garggle, tea, exercises, how do you keep your voice going?"

Sal: "You know I used to do more of that but now I don’t. I just come in, hot water. A lot of hot water." 

Raj:  "Will you ever make an on-camera appearance?"

Sal: “I’ve inadvertently made where we have these medal videos and stuff like that, but yeah most of the time I’m not there, and that’s good because I think my unibrow might be distracting. The form factor we use is you hear the voice and you see the writing, and that’s really good for a lot of the stuff we have right now, but there is a need I think for academic interviews. Let’s understand a neutron better, and maybe a face could be interesting there. I think there could be interesting things where we visit someplace but even there, even if I inadvertently show up, it’s all about focusing on the content. You might see faces, but our core idea is always be 100% focused on the content."

Raj: "You’re a kid at heart." Sal:  “I am a kid at heart, yes."

Raj: “You brought up it up. Where will we be in 10 years? I won’t be interviewing you, but where will you be?"

Sal: "Probably on our canes. You’re aging better than me. So In ten years, I hope the site is reaching hundreds of millions if not billions of people. The experience isn’t just videos. It isn’t just problem sets. It’s projects that work with the other 100 million or 200 million learners out there so you can learn from each other that you can teach each other. It’s ways to create portfolios to share creative work, it’s way to get credentials to show to employers all over the world, and they’ll take that seriously, and then on top of that, we hope it’s being used to supercharge what’s actually happening in the physical classroom. So in ten years I hope that we’ve somewhat reached a consensus that it makes no sense where one person gives a lecture to 30 people. It should be a time where we go deep with students, to form human connections, human bonds, for students to connect with each other. I kind of have to wear two hats, one I love making these videos. I love learning and teaching, and on the other side we have this organization where we’re growing, we’re raising money, we’re doing all these type of things, I hope in ten years some of the later stuff, is literally on auto-pilot but I feel like I can invest even more time on creating the content.”

Raj: "So you still love just doing the videos?"

Sal: “Oh yeah when I’m 60 years old, 70 years old, whenever, there’s a far more competent person than me that is doing, running the operations of Khan Academy, and there will be a whole team of people who are also making content, but I can just sort of sit on a hill someplace and make videos on quantum physics."

Raj:  “The most interesting or one of the most interesting calls you’ve received from some high profile people, out of the blue?"

Sal: "Out of the blue? Ah, we got a call from Lebron James that that... Raj: Do you play basketball? Can you help with his shot?" Sal: “Yeah despite my physic, you might be surprised that I don’t play basketball. Yeah he reached out because he’s a superstar, and this is pretty close to his exact words. He said, 'look, when I was a kid, if Michael Jordan told me to work more on my math, I’d work more on my math.' So now he’s in that same position, that same reach, and so he wanted to help us in some ways. So we’ve been doing some videos where he asks a question about why does sweat cool you down? or what muscles do I use when I use a jump shot and I answer them.”

Raj: "White house reach out to you?"

Sal: "We’ve had conversations with the dept. of ed, with we’ve had, I won’t go into all the depth, but yes, we’ve had interesting conversations." Raj "Maybe I should say, has the Oval Office reached out to you?"  Sal: "I Have not spoken to President Obama as of yet, but I wouldn’t mind. I’d pick up the phone if he were to call.”

Raj:  "Final question for our Bollywood fans. Who’s the most famous Salman Khan in the world?"

Sal: “The most famous Salman Khan um is not me."  Raj: Just like him you reach a lot of people.  Sal:  “I reach a lot of people. So ok, I take it back, amongst non south Asians, I might be edging him out. Amongst south Asians, as long as he's still playing 18 year olds who’s helplessly in love, as long as he’s in those roles, yes I think he’s got a leg up on me."

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