The story of how Sal Khan started the wildly popular Khan Academy is one of those you like to hear from innovative and creative people who pursue a side project.
While working at a hedge fund in Boston, he started making online math lessons for his 12 year-old cousin in New Orleans. One cousin eventually grew to 15, and Khan built a huge collection of lessons on several subjects. When enough people started using the lessons, Khan struck out on his own and started a non-profit online learning portal. He realized, as he put it, that “the social return on investment was through the roof.”
After getting an early contribution from philanthropist Ann Doerr and notice from Bill Gates and Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Khan Academy grew to a worldwide success with the mission “To provide a free world class education to anyone, anywhere.”
Khan was the recipient of the Melamed-Arditti Innovation award this week, and told an audience at the Global Financial Leadership Conference about his story and his goals for Khan Academy.
One of the biggest changes came in the fall of 2010 when a local school reached out seeking to implement Khan’s lessons into the curriculum. Since then, dozens of schools have used his lessons and student-tracking tools to enhance classroom work.
“I never looked at virtual teaching as a replacement for physical teaching,” Khan told the audience at GFLC. “I looked at it as a way to enhance physical education to do things a lot more interesting in the classroom.”
He also came upon the philosophy that students should master a lesson before moving on to a more advanced one – something that has made Khan Academy a complement to many curriculums.
“Instead of holding fixed how long you learn something, do it the other way around. Learn each activity at a mastery level, then move on,” says Khan.
Maybe the most interesting thing about Khan Academy though is its founder’s view that it may actually change the way humans view education.
“Our hope is – and we think this is actually possible — that over the next five, ten, fifteen, twenty years we can take that scarce determinant of who succeeds and who doesn’t and make it more commonplace. And If we are able to do that, I hope that future generations very shortly, like clean drinking water or basic shelter, will view education as a fundamental human right.”