Sal Khan: How to help students and parents navigate education during COVID-19

With schools in flux from the pandemic, Khan Academy has increased its resources for independent learning. The founder talked to CNET about what's next.

Jason Hiner VP & Editor in Chief of ZDNET
Jason Hiner is Vice President and Editor in Chief of ZDNET. He was formerly Senior Editorial Director of CNET Advice and Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic.
Jason Hiner
3 min read
Sal Khan Now What

When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out and schools started closing, Khan Academy's traffic nearly tripled during school days and parent registrations increased by 20 times on a daily basis, according to Salman Khan, founder of the popular online resource for students.

The Khan Academy realized that it could help students, parents and teachers who were struggling to deal with the challenges of distance learning -- so it created learning plans for quarantine schooling, planned parent-and-teacher webinars and posted videos to directly address its audience on navigating this new world.

"We couldn't have imagined this circumstance happening," said Khan. "But over the past 14 to 15 years we've been building something that could very well help a lot of folks through this very suboptimal scenario." 

As part of CNET's Now What series, Khan talked about the education response to coronavirus, how he started Khan Academy by tutoring his family members, education in the digital divide, wisdom for daily life during the pandemic and much more.


After graduating with a master's degree in computer science from MIT and an MBA from Harvard Business School, Khan was working as an analyst at a hedge fund when he started long-distance math-tutoring his 12-year-old cousin in New Orleans, his hometown. He helped her overcome her confidence issues in math and she soon caught up with her class and eventually got ahead of her classmates. Khan lobbied the school to put her on a more advanced math track. They eventually agreed and she thrived there. 

Once the family heard about his success, he started tutoring a group of about 15 family members and friends from around the country. He was tutoring them every day, but it wasn't scalable so he started writing software that generated exercises for them and was able to monitor their progress. The software would move them forward to new exercises once they showed mastery over each new concept. 

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That was the first Khan Academy. There were no videos. It was just Sal, some hand-written software and a few relatives. It was a friend who suggested he do these lessons as YouTube videos. Sal thought it was a terrible idea. This was 2006, and Sal replied that YouTube was a place to watch videos of kittens playing the piano and not learn math. But he tried it and his cousins said they liked him better on YouTube than they did in person.

So, by 2009 Sal quit his job and launched Khan Academy as a non-profit. It already had 100,000 users a month at that point and by the next year it got an infusion of funding from several philanthropic organizations. Today, Khan Academy has over 100 million registered users. 

In his 2016 TED Talk, Khan famously said, "Let's teach for master, not test scores." He expanded on that idea in his interview with CNET.

"In a traditional academic model, kids are moved [through] in lock-step," said Khan. "You get a 70% on a test, I get an 80%. Even though we identified gaps, the whole class will move on to the next topic ... and those gaps accumulate over time. And all of the sudden, we get to an algebra class and nothing makes sense."

Khan isn't against assessments, he says. But he recommends that they be used for what they are intended -- to identify areas that need more study, master those and then move on to the next set of lessons. This means more individualized learning and allowing kids to move through the lessons at a pace that follows their mastery of each section.

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A similar approach has now been adopted by other organizations and curriculums such as Summit Learning, backed by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative -- run by Dr. Priscilla Chan, a pediatrician and educator, and the wife of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg

Watch our full interview with Sal Khan for more on how Khan Academy plans to help with the challenges that schools, teachers, parents and students continue to face while distance-learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Watch this: Khan Academy founder shares the key to self-study for students