Sal Khan Wants to Teach Everyone: Here Are 6 Lessons for Innovators

8/28/13Follow @MichaelXBD

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or creating and claiming a new market. So he developed a simple but elegant solution, and once people discovered it, they sought it out. Only over time did the solution’s potential to change education around the globe emerge.

Lesson: Some big breaks you can’t plan for, but you can create your luck. Khan is very candid that his nonprofit received a lot of help from unexpected sources. The biggest example is the boost Bill Gates gave the nonprofit’s profile with a seemingly off-hand remark at a public forum, but there are other examples of large donations coming from unexpected sources.

The upshot is that Khan wasn’t cold calling VCs trying to raise money and then complaining when they didn’t invest. He was putting out a product people wanted that fixed a common problem, and good things happened.

Lesson: Money matters, but the mission can be more important. The Khan Academy is a nonprofit, and Khan said he wouldn’t feel genuine if he accepted VC and tried to make a lot of money.

“I felt like I wouldn’t be genuine if people were thanking me, but in the back of my mind if things worked out, I knew I’d be a billionaire,” Khan said. He met with VCs, but “by the second or third meeting, the conversation wasn’t going where I wanted it to go.”

But running a nonprofit doesn’t mean he’s accepted living in poverty, or that his employees should have to.

Khan said one of his biggest fears was finding and retaining talent. As it happened, he shouldn’t have worried. The academy now has 43 employees, including veterans from Microsoft and Yahoo, startups, and consulting firms like McKinsey. He’s been able to assemble the team because unlike a lot of people in the nonprofit world, they’re paid what they’re worth.

Khan said everyone understands they’re not going to get rich from an employee stock plan. That makes for a clear lesson—even in Silicon Valley, talented people will forgo the huge payday if they think the challenge is big enough and the mission is worth it. But there’s a limit to how much you can ask someone to give up, and they need to be rewarded and have financial security.

Lesson: Do your homework and prove you deserve to be listened to. Education policy is a political battlefield, and too often the people in the fight seem more interested in seeing their side win than in improving the system. So it’s fair to ask that anyone who wants their opinion to be considered seriously show they know what they’re talking about.

I’d say Khan passes that test. I’ll admit I’m not an expert, but it was clear Khan knew his history, going back to the modern education system’s roots in Prussia, a onetime kingdom in modern-day Germany that disappeared in the 1870s.

He wasn’t showing off either, but explained how reformers were trying to bring education to the masses by adopting concepts from the Industrial Revolution. The ideas were groundbreaking and solved problems at the time, but many are still with us today and they haven’t evolved.

Khan also sounded like he follows the research about how to keep students moving forward, how to build lessons into a curriculum, and how to create tests that deliver meaningful results.

Finally, Khan had nuanced takes on controversial education reforms like the nationwide standards the Obama administration is trying to introduce and high-stakes testing. He specifically said the Khan Academy isn’t about picking fights with teachers unions, and he wants teachers to embrace it.

“Teachers who are using (Khan Academy videos) are feeling much more empowered, much more inspired,” Khan said.

Why is that important? It shows Khan knows some of his greatest allies should be teachers. They want a quality product that helps them do their job and fulfill their mission. But if the Khan Academy is drawn into the political fray, they could become its foes. And it shows that Khan knows that if he’s to meet his ambitious plan, he’ll need lots of allies on board.

Michael Davidson is the editor of Xconomy Boulder/Denver. He covers startups, venture capital, clean tech, energy, aerospace, telecoms, and whatever else happens above 5,280 feet. Contact him at mdavidson@xconomy.com. Follow @MichaelXBD

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  • jr

    The need for online education spans globally, thanks to websites such as Khan or MathTV.com.

  • siouxgeonz

    4. DOn’t be concerned with quality. Marketing is absolutely more important! His videos tell us that 2 + 2 is two — yes, really! — and that 83 x 4 is “a sum,” that whenever all the numbers in a multiplication problem are negative the result is positive… *and* for all his talk about concepts being important, he doesn’t address them. Averages “sort of represent” a group of numbers. He teaches procedures — and doesn’t even do that well.
    But he *does* know how to talk! And he does have the millions and millions in funding! That’s what matters, innovators,
    Yes, yes, I hear you — but “they’re HELPING people!” A: do keep in mind he gets a much handsomer salary in that non-profit than most teachers and B: Imagine, imagine, imagine how good it *could* be!
    Every defender of his stuff never, never, ever addresses the crappy pedagogy. I’m sorry, but I think that’s more important than the bells and whistles and the instantaneous feedback.