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

8/28/13Follow @MichaelXBD

Khan Academy founder and executive director Salman Khan wants to democratize education so anyone, anywhere can get a great education.

Today, Khan had to settle for Denver. But it’s safe to say he accomplished his mission.

Khan gave the keynote speech for the annual Colorado Innovation Network Summit, a gathering of the Mile High State’s political and corporate leaders. The event will continue tomorrow, but it’s hard to envision anyone topping Khan’s lively and insightful speech.

The Khan Academy creates online courses that offer instructional videos and exercises. Khan talked about the nonprofit Khan Academy’s ambitious work to change the U.S. education system and help people in the developing world get access to top notch instructors and lessons. The academy has attracted the attention of big names in the tech world, like Bill Gates, and top policy makers like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Khan told a humorous history of the Khan Academy’s origin and rise to prominence, outlined its future plans, and shared its philosophy. The presentation wasn’t directly about ways to foster innovation, but it contained a lot of insights into how innovations happen and the hallmarks of successful innovators. Here are six things Khan taught me.

Lesson: Have a mission and be able to deliver your message. The Khan Academy’s goal is to provide “a free world class education for anyone anywhere.”

“This thing we call education, this thing that used to be scarce, we can make ubiquitous … and a basic human right,” Khan said.

That’s a super-ambitious goal, and one that could be dismissed as impractical or too airy. But Khan is a masterful presenter, able to use humor to illustrate his points and offer clear explanations. He’s a natural teacher, and he’s able to inform listeners about the academy in a slowly building way that reveals its potential.

By the time he’s through, you understand the challenges, the company, the technology, and the cause, and you kind of want to be a part of it.

Here’s a TED talk Khan gave in 2011 that hits some of those themes and shows Khan in action.

Lesson: Innovation isn’t all about technology or trendy concepts. Khan Academy videos have reached 50 million people in 216 countries, Khan said. About 1,400 people have volunteered to provide translations or subtitles, and lessons are in an array of languages.

The academy needs a lot of technical resources and talent to support that, but I’d say Khan didn’t spend much time talking about technology per se. His talk also was free of all the dreaded buzzwords that clutter up pitches or bad TED talks.

The Khan Academy’s program lets it distribute lessons to almost anyone with Internet access. It uses data to improve lessons and track progress, and makes data available to teachers for almost instantaneous feedback. Tests developed by the Khan Academy also can adapt while students are taking them, meaning it can hone in on what a student is struggling with.

It’s cool stuff, but Khan didn’t go on and on about it. The technology is a tool, but it’s part of a bigger story.

Lesson: Necessity remains the mother of invention. The start of the Khan Academy is pretty well known: one of Khan’s young relatives was struggling with her math homework, and being a good cousin—with multiple degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard—he wanted to help.

With some patient instruction, Khan helped his niece turn her test scores around, understand subjects like calculus that were well beyond her grade level, and learn to love math. Khan’s extended family saw her turnaround, and they wanted his help, so he started posting the lessons on YouTube.

Khan was focused on solving a deceptively mundane problem, not disrupting an industry 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.