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Bookmark: The Prof Who Keeps His Shirt On

From maths to history, the world logs on to YouTube for lessons from Salman Khan

Bookmark: The Prof Who Keeps His Shirt On
Bookmark: The Prof Who Keeps His Shirt On

Mr Khan’s Varied Library

  • Algebra: Simplifying rational expressions; factoring quadratic equations
  • Brain Teasers: Blue Forehead Room Solution; alien abduction brain teaser
  • Biology: Embryonic stem cells; sex-linked traits
  • Current Economics: Econ. of a cupcake factory; analysis of cost per job saved from stimulus
  • History: Napoleon Bonaparte
  • Physics: Introduction to motion
  • Probability: Birthday probability problem
  • Valuation and Investing: Introduction to income statements
  • Venture Capital: Raising money for a startup; Chapter 11: Bankruptcy


Every so often our lives are filled with teaching moments; for Salman Khan, each working day is brimful with comparable experiences. Salman is the founder and sole faculty member of Khan Academy, a collection of YouTube videos that provide instruction in subjects ranging from mathematics, biology and chemistry to history. Ever since he was in college, Salman wanted to contribute to education. A computer science major, he dreamed he would create “the Holy Grail” of all education softwares.

But it wasn’t until a few years later, in the summer of 2004, when his cousins were visiting him in Boston, that he discovered that one of them, Nadia, could barely come to grips with maths. Salman suggested to her mother that he could work with Nadia over the phone to help improve her grades. She agreed. He supplemented conference calls with Yahoo! Doodle; soon the young girl’s grades started to improve. “For me it was fun because I could help her and maths was something I love,” Salman, whom friends call Sal, says.

A student group was formed shortly; soon more cousins and family friends were included. But the more students he had, the harder it got for Salman to set up classes and coordinate with each student’s schedule. Having more than one child on a conference call was also nowhere near as effective as the one-on-one attention he had given Nadia. Then inspiration struck. Salman decided he was going to produce short lessons and put the videos on the internet. Doing so would allow students to watch lessons at their own pace in a low-pressure environment and he wouldn’t have to repeat them many times over. He sent the first videos out to his cousins and their friends. “They said they liked me better on YouTube than live,” Salman says with a laugh. And that was the beginning of Khan Academy.

Salman was born and raised in New Orleans. His parents—mother from Calcutta and father from Barisal, Bangladesh—moved to the US in the early ’70s. After graduating, Salman worked briefly as a hedge fund analyst (he has a Master’s in electrical engineering and computer science and an MBA—both from Harvard). Salman nurtured his YouTube hobby on the side. His wife, Umaima Marvi, was a medical resident at the time. “She was working 80 hours a week so it actually worked out well as there was nothing else I had to do with my time but wait for her and make YouTube videos!”

Soon after he started posting videos online, Salman noticed that there were days when 20 people had viewed his lessons. “I thought, ‘there are only six of my cousins who would watch this...which means the other 14 are people from around the world.’ That was a pretty neat idea.” Shortly, Salman started receiving letters of gratitude from kids around the world. One wrote saying he had only passed algebra because of the videos; another said he used to hate maths until he started viewing the Khan lessons. “I was getting 20 of those type of letters a day at one point.... The itch to do more of it was getting too strong,” he says.

French history on Khan Academy’s YouTube library

Salman told his wife that the academy was, in his mind, the “highest social return that one could ever get”. In 2009, the Khan Academy won the Microsoft Tech Award in education. As the academy started gaining recognition, Salman decided to give up a lucrative financial career for the world of academia...all from a room in his home in Mountain View in California’s Silicon Valley, the crucible of innovation. Salman’s wife was supportive of his decision. “She saw where this was going. She saw how much I enjoyed it,” he says.

Soon after salman started posting math videos for his cousins, he noticed that many others too had been following his lessons.

The Khan Academy (www.youtube.com/khanacademy) now gets as many as 2,00,000 unique students every month, is the 98th most subscribed YouTube channel, and has had 57,275 subscribers since November 2006. In the word-of-mouth world of the internet, his increasingly popular lessons are viewed millions of times by people across the world, including in India. Salman—who also has his own website, called khanacademy.org—jokes that the reason he is popular in India has a lot to do with the Bollywood superstar with whom he shares a name. “Whenever people do an online search for Salman Khan, my name also pops up! I get to leverage his label,” he says with a laugh. Salman says his goal is to have free world-class education for anyone anywhere.

The Khan Academy doesn’t follow a particular curriculum. Its founder believes that if one really knows his mathematics he can do well in a course in India, China or the US. “The focus on curriculum always leaves behind the underlying concept that you are literally trying to learn mathematics. I would say maths is the curriculum,” he insists. Through his lessons Salman tries to offer a comprehensive understanding of a subject so that students studying in any curriculum can have all their questions answered.

But the Khan Academy is not by itself an alternative to a formal college education. While it provides a unique teaching environment, Salman does not hand out degrees. “Someone who wants to become an engineer or a doctor cannot ignore the current education system. They have to show up there and take exams,” he says. He believes most students who visit his site use the lessons to supplement their education. “I don’t think that it’s just that someone learns 80 per cent of the material in school and this is just to polish it off; I think sometimes it’s the other way around,” he says. “The feedback I get is: ‘I’ve sat in class for two months but I’ve learned more watching these videos’. So I think an argument can be made that more learning goes on at this site than in some schools.”

Salman wants to continue making videos that cover everything. “I literally mean everything,” he says. The videos that turn out best are often subjects that interest Salman—mathematics, physics, chemistry. For him, algebra is a breeze. On many occasions he solves new problems while producing a video (he has 1,400 on YouTube, eliciting 5,982 comments). On the other hand, when it comes to world history, preparing a lesson could take several hours. He tries to read as many sources on a subject as possible and at times will ask others to explain subjects that stump him.

Which subject has he enjoyed teaching the most? “When you learn something really well, almost any subject is fascinating,” Salman says. “Anything you see on my site is something that I have gained a love for.... In school my real passions were physics, maths, computer science and finance, and there is a lot on the site that aren’t those things.”

The Khan Academy started off as a one-man show. Only recently have volunteers started work on software projects. Salman decided many years ago that he did not want to turn his dream into a for-profit venture. “I did not want to lose the mission of the maximum number of people using it to educate themselves, and it is possible that the for-profit mission would have collided with that,” he says. Other than his own time, he explains, the costs are minimal. He uses a Camtasia Recorder (cost $200), SmoothDraw3 (no cost), and a Wacom Bamboo Tablet (cost $80) on a PC to produce the videos. Salman had not been taking a salary until a few weeks back, when donations from individuals allowed him that luxury. He is now trying to persuade some corporations to donate money so he can hire a small team and build a virtual school. Given the scope of Salman’s vision, or his relentless drive, that idea is more grounded in probability than being just another dream.

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