The COVID 19 pandemic has transformed life in lots of unexpected ways, but education is among the things most disrupted.
Lots of questions still remain about how education can safely resume during the pandemic, what distance learning means for the digital divide and what parents can do to best help their kids.
So now what?
Our guest today is Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, the online resource that has been helping millions of students around the world for over a decade.
Plenty of people have heard of Khan Academy.
But so, can you talk a little bit about what Khan Academy does, why you started it and what its mission is today?
Yeah, well first of all great to be here and I'll go a little bit in reverse order.
Where we're Khan Academy is a not for profit organization with a mission of free world class education for anyone anywhere and the way that manifests itself [LAUGH] is with an online Resources where students can go.
We, you know, there's three parts of our vision.
One is is that anyone on the planet should have access to world class materials from pre K through elementary, middle high school and college.
Were often known most for math but not just in math and English Language Arts in the social sciences in the sciences.
When they do that it shouldn't just be a lectures were oftentimes associated with video.
But there should be interactive exercises with unlimited practice and feedback and tools for teachers.
And so that's where actually a lot of our resources as a not for profit, go and a big piece of it.
This is that if you are going to have access to those materials that you should be able to learn at your own time and pace that in a traditional academic model, kids are moved lockstep.
You get to 70% on a test.
I got an 80% even though we identified gaps, the whole class will move on to the next topic and build on those gaps.
And those gaps accumulate over time and all of a sudden we get to an algebra class and nothing makes sense.
So that personalization is another big piece.
And then we have a long term goal, that one day we're going to be able to take the evidence of learning Khan Academy and use that as a signal as a credential to the world to for higher education for apprenticeships or for jobs.
But to the first part of your question, this all started in a fairly happenstance way you rewind back to 2004, I had, I was an analyst at a hedge fund.
I was a year out of business school I had just gotten married.
My background was in math and computer science and just came out of conversation that my 12 year old cousin Nadia from New Orleans, which is where I was born and raised, I was having trouble in math.
So I told her, Hey, when you go back to New Orleans, I will be your distance.
Tutor if you're willing to, and she was.
And long story short.
After a couple of weeks I kind of was able to power through some of her confidence issues in math.
She slowly got caught up to her class.
She got a little ahead of her class.
At that point I became what I call a tiger cousin.
I lobbied her school or her to be replaced into a more advanced math track and it actually worked and she did fine and then I started tutoring her younger brothers.
The word spread around my family that free tutoring was going on.
Before I knew it I had about 1015 cousins family friends from around the country that I was tutoring every day, remote tutoring which is more in vogue now.
Remote tutoring every every day after work and.
With a background in software I was always in the back of my mind thinking about well, are there some general problems here that I can help solve and to keep scaling because you can imagine you have 10 or 15.
It was much harder to do that than when I just had Nadia and her brothers.
And so my initial.
Reaction was to start writing software.
I saw that a lot of my cousins had gaps, these gaps had accumulated just like we had talked about.
And the reason why they were having trouble in algebra had nothing to do with their innate ability, it had nothing to do with algebra, it had nothing to do with their teacher.
It had everything to do with they didn't understand how to divide decimals well in fifth grade and there's a decimal now.
In that algebra equation.
And so I started writing a little exercise generator for them, so they can get as much practice, that I could monitor what they were doing.
It would move them ahead as they show that the mastered different concept.
And that was the first Khan Academy had nothing to do with video.
And a few months later, this was 2006 now, I was showing this off at a dinner party to a friend.
You could imagine I'm a super fun guest at dinner parties.
And while I was doing that the the host His name is Zuli Ramzana i give him full credit.
He said, Sao, this is cool, but how are you scaling your lessons and said, Yeah, you're right.
It's really it's hard to do that.
He said, Why don't you record them as videos on YouTube for your family?
And my initial reaction was that's a horrible idea.
You do this for cats playing piano.
But, I went home, got over the idea that it wasn't my idea and I gave it a shot and I just made things that I saw my cousins have long trouble with.
I started to tell my cousins, hey, watch this at your own time and space, that way when we get on the phone or on insta messenger or whatever we were using back them.
We can dig a little bit deeper.
And after about a month my cousin's famous he told me they liked me better on YouTube than in person.
So I I took that as positive feedback kept going.
It soon became clear people who are not my cousin's were watching and so it was in 2009.
I frankly had trouble focusing on my day job.
We had about 50.
200,000 people coming every month so I you know, I quit my day job and tried to set it up as a not for profit.
It was a tough year, very tough year frankly, where I was living off of savings with my family our first child had been born.
So it was not a good year But then by 2010, some of the first philanthropic funding came in.
And so we've been just on a journey since then, as 100,000 users in 2009, and we're at about 107 million registered users today.
Wow, what a great story and I think that the Core of that is just your idea of wanting to serve you know and help people and it seems like that's a thread that runs through what you do all the way to the present day right is just, you saw a need and you wanted to serve it and help it and at the core of every
Product and sort of some of the best human endeavors in whatever field, that's there.
So I wonder, could you talk a little bit, Sal, about how much has the usage of Khan Academy changed now that we're in the middle of this pandemic?
So much social distancing Lots of questions about whether students are even gonna be able to go back to schools or to what extent obviously over the summer, there are a lot of camps that kids would have normally attended that are not available to them.
And then there's also the issue of the digital divide, very serious, very important issue, especially at this time when there's so much, Focus in the United States about social justice.
You know, that's a lot happening in 2020.
And certainly there are aspects of Khan Academy that that must be plugging into and having an impact on that.
Or at least you're feeling some of that so could you tell us a little bit about you know what you're doing now and how conoconemy is feeling the weight of all these changes and these sort of big questions going on in society right now.
Yeah,>> you know, it was February where we first caught wind that we might have a major role to play because of COVID.
At that point, as we remember feels like a lifetime ago.
COVID wasn't really a thing in the US, but schools were getting close in Asia and The first time I fully realized our role was a teacher from South Korea emailed us and said how he was leveraging Khan Academy during the school closures there and I remember thinking wow that's wild the whole country closing down their schools.
But I was like well I'm really happy that we we have a role to play.
Who would have thought that we would have been able to help Keep the South Korean kids and these Japanese kids and these Chinese kids learning.
But then as you fast forward to a few weeks, early March, that's when you I live in Santa Clara County.
We were actually I think had one of the first if not the first documented community spread case of COVID in the United States, and so because People start to say waoh maybe this is going to become a thing in the US.
I'm on the board of a school, I talk to a lot of schools, and we start talking about maybe we might have to close.
And that's when I sat down with the leadership at Canon Academy, and said look this might be a thing.
And it's one of those moments where you kinda look left, or you look right, and you like I guess this is us.
Because we couldn't have imagined this circumstance Happening but over the last 10,14, 15 years, we've been building something that, could very well help a lot of folks through this very sub optimal scenario.
You know, whatever is used has to be accessible, has to be free.
It has to be usable in a classroom context and give teachers information on what students are doing but also has to have a consumer lens and be usable by parents and be usable by students at home has to be trusted has to cover many subjects in grades.
And so that was that first week of March 2 week of March, we started to Stress testing our servers.
We started creating learning plans for folks to how they can structure all the material in Khan Academy if they had to quarantine schooling, so to speak.
We started writing planning parent webinars and teacher webinars, and then everything happened in an accelerated way.
By the next week, it started to be clear that schools were closing, and California was one of the first states, and then by the end of the week, pretty much every other state had closed schools.
And so we saw our traffic Grow by a factor of two and a half to three over that week and it kind of stayed that way on school days through through the school year.
And so we just tried to keep up with that we saw our daily learning minutes we know on a normal day school day, we had about 30 million learning minutes.
We saw that go up to about 8090 million learning minutes a day.
Our parent registrations were 20 times normal.
Our teacher and student registrations were five to 10 times normal on any given day So for us, it was just kinda full court press and then it started become clear that this is this isn't just a few weeks or even just not through the end of the school year.
What normally you associate with a summer slide where kids not only don't learn over Summer, they atrophy over the summer they forget over the summer, it's going to be six months, there's good evidence that that might lead to at least a year of learning loss.
So we said, Look, a lot of folks the school system has so much to think about right now.
They're thinking about all the social services they provide.
They're just in meetings with the epidemiologist figure out if they can even show up at the building together.
Not a lot of folks have been thinking about it.
How do we make sure kids keep learning through the summer?
How do we make sure that they keep learning in fall, when it's becoming, to your point increasingly clear that it's going to be, it's not going to be normal for sure.
But it might be continued shut down.
In fact, several school districts have already started to announce shutdowns and even at best, it'll be some type of shift based hybrid model where you have to use online But not a lot of schools or teachers or educators think they've had the bandwidth yet to be able to really understand well what can we do from a curricular from a learning point of view so we view it as our obligation.
[LAUGH] To be able to step in and fill that vacuum so we just launched what we call get ready for grade level courses.
Ideally schools and and students and parents use it over the summer so that they can fill in all those gaps that they might have accumulated during the break.
The school closures or even preschool closures.
We are McKinsey and Company the strategy consulting firm is doing a pro bono project with us where we are trying to document the best practices from the spring for districts of how they handled hybrid learning and Create a playbook for districts, for teachers of all different types of schools to figure out what's best for them.
We are still a small organization where the budget of a large high school and obviously we're reaching over 100 million kids, but in our way, we're trying to advocate as much as possible to your point of closing the digital divide.
Youyigital divide actually has gotten solved to a decent bit in the school setting the era program in the US over the last 10 years has done a pretty good job.
not ideal but but pretty good.
But at home, it's obviously not where it needs to be when we talk to school districts.
20 30% of the student population doesn't have proper access.
They can't even keep track of 10 15% in some of the large urban school districts, we're seeing heroic efforts In the New York City public schools distributed 290,000 laptops,Miami Dade I think was 200,000.
La did a similar number,but what are they going to do with those laptops?
Do the teachers have the preparation?
Do they know how to do hybrid learning?
How they can fluidly go between They do have class time, and then online.
And so that's really our focus.
All hands on deck for us for for probably the coming year.
So so in your TED talk that does lead me to sort of the bigger topic of Education itself and the way that we approach education.
You know, in your TED Talk, he famously talked about let's not teach, or let's teach for mastery and not test scores.
And in the US, the past two decades have been very, very focused on test scores.
Can you talk a little bit about that concept?
And also, kind of where we're at right now with that, because obviously some test scores have gotten thrown out the window, as a tease a lot of standardized testing, and so in some sense, this is playing into, what you've been talking about, for a while about the things that we should be focused on in education.
You alluded to this a little bit earlier in terms of students being able to go at different paces Has been key to that.
Could you expand on that a little bit more?
And to be clear, I'm not mastery and assessment.
They're not necessarily competing notions.
It's really this notion that in a traditional academic model, you get assessed, it could be assessed by the non standardized test by the unit quiz that your teacher gives you or it could be end of year, Standardized test that the state gives you.
But in a traditional system, you get the test, the test will say, you know, for a few students, they know the material.
But for most students it'll say you only know 50 percent of the material.
You only know 60 percent.
You only know 70 percent.
And everyone just kind of says, I guess that's unfortunate.
You know, and with the grading system, we'll label that student as a not so good student, you get to see in your permanent transcript, you don't feel that good about yourself.
And then we move on to the next thing.
You know, it might be the next unit if we're within a year or if it was a end of year exam.
Well, even though you only knew 50% of fifth grade, well, you know, you've gotten kind of big.
Let's put you in sixth grade now.
[LAUGH] Let's hope that you can learn that even though you had massive gaps from before.
And, the metaphor to that is imagine if you did other things in our life that way.
And I talked about this in my TED Talk homebuilding.
If you told the contractor to show up and you say, look, we've got to build a foundation.
Here are the plans here, the standard so to speak, you have two weeks to build your foundation.
Do it, you can.
And they do what they can maybe it rains, maybe, some of the workers don't show up and two weeks later, you get the inspector.
That's the equivalent of the assessment.
And the inspector says, well, that part's not quite up to code concrete still wet there.
I'll give it a 70%.
And you say, Great, that's a C-, D+, let's build the first floor and you try to build a forest floor, three weeks to it.
You can inspector comes Three weeks later, that's an 80%.
You're like, great.
That's a C. Or B minus whatever let's build a second floor while you're building the second floor the whole structure collapses.
And so the issue isn't assessment good or bad.
In fact, you do need some form of assessment, no assessment is perfect but at least gives you information.
And, I'm always, fascinated when people are anti standardised assessment because the opposite of standardised assessment is unstandardized assessment which just feels Less, useful.
So you want standardized assessment.
You just don't want to index too heavily on it.
There's other things in the world.
And, you don't want it to be one shot.
It would you don't want it to be you just take it once and forever.
That's your essay t score forever.
That's your grade and algebra class.
You want to say that's where you are right now?
Why don't you keep working on it?
And so what we try to do with Khan Academy and everything you know are all of the software rewriting everything is free.
It's all not commercial.
It's funded by philanthropic donations.
It allows students to learn at their own time and pace.
If they haven't learned something yet they can keep working on it.
If and inherently everything on Khan Academy is standardized there, it's aligned to standards and what a student in Northern California sees will be the same as what a student in Virginia sees, but they get as many chances to practice as possible for any given skill.
A lot of places a textbook might only get four or five or Maybe 30 questions, we give functionally unlimited questions so that you can always get more practice always feedback and give the teacher information on who's moving, who's progressing, who's really mastering concepts, and who needs more help.
And so then the teacher in the class time instead of using it for just a one pace fits all lecture can focus on the kids who need help, who need to get unstuck.
I love that metaphor of the house builders.
Matter of fact, I think those home builders were the ones that built my last house but that's a topic for another day.
But Sal, before we let you go, there was one other thing I wanted to touch base with you on which is.
This is such a challenging time for, so many people and trying to deal with everything that's going on parents, educators, we're really just human beings in general.
And you had this great statement that I really enjoyed that I saw one time that says If you believe in trying to make the best of the finite number of years we have on this planet while not not making it worse for anyone else.
Think that pride and self righteousness are the cause of most conflict and negativity and are humbled by the vastness and mystery of the universe.
That I'm the same religion as you.
I just love that statement and I thought, at this time when so many people are sort of grappling with also trying to be decent human beings in a world that is really pretty confusing and pretty scary at times, at the moment, I just thought I'd give you the opportunity to maybe expand on that a little bit, as well, and your Your thoughts about or any wisdom you can share with students parents everyone else during these challenging times?
Yeah, first of all, I'm impressed you dug up that I don't know where you where you where you found it.
I remember when I when I when I said that probably eight or nine years ago because I was getting all of it on social media People started to become somewhat obsessed with what religion am I and I'm like, well, I grew up in a Muslim family.
It's somewhat obvious from my name, but I've always been intrigued by You know, a broad understanding from as many traditions as possible.
I mean even this bookcase behind me I think you have pretty much every major religious book and every major science fiction, a space opera book [LAUGH] Next to each other and so that kind of could tell you a little bit I have some you know, classics there too but but yeah, Think one of maybe one of the silver linings of COVID is that it will recenter us on what matters.
You know, I think even a year ago, many people and I'm guilty of it myself is, you know, we're always like, Well maybe you know, I'll upgrade my 15 year old car and I'll get that fancy Fancy new on or if I make a better investment by,I can grow my 401k this way or maybe I need to upgrade my house or you're kind of comparing yourself who has a better title etc so that's what most of society was and you know Probably still is but covid made us start thinking about wow, I need to spend more time with my family.
I need to call up my parents, my grandparents, my uncles and aunts, make sure that they're not feeling too lonely, make sure that they're supported, make sure they're safe.
Every day that We have our health, we're appreciating it.
You know, it's forcing us to spend more time with our family forcing us to kind of reflect on on what matters most.
And you know, as hard as time this is and there's some horrible stuff going on and obviously you have COVID and then on top of that you have economic Hardship and you have, generally, civil tension.
I mean, I think for the most part for good cause, where it's finally coming to a head some of these social justice issues but I think it's times like this that the more that we can kind of get centered I've on many public forums talk about how I've discovered meditation over the last two, three years and it's been kind of, I call it rain next for the mind.
I don't know.
Some people don't know what rain x is right next is that stuff you wipe on your windshield and then it.
Beads up, you almost don't even need a windshield wiper anymore on the water.
And so>> yeah,>>When you meditate and you just realize that, you know, we're just these awarenesses in this, you know, this amazing mystery and that we shouldn't get too caught up in our own egos too caught up in our own personas and then everything all of a sudden becomes a little bit lighter