Parents everywhere have had to quickly become experts in virtual learning and remote classrooms as the pandemic has shut down schools around the country — and the results haven’t been universally positive.
But there are some things that remote learning does better than classrooms: kids can learn at their own pace and rewatch lessons, they can interact with more of their peers, and they learn to set goals and achieve them. The challenge is balancing what online learning does well with what it can’t do — what we need classrooms to do.
For this week’s episode of Decoder with Nilay Patel, I talked to Sal Khan, the founder and CEO of Khan Academy, a nonprofit online learning platform for students in kindergarten through high school. Khan Academy is an organization that can only exist because of technology. Sal started tutoring his niece in math over video using off-the-shelf cameras and software, and Khan Academy has since grown into an organization with nearly 20 million users per month in 46 languages and more than 190 countries.
Sal and I talked about the future of learning, what online education is good at and where it struggles, how Khan Academy is growing, and how he’s thinking about handling trickier subjects like history and social studies. After all, math is mostly just math, but school districts around the country and the world have very different views on how to handle the humanities. That’s a hard problem to solve for a nonprofit in a deeply polarized world.
The shift to remote learning in the pandemic is one of those changes that’s here to stay — but it’s hard to separate what’s valuable from what schools have been pushed into doing. As always with Decoder, the goal is to explore how technology, policy, and opportunity are linked as we build the future of education.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
I feel like your decision set with Khan Academy has gotten ever more complicated because of the pandemic and the shift to remote learning. Many students are experiencing school in something that looks like Khan Academy every day. It’s their primary form of learning. How has that changed for you and Khan Academy now?
You’re absolutely right. When the pandemic hit in mid-March, [we had] first caught wind of it in February, or it might’ve even been late January. I got a letter from a teacher in South Korea saying how he was leaning on Khan Academy during their nationwide school closures. And I’m like, “How wild is that? A whole country shut down physical schooling.” And then a few weeks later, early March — I live in Northern California, and actually the local private school had to shut down. Maybe it was the first US shutdown in the country. And then it started to dawn on us — I’m on the board of my children’s school that I started a few years ago — and they started talking about, “Well, we have to have some plans if we shut down.”
And that’s when it started to dawn on me, well, if people shut down, a lot of people are going to lean on Khan Academy.
We could have never foreseen this, but we’re accessible, we’re free, we’re proven, et cetera, et cetera, we cover multiple subjects and grades. We saw our usage go through the roof as soon as the schools closed, it was about 250 percent to 300 percent of normal. And to be clear, I view [using] only Khan Academy as a suboptimal situation. You always want the Khan Academy where you can get your practice, your feedback, learn at your own time and pace to adapt to, you want that in conjunction with ideally a great physical experience.
I make it very clear, if I had to pick between an amazing teacher or amazing technology for myself or my own kids or anyone’s kids, I’d pick the amazing teacher, in person, any day.
The technology has to be in service to — how do we take that to another level? And Khan Academy has always been all about, hey, you’re one teacher, how do you meet the individual needs of 30 kids? How do you give them practice at their learning age? Or you’re a student in a class, but you’re a little confused. You need some gaps filled at night. It’s 11PM. How do you get help? Khan Academy is there for that.
But as soon as the pandemic hit, people started leaning much, much heavier on Khan Academy. Then, the thing that I observed was huge inconsistency in the synchronous part of distance learning that was happening. My kids’ school actually did a very good job. Within three days, they were up and running. And once again, it wasn’t as good as being in the classroom together, but they got, I would say 80 percent there, 90 percent there.
Were they just on videoconference? Give me a specific example of what they did well.
I started [the school] where my kids go. I have three kids now, they’re 11, nine, and six — the younger one just turned six. It’s called Khan Lab School. The school was based on an idea of, okay, let’s assume things like Khan Academy exist in the world. What could schooling then be like? Well, then the teacher shouldn’t be about giving the lecture and you don’t have to move all the kids in lockstep.
When people get together, the teacher should act as more of an adviser. How do you unblock kids, or how do you be the conductor so that you can get kids to help each other? So the school has always been about students’ agency and the students being at the center of their learning, and that the adults are there to always help and unblock.
And that might seem like a small thing, but it’s actually a huge thing. It’s much harder and it takes a lot more sophistication than if you’re just going through the same lectures year after year. That’s always been the core principles of the school. And there’s other principles; everyone a student, everyone a teacher, learning should not be bound by time or space.
We have a couple of kids at the school who are like Olympic-level athletes and if they have to go practice skiing in Tahoe, they should be able to keep learning. And so the school already had a lot of those muscles, [so] that as soon as distance learning happened, they just kept doing what they were doing, it’s just people weren’t able to come physically to the school as much.
And what I was really impressed with, especially for my older kids, my 11-year-old and nine-year-old, because the school had been investing so much in student autonomy and students being accountable and setting their own goals and reviewing their goals with their adviser, my 11- and nine-year-old really didn’t miss a beat. I mean, my 11-year-old is on the other side of the house right now cranking through his goals better than I do. My six-year-old was a little difficult at first, but he eventually got it as well.
We’ve written stories at The Verge about an entire generation of kids growing up, and they’ve already got corporate management muscles. We just ran a story about a TikTok creator who makes all the most viral beats on TikTok. And he literally talked about getting views as a KPI. When I was a 22-year-old kid making music, words like KPIs were not part of it. Do you worry that kid’s cranking through goals? It’s a very management approach to learning, right? You’re going to set some goals, you’re going to hit them, you’re going to move on to the next set of goals.
Do you worry that these software tools end up teaching kids to think in that more rigorous corporate way? Or is that actually a good thing?
I mean, there are certain aspects of corporate thinking that I definitely wouldn’t want to imprint on everyone in the world, but there’s some things that are reasonably good.
If you think about the alternative, when you and I were in school, it was kind of like, “Teacher, what do I do next? All right. Now, what do I do? Is that going to be on the test?” We all remember some kids would raise their hand, “is that going to be on the test?” which is a very passive mentality. You’re really not taking ownership. You’re letting stuff happen to you. You’re doing what you need to do. You’re not really very driven yourself. But what you’re seeing [in] that student that you’re talking about, what I’m seeing in kids at Khan Lab School is they’re saying, “Okay, I want to learn something or I want to be something by a certain date.” I think that goal-setting muscle is a very healthy thing.
They’re able to, if they’re a little bit younger, with the help of peers or with the help of an adult, break those bigger goals down into smaller goals that are more attainable in a month or a week or even a day. That, I think, is a universally very helpful capability. And then they learn to organize around it, which is very helpful. I mean, it sounds maybe corporate, but my kids are better at — they have Google calendars with their friends and they schedule calls. But it’s actually in a very healthy way because they’re also like, we’re going to play a role-playing game together, and this is how we’re going to organize. And you can imagine it’s even been more important during COVID when they’re not able to just go to each other’s houses in the same way.
So all of those muscles, if anything, not only are they not negative, but I actually think those are the muscles more kids need because you have this impedance mismatch, usually when they go from high school to college or from college to the workplace, where the “hey, tell me what to do next” model goes to “no, you figure out what you need to do next.” And if you’re not good at that you’re going to be in trouble in the workplace.
And these kids are able to develop it early on, but they’re able to develop it with [the] support of adults. And they’re also — this is something that adults don’t have — they’re able to develop it with the support of teachers and parents that also know what healthy looks like. I have seen my 11-year-old get too caught up with his goals and too stressed out about not hitting all of his — he doesn’t use the word KPIs, but essentially his KPIs. [I can say,] “No, this isn’t a big deal, Imran.”
But you know the reality, we know people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s … they don’t have someone else coaching them like, “Hey, you got to live your life. You’re getting unbalanced, your marriage is going to get destroyed if you don’t put some KPIs there as well.” So yeah, I think it’s a healthy thing, but like everything, it has to be in moderation and put in context.
One of the most interesting aspects of this is that you started making videos, and you put them on YouTube, which is very democratic in terms of your ability to create and distribute. That is the story of the tech industry, making creation and distribution so much easier over time.
What we’re finding in the pandemic though, is actually consuming it for many children is very hard. They don’t have broadband. There’s a Chromebook shortage in this country. Do you think of that as a market limit, or do you think of that as something that you need to go advocate for? Is it something you’ve seen the government step into? It seems like you must have a very clear view on how some kids have all of the resources and some kids don’t even have a Chromebook and a broadband connection.
Yeah. Similar to the last three sub-questions were, yes, yes, and yes. It is a delimiter. It’s always been a delimiter, the digital divide. I would say over the last 10 years, the US at least has done a good job of closing the digital divide in schools. It’s still not completely closed, but the whole E-rate program got a lot of devices, internet access into classrooms, but COVID has put a big spotlight on the digital divide at home, which is dramatic. And obviously, it’s not just accessing Khan Academy. You’re not going to be able to access your classroom’s Zoom calls. You’re not going to be able to connect with family members. Your parents aren’t going to be able to do remote work or even look for a job, unless they have reasonable internet access at home.
We’ve seen heroic efforts on the part of school districts; New York City distributed 300,000 laptops and got the local telecom carriers to give free internet. LA did 200,000. Miami did on the same order of magnitude. That’s great. We are doing whatever we can to facilitate that, advocate for that. We’re part of this Connect All Students campaign from Common Sense Media. I’ve been telling everyone who would listen, we’re doing a trillion here, a trillion there, in these stimulus rounds. I’m guessing, it sounds like we might not have one before the election, but post-election, we’re probably going to have a few more trillions of stimulus put into the economy to close the digital divide. My back-of-the-envelope at home, [to] really make internet connection and devices like clean drinking water, heating or electricity, it’s going to cost about $10 or $20 billion.
It’s like 1 percent of one round of stimulus. You think about all of the things where the government’s trying to figure out, how do we empower people? How do we build infrastructure? How do we build human capital? This seems like the no-brainer because once you have that, then things like Khan Academy can kick in.
Do you think that the government has to play a significant role there? I ask you specifically because you started a school to try new ways of learning. When I say the government should play a significant role in building this infrastructure, I’m often told by telecom companies or lobbyists, “Let the free market do it.” It sounds like you think the government should have a pretty significant direct role in building that infrastructure.
Yeah. I have a view on… It’s funny, when I was in business school, I took a course in the first year on social entrepreneurship and it was the only course that effectively, the business school I went to, they didn’t really fail people, but they would’ve failed me. They gave a one, two, or three and I got a three, which means you’ve got the lowest, you’re like the lowest eight in a class of 80 on that. That’s because when I took that course, I remember the final exam. I was very skeptical of not even just government, but I was very skeptical at the time of even the not-for-profit sector, ironically. I said, “This just feels good, but is that really going to cure AIDS by raising some money and getting people to go on a hike or bike?”
I was very skeptical. I was very cynical about it. Then when Khan Academy started, my day job, I was an analyst at a hedge fund. I was doing nothing but talking to CEOs, CFOs of publicly traded companies. And I saw how incentives were driven, frankly, by folks like myself, public equity investors who are trying to hold management accountable to next quarter’s earnings or next year’s earnings. I also, simultaneously, was doing this thing for my cousins and I did appreciate that, look, there are certain parts of society. I am a capitalist at heart. I believe the free market innovates. It allocates resources effectively, as long as there aren’t distortions in it, but there’s at least two clear places where markets in our society don’t work well or even when they do work, they don’t lead to outcomes that are consistent with our values.
I would argue that’s probably health care and education. It’s not that every health care, every education company has to be a not-for-profit or has to be in the government. There’s a lot that you can do that can still be for-profit. When you think about the fundamental task of making sure that everyone has access to education, which is consistent with our values. A system where the payer, the decision-maker, and the beneficiary are all three different parties, which is the case in actually both education and health care, the markets aren’t going to naturally lead to efficient outcomes and they might not be consistent with your values. Now, you could argue maybe that’s the area for government to kind of step in, and that arguably a free world-class education for anyone, anywhere, is arguably the mission statement of the public education system.
We know that government can sometimes be a little bit slower. It’s got a lot of resources, but once it starts moving in a direction, it’s very hard for it to change that direction. That’s where the not-for-profit sector is really powerful. The not-for-profit sector is where you can go in there and address places where markets alone won’t lead to outcomes we’d want, where philanthropy can fuel it. You can show that things can scale, that they can have high impact. Then in some cases, you can prototype things for government. Khan Academy itself, we’re the budget of a large high school. We’re about $60 million a year, but we reach over 100 million kids a year. I would like to think that, I’m hoping the government looks at it like that eventually — we’re primarily philanthropically funded — and says, “Yeah, that’s a good idea. Those folks are good at doing it, better than we would.”
Let’s make sure that that can actually scale in an unfettered way. Similar thing with the digital divide. I don’t think the government has to get in the business of making devices or being the person you call if your internet goes down. They definitely could be the person that could, or the entity that puts resources or the incentives in place so that these things get closed. You’re seeing it with the pandemic.
As soon as COVID hit, they said, “All right. There’s a bunch of people who are trying to come up with vaccines, but as soon as you get through phase three trials, you then have to … start manufacturing and distributing. We don’t have the luxury of waiting. We’re just going to look at the top three or four candidate vaccines and as soon as they go through phase two, we’re going to say, we’ll buy them. If they don’t pass phase three, we’ll just throw it away, but if they pass phase three, we just save three months or four months of manufacturing time.” That’s what government can do with its size. They could do something very similar with the digital divide.
It’s interesting you said that you had [a] prototype for the government. That’s obviously one, potentially every school district in the country is… I don’t know if you think of them as customers, but customers for Khan Academy. Right now, though, you’re primarily philanthropically funded. Tell me how that works. Most CEOs I know, they spend 60 percent of their time on the road raising money or talking about deals. You are in front of the camera a lot. You still make a lot of the videos. How do you manage that time? How much time do you spend actually fundraising and doing that work of a not-for-profit, which is from what I understand more significant at not-for-profits than even at publicly traded or for-profit companies?
Yeah. No, it’s a constant tension. I would say on one level, I mean, given the examples you just talked to, I’ve been fortunate from the get-go in that Khan Academy, if I was running some type of a not-for-profit that was delivering mosquito nets in Africa … random people in the US wouldn’t know about the benefit unless I’m in front of them showing them and giving them the numbers. Inherently in Khan Academy’s model, people experience it. Everyone who’s donated to Khan Academy, usually they or their children were the first beneficiary and it clicks in their head. “Wait, this was really useful for my middle-class child. Wow. This could be useful for every child on the planet. Wow. Let me give some money to this.”
It is true. Even some of our very biggest donors, the Gates Foundation is a supporter, Google’s a supporter. I don’t want to make it sound like we’re flush with cash because we aren’t. Anyone listening, please donate to Khan Academy. There’s a lot that we want to do that we can’t because of lack of resources, but the Gates Foundation, Bill Gates was using it with his son and he told the foundation about it. Several Google execs were using it with their children. Then they told Google.org, “Hey, maybe we should partner with these guys. It seems pretty cool.” That’s been one advantage we’ve had and just the scalability of it. People grok that this, “Okay, wow. This [is the] budget of a large high school, but you could scale to, one day, billions of folks.”
But in terms of my day, I spend, or my time, I spend about, I would call it a third, a third, a third. I spend about a third of my time doing what I would say, [is] still individual contributor, creative work. That’s me making videos for the most part. Sometimes it’s me, like, brainstorming whatever strategy or something, or starting new ventures, like this tutoring thing. A third of my time, I would say, is kind of classical management stuff. We have a president and COO who’s very capable and she has a very strong team. That gives me a lot of leverage, but I still am about a third of my time in that, and about a third of my time, I would just frame as external. We’re in that third right now, where I’ll talk to press, but I’m also talking to potential philanthropists, but yeah, it’s a constant tension of how much to put into one of those three buckets. The third, third, third feels about right.
How do you manage the context switch from each one? I personally find it very difficult to go from individual contributor to management and back in the space of a single day. Is that something that you think about managing as well? Or do you just, is it literally two hours, two hours, two hours.
It’s hard. You’re absolutely right. To your point, you definitely can’t have a third, a third, a third, but if it was every half an hour at switching, there’s no way you’re going to be able to do that. My ideal days, the ones I’m pretty creative and productive, is roughly from eight in the morning, till about 11 in the morning, I have a good three-hour block of creative time. I can be usually pretty productive there. Then I get into management type stuff or a mixture. Between the management and the external stuff, that is easy to context switch. You can almost view it as a third or half your day gets to be reasonably creative, or at least you’re in control of your time. Then another two-thirds to half of your day, the calendar is in control of your time where you’re speaking to folks, either internal folks or external folks.
It works for me. I have been thinking about trying to carve out, like a Friday, that’s a pure creative Friday, at least once every other week or something like that, I think would be pretty cool. I’m working on it. It’s this constant optimization I’m trying to do. I’m always tweaking. Does that have to be an hour meeting? Maybe it can be 30 minutes. It can be 15 minutes. Constantly trying to push the envelope.
Particularly now, the executives I talk to are all more public. They all have Twitter personas or Instagram profiles. That balance is really shifting how everybody runs their business. Everyone seems to be much more keenly aware of it, but if you ever figure it out, please let me know because I certainly have not. You said you spend a lot of time in that creative process. Take me into that. How do you decide, “Okay, this is the next thing Khan Academy is going to do. This is the next subject area we’re going to cover. This is how we’re going to do it.” Or is there a body of experts that you talk to? Just walk me through the sort of creative process of making new stuff for Khan Academy.
In the early days, it was me just getting letters from people asking for stuff, me introspecting. I used to have a stack of textbooks and [I’d] look at the standards like, “Yeah, we kind of haven’t done that yet. Let me do that.” Over the last five or six years, we do have a team now, both internal and external experts … they literally just a couple of hours ago, I got an email from the project managers saying, “All right, Sal. This is your cue. This is what you need to work on for videos.” There was like three chem videos. One is a new video that I hadn’t covered yet on distillation. I did one on distillation. Then there were two videos that they thought needed redoing because modern chemistry standards are now using different terminology than I used back when I recorded the first version in 2011.
So I get that. I’m making some stats videos on geometric random variables. They queue up what they want, like the standards, and then maybe they might cue up a worked example if it is a worked example video. Then for me, it’s really like, for some of this stuff, I have to spend a little bit of time re-immersing myself in the topic. Usually, I’ll just watch all the videos that I had made in the past. “Okay, yeah. I get it. Okay, I’m ready to do it.” Then depending on the video, there might be a little bit of research that I do. There might be a little bit of looking for Creative Commons or public domain graphics. One thing I have learned is overpreparation can be a bad thing.
One, it wastes time when you’re “overpreparing” and then when you get into it, you almost overcomplicate it because you want to throw out all the stuff that you prepared on, all together. When I feel like I’m somewhat uncomfortable, I just press record and I go. Anyone who’s watched a Khan Academy video, you can tell that’s me talking and thinking in real time. I’m not reading a script. I talk the way I talk right now, which is part of the appeal. People know, “Okay, this isn’t some like, paid voice actor to read a script. This is a guy who’s thinking it through with me and being very transparent of his thoughts.” I usually find that when I do that, it comes out quite good. That I’m more prepared than I think, and your brain is really good at filling in the gaps. You don’t have to script every word.
One criticism of Khan Academy is, it’s very strong for quantitative subjects, stats, chemistry, basic mathematics. Then as you go into other qualitative subjects, history, social sciences, English, there are just necessarily landmines there, that many teachers approach in many different ways, and many school districts themselves have heavily politicized the many different ways. For example, policymakers like Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas have fought against the teaching of The New York Times’ 1619 Project in schools.
How do you approach a problem like that? Is Khan Academy going to have a 1619 Project course? Did The New York Times talk to you? Are you worried that all of Texas will just like ban you from their ISPs? Those are loaded issues in a way that changing the terms of a chemistry problem set, maybe aren’t.
Yeah. It’s a real thing. Khan Academy does have humanities. It has American history content. It has world history content on it today. Most of our resources have been on the STEM side to date, but we’ve already taken, you can go learn American history right now on Khan Academy. I think there’s two things. I actually do think there’s a way, I mean, actually, even as much as it sounds like America’s super polarized, America is actually easier. If you start going into Turkey and the Armenian genocide, other countries are actually much harder to… They’re in absolute denial of some things that have happened. While in the US it is much more of a matter of emphasis.
The 1619 Project… I interviewed the lady who wrote that first article with The New York Times on our live stream. And if you go to the Khan Academy’s content, we had Jeffrey Rosen, who’s the head of the National Constitution Center, we’ve done some stuff with him. We’ve had both conservatives and liberals be suspicious of us, when they found out that we were doing content on American history. And then, we said, “Take a look at it,” and then they come back to us, “Yeah, that was pretty good.” And I think there is a way, just on this one issue of the 1619 Project versus more of a “Let’s be proud of our history” type of narrative, which was kind of the one that most of us grew up with. There’s a way to do both.
Where there were horrors of slavery, and it’s well-documented and if those horrors are age-appropriate, like not going to cause trauma for kids, the kids should know about it. With that said, there is a lot that is very positive and powerful about this country, however imperfect it was as it started. No country has ever been perfect. And so there’s ways to do both. That’s not to say that I’m sure we’re going to face some hard things over time as we go deeper into the histories. I would say it gets even tougher once you get more formally adopted in a school system, then things get more tense, but maybe I run optimistic. I think there’s ways to do this reasonably well.
We’ve been writing our content principles. What we’ve said is, we will always — we want to cover the standards, whatever the standards are, but truth is always what we’re in service to. So if we feel like the way that the standard is missing the truth, we will go to what the truth is. But we hold a very high academic standard for what truth is. It isn’t just like, we’re feeling there’s a movement and we’ve got to really push this or create an impression, it’s, we want to go to scholars … In some cases it might not even be our own voice, we’ll interview people and say, “Well, we’re hearing both sides, what do you think is the right narrative here?”
So I ask this question because it’s loaded across so many different fields of what I think of as a core education. And when you say “both sides” to me as a journalist, it triggers a bunch of media criticism in me. That, maybe, is misplaced when it comes to middle and high school education. But there sometimes aren’t both sides, right? And as you get more and more enmeshed into school districts that are becoming more and more political, how do you balance what you want Khan Academy to be with what the school districts might want, with what you personally or what your organization might think of as the truth?
Yeah. I’ll give you an example. Humanities isn’t something we’re doing deep-dive yet, but it’ll come up, so we think a lot about this. And I agree with what you’re saying about both sides. If one side is saying the truth, you don’t have to get both sides [to] 100 percent agree with that.
And by the way, I encourage you not to fall into the rabbit hole of media people criticizing themselves. It’s very different, but it is, to me, it’s a loaded term right now because of how we perceive the media.
Right. The way I view it is, it’s like both affects … I think American history is a good example. We need to really underline the horrors of slavery and racism in our country. That’s become more obvious than ever. When I read about the 1619 [Project], I was like, “Wow, I didn’t fully realize that.” I didn’t fully realize that Abraham Lincoln, who we consider as the most enlightened, and he probably was one of the more enlightened people of his time. He brought some Black leaders into the White House and says, “Okay, you’re going to be liberated. Now, I’m not sure if our people can get along with each other, so we’re going to try to like, settle you someplace.” That was Abraham Lincoln.
Now, it was in the time, etc. Or that Thomas Jefferson, while he was writing the Declaration of Independence, he was literally being waited on by one of his slaves. There’s deep irony there. And these stories are really powerful stories for kids to learn. At the same time, it isn’t to say that our country is somehow this fundamentally — that we’ve been told lies our whole life. There are very powerful things in the Declaration of Independence, in the US Constitution. There are aspects of Thomas Jefferson and many aspects of Abraham Lincoln that are very aspirational, especially for the time and context in which they lived in.
And that’s when I feel that there’s kind of a nuance there that some of our current debate sometimes loses. You can serve the truth, but that doesn’t mean that you have to not still take pride in aspects of your country’s history. There should be shame and guilt in some aspects, but there should be pride in others.
Do you think the online learning model has made this conversation more difficult for students, for educators? This is one where that sort of soft experience of being in the classroom, and maybe I’m thinking more from the college perspective, or what I experienced in college was a lot of just overt challenge from my classmates and my teachers. But even in sort of the middle and high school and the humanities zone, this is where a lot of that soft conversation, that disagreement, it’s much harder to do over Zoom or over asynchronous videos. It seems much more difficult, much more uncomfortable. Is that something you’re trying to solve?
I wouldn’t claim that with Khan Academy’s current modalities, we could do all of [a] complete liberal education or humanities education or something like that. What we can do, in math, even in math, we say, “Look, math, you can get practice, you can get feedback, you can understand what you’ve mastered and then ideally, when you come into the classroom, you’re able to have more peer-to-peer interaction. Either your friends can help you, you can have discussions about things, or if everyone’s mastered a concept, the teacher can then do a simulation or a game that helps you really understand it.”
It’s really the same idea if you think about the humanities. There’s some things, there’s a fact base. There’s a causality base that it’s good to have and I think you can do that through asynchronous or digital means, I mean, it’s what textbooks do. And you could do a better job than textbooks because you can give tone, you can interview people, you can give a little bit more nuance to it, but then that opens up the classroom to have exactly the types of experiences that you just talked about. To have like a meaningful conversation about these things. Which some of these things you can do over Zoom, maybe in Schoolhouse.world eventually we’ll have humanities, study group seminars where, here’s the question that you all have to ponder over the course of the next half-hour. But that’s where these things can be complementary, it’s not either/or.
It’s funny because we’re having this conversation over Zoom. I’m realizing just the fact of this conversation is sort of undoing my claim. But it’s easier to do it one-on-one. I just think as the group size gets larger in every Zoom call, your rate of participation goes to zero for every sort of individual in the room. When I hear about the pandemic accelerating trends in a way that they might never come back from, the notion that you will never again participate in a meeting or in a classroom because they’re all virtual, it seems like the one that it’s most likely to regress back to where it was because it feels untenable.
It might, and you’re probably right, but there are aspects of it. Once again, I don’t want to be like the person — the techno-optimist, whatever utopian person — because people who know me in my daily life, I’m just not on the phone, I’m hard to reach, I’m usually wandering through the woods, that’s me. But there are interesting things about these modalities, especially these videoconferencing modalities, where, if you’re in a large freshman class in college, there’s 100, 200, 300 kids in a classroom, very dehumanizing experience. If you’re in a large Zoom, that’s also dehumanizing, to your point, but the professor, with a click of a button, one, can poll everyone. And then based on your poll results, put you into breakouts of groups of five or six kids, literally with a snap of a finger or a click of a button.
And that type of interaction is actually very, very, very powerful. And you can, in theory, do that in person as well, but the logistics of it, you’re going to spend 10, 15 minutes just putting people, sorting people into different groups and things like that. And so I’ve seen that done. I’ve seen that even in our own internal meetings where if we had a larger meeting of 20, but we said, here are the four questions, we’re going to randomly put you into breakouts, that group of four or five [is] much more productive, much easier to talk, much easier to participate.
And we’re just learning. Everyone’s still getting their sea legs around this. Who knows, there might be a world where, classrooms of the future, you’re there in person, but then you’re actually hybrid while you’re there in person because it might even be too much time to walk across the other side of the lecture hall. You go onto your laptop and you start talking, but then you get the benefit when you leave, you met each other, and then when you leave the lecture hall, you’re like, “Hey, that was a really cool point, you want to go grab lunch?” Stuff like that.
I can’t decide if that is an optimistic or pessimistic vision of the future.
I don’t know either.
That’s a lot of kids with AirPods talking to themselves.
I’ll make the optimistic argument, though I’m not 100 percent sure — think about how many times you sat, when you were in college and you were in these large classes, 100, even 50 people, but 100, 200 people. How many people in that classroom did you really know? And I would argue, in college, my college had a class of about 1,000 kids. There was about 10 close friends and then I had probably an orbit of about 20 or the 30 kids that we kind of knew reasonably well in my class. The other like 900-something, I knew their faces, I knew I took freshman whatever with them, but I really didn’t know them.
But if there was like these kinds of breakouts that I was able to have regularly in all my classes, I would have had an interaction with almost every one of my classmates by the end of freshman year. And I would have been more likely, I think, to sit down next to them at lunch or say, “Hey, what are you doing tonight? There’s a concert or whatever.” It would have been positive for the human interaction.
So we’ve been talking about college. Is that a place you’re thinking about expanding into? It seems like the core platform is there, the technology is there, the curriculum-building skills are there for the organization. Do you think about expanding into collegiate subjects? Do you ever think, like, “We could just run MasterClass out of town and just do cooking videos?” How do you think about expansion, or is that not something that’s on your mind?
Well, first of all, MasterClass, I know the founder quite well, and what they’re doing is great and they do what they do excellent and I think we’ll do… We’re not going to do the “how to train like Steph Curry” type of thing, which is quite cool.
We already go into, I would say the college general ed courses, your first two years. We already have most of, frankly, the math and science courses, and probably we’ll have a lot of the humanities courses over the next couple years as well. What I would love to do, I mean, that’s kind of the third pillar of Khan Academy’s vision of like, can we connect what you’ve learned to opportunities? And I’ve always thought that this whole notion of these bundled diplomas, they don’t need to be the only path. In fact, already with COVID you’re kind of seeing an unbundling of these things.
These diplomas are, they’re a credential, they’re an experience, there’s some socialization in there. Clearly, the people who run universities or the original architects of universities said, “Regardless of whether you’re going to become a computer scientist or an art history major, we’re just going to keep you here for four years and fill it up,” because everyone’s got four years of work to do.
So clearly, you don’t actually need four years. And we also know people sometimes spend the four years or oftentimes spend the four years and they still don’t have quite the skills they need to actually do what they want to do. So I see parallel tracks forming, and they don’t have to be mutually exclusive, where if students are able to show competency in some core things, they’re going to get opportunities, whether or not they’re at college. And even things like a biology major, if you really know your first year or even your first two years of college-level chemistry and biology really well, you’ve really mastered it, you’re kind of unstoppable.
I can’t tell you how many people with even master’s degrees, if I were to show them the Krebs cycle, they’re blown away that I still know photosynthesis, the steps of photosynthesis, because I teach it. But that’s really a first-year college biology concept. But, we know the university system, people don’t retain most of this stuff.
And so I think there’s ways that if you could show someone really has mastered this, maybe even that they tutor it on something like Schoolhouse.world, then yeah, you’d give them a biotech job or you’ll put them into your corporate training program, or they’re ready for grad school, I think is the type of thing I want to experiment with in the coming years.
That’s straight credentialing, right? That’s, you take a test, Khan Academy gives you a certificate that says, “You know this material. You’re ready for X career.” You’re thinking of straight offering credentials like that?
It could be exactly what you just described. It could be some type of performance task where you film yourself and then a peer community validates that, yeah, you ran that lab or you wrote that piece of code the way you said you would, and you would be able to explain it and it’s peer-reviewed. And then the ultimate performance task is, can you teach it?
That’s why [in] that Schoolhouse.world program with like peer-to-peer tutoring, if you are a tutor of calculus, you know your calculus. If you’re well-regarded, if you’re a highly rated tutor of calculus, you know your calculus, more than any test score could ever prove. And not only do you know that, but you can communicate, you have empathy; that’s the kid I want to hire. That’s the kid I want to bring to my campus, or that’s the kid I want to bring to my organization. So, yeah, it is certification, credentialing, whatever you want to call it, but we need to think about it in a first-principles way, instead of just trying to map the physical versions of these things to the digital world.
As somebody who was ruthlessly weeded out by a college [organic chemistry] class, I both feel this and I have many feelings about it. But let me push back just a little bit. The value of the four-year college experience, and maybe everyone’s paying too much for it now, but the value that it’s supposed to give you is a holistic, sort of well-rounded, approach to higher schooling.
So you’re going to learn your technical skills that might serve you in your career — your pre-med, your pre-law, whatever it is — but we’re also going to make you take the humanities classes and make you rigorously understand how the world is constructed. My school had a super hardcore core curriculum, so that’s my frame. But most colleges approach it that way. Do you think that a more credential-based approach or more skill-based approach takes you away from that? Or is that in service to it?
Well, every college will say exactly what you just said. “Oh, college is much more than just the skills to get a job. We’re teaching you how to think. We’re teaching you how to learn. You’re going to build friendships.” And I actually buy all of it. I agree with those statements. When I think about my own college, “Yeah, that’s right.” And I had great friendships. I really grew as a human being.
But the issue here is, it’s ironic that it comes from universities that are literally researching everything and they are trying to rigorously put a framework around everything except their own efficacy, except their own ability. If you’re Harvard and you really think you’re that much better than Foothill Community College or nothing, find groups of kids that looked similar beforehand and track them. This isn’t some large 30-year longitudinal nursing study that they’ve had to do. This is, you could probably do a six-year study and get a pretty good sense of what the outcomes are.
And so, sometimes colleges use that as a bit of a cop-out, I think they are doing that, but then they are also sticking you in 300-person lecture halls that aren’t building connection and all of this, and the connections are really happening because it took a lot of really — especially the selective schools — a lot of really motivated kids that they’ve kind of socially engineered onto a campus together. And then, they put them into dorms and they have these interesting conversations, and all this other stuff that happens in these well-manicured lawns and all of that. But I don’t think our colleges have really thought about, well, where are we putting our resources and how much value are they really creating?
A fun thought experiment; if you were to go to Harvard’s graduation and you go up to a random family, a random kid holding a diploma, very excited, and you just said, “All right, we will pay you $200,000, whatever it costs you to go to Harvard. We’ll write you that check right now, but you are not allowed to tell anyone that you ever went to Harvard.” How many people will take you up on that? I suspect like no one.
And then I think if you went to other folks and if you said, “You could pay $200,000, you don’t get to go to Harvard, but the world will think you went to Harvard.” Probably a lot of people… So the credential is clearly what a lot of the value that probably a lot of the families are putting [on it]. Look, that’s a very…
I think it’s important to note right now that you have a degree from Harvard.
Yes, so I pick on them. I’m picking on them. I’m picking on them.
The audience should be aware that it’s MIT and Harvard, right?
My undergrad was at MIT—
Yeah, you got a lot of Boston-area sort of animosity.
But I reserve the right to pick on them a little bit because first of all, those are probably two of the… Those schools are going to do just fine. There’s always going to be a ton of… Everything we’ve talked about, about being able to go to a community, having really amazing peers and facilities and nice dorms, there’s many schools, but the ones I experienced, they’re great at that. They’re about as good as it gets at that aspect, but they’re still very expensive. And I could imagine other pathways that are just as interesting.
Imagine getting together, and there are programs that already kind of do this, but you get together with a hundred peers and you travel the world together, every six months you’re in a different place. And you’re able to do your core academics, learn how to factor a polynomial, whatever, you take a derivative of a function, you do that through some form of distance learning and in-person study groups, but you’re also working in different countries and experiencing it. That’s also an amazing experience and it might actually be cheaper, what I just described. There’s schools like Waterloo in Canada where the kids spend about two-thirds of their time in internships, but they do them together oftentimes. So those kids get hands-on learning and those kids actually end up saving money and actually end up being more employable when they get out. So I’m not saying that one of these is better than the others, but what I’m saying is there should be multiple pathways. There could be pathways for a lot of kids.
And that’s the other thing, those of us who have been fortunate to go to a school that has a quad and people are throwing Frisbees, that’s not the norm for most kids. Most kids are going to commuter college. They ideally would be able to support their families in some way, shape, or form. They’re not having this kind of high-minded debates about philosophy, and [the] ivy-covered dorm rooms type of thing. They’re just trying to get through their college algebra so they can get their associate’s degree and hopefully get a job. And so, I think there needs to be new pathways. Once again, you can do both, either/or, that matter.
And we also know there’s a lot of Harvard and Stanford grads that come out and still feel underemployed. And if they can have some way to prove what they know so that they can get not underemployed, that would be good for them as well.
I went to the [University of Chicago], so I also pick on Harvard all the time, but I’ll leave that to the side.
I think it’s fair game.
I wanted to spend the rest of my conversation with Sal talking about the future of running Khan Academy and his role as a leader.
Something that I find really hard to do during the pandemic as editor-in-chief of The Verge is keeping everyone focused on our mission. The amount of distraction in the world and in our personal lives is higher than ever, and we have to attract and retain talent during this time as well. So I asked Sal about how he manages that problem while running a nonprofit with a mission as big as Khan Academy’s, in a market where he’s competing for talent with Google and Facebook.
Yeah, this has always been the central question, one of the central questions of Khan Academy, which is — we’re based in Silicon Valley. No one owns Khan Academy. There’s no ownership. I don’t own Khan Academy, it’s a not-for-profit. So we can’t give people stock. But we have found that we pay better than most non-profits. We try to be market, actually even a little bit above market salary for Silicon Valley for tech workers, when it’s tech workers or whatever the function folks have, but we don’t give stock. So in theory, people could still go literally a couple of miles down the road and work for Google and get at least that much cash comp, and then they could get at least that much again in stock compensation and go work at Facebook or Apple.
But what I’ve found pretty consistently, as long as you pay people enough that they can live reasonably well, eventually buy a house, go on vacation, send their kids to college, et cetera, et cetera, if you give them intellectually challenging work, an important mission to work on, and good people to work with that are invested in each other, you get the best people on the planet. … Everyone we get at Khan Academy could work at any of the top places in the world. In fact, almost all of them have had offers or came from places like that. And some of the folks we have on the team are actually world-renowned in what they do, and Google or Facebook or Apple would kill to have them, but these people have just transcended caring about that. They have off-the-charts talents and they want to do it for the good of the world.
Is that something you have to say out loud over and over again? Is that something you had to say out loud more at the beginning? Or is it something that is now just assumed as part of your pitch?
It’s assumed. What’s interesting is when people even just see a job posting and they submit a resume to Khan Academy, there’s already been a bit that’s flipped in their head where they’re like, “You know what? I’m on this planet for a finite number of years. What am I going to do with that? And really, do I need to get a second Tesla? And really, do I need to get…” And as soon as that bit flips, and once again, it doesn’t have to flip for, we’re not hiring tens of thousands of people. We’re hiring, in a given year, like 10 people. It just has to flip for a reasonable number of people. And once it flips, when they go through our interview process and then they get the job offer, they’re actually usually pleased with how much we’re paying them because they had somehow thought it was going to be way less. But I was like, “No, we’re still going to pay you a good salary.” So yeah, we haven’t felt like we’ve had to really… The most important thing we can do is just keep reminding folks of the mission because obviously, and our ability to execute it, this isn’t utopian. We can literally reach billions of folks. I have to keep repeating that for philanthropists, that hopefully gets them realizing, yeah, wow, the social return on investment’s off the charts. And I would say that the people who work at Khan Academy, that you could view them as philanthropists of sorts because they are not — philanthropy just means a lover of man, of your fellow human being — because they’re not optimizing for money anymore. They could maybe go work across the street and they get total compensation twice as much and donate half of it. That’s one method of philanthropy. Or they could just come straight to Khan Academy and leverage their skills to do real good for the world, but not taking a vow of poverty, making enough money to do just fine.
Do you let the entire organization into the actual content? So we spent a lot of time talking about the 1619 Project, but just in general, right? Every company that makes or distributes content on the internet has had, or has had to consider, a content moderation dilemma, right? What are we making? What are we distributing? Who gets to control it? Who gets to edit it? Is that something that’s wide open? Do you have a wall between engineering and teaching? How does that work?
Yeah. You can imagine, especially in the last few months, it’s been a deep conversation in our organization of how we handle these things. And so, we definitely want every member of the organization to have a voice and to be able to hear, and not just internal stakeholders, external stakeholders too. Obviously we have funders, we have volunteers, we have 46 translation projects around the world, but we do have a core content team and they’re actually in the process of refining their content principles. And then, we try to lean on those principles with a relatively small team to make the best content that we can, and to focus it on what we think is the highest yield.
And are their decisions final?
I act as kind of the… Any organization that’s developing some form of content needs kind of an editor-in-chief at the end of the day. Someone’s got to make the call, and I play that role. And I’m a little bit unique as a CEO or executive director of an organization, [in] that not only do I kind of operate at, I guess, the high level of what’s our big strategy, but I’m also a deep member of the content creator. I still produce the majority of our videos directly, and I weigh in on things like our exercises and stuff like that. So, yeah, it should be principles during it. It can’t just be Sal issuing edicts based on what he had for lunch. But I work deeply with the team on principles and when there’s edge cases, at the end of the day, it’s going to be me, but I definitely don’t want it to be just willy-nilly. The team has got to feel bought in and that they understand where these decisions are coming from, and that they’re decisions that they can believe in and stand behind.
I’m trying to think of another edge case. We only have a few minutes, but let me give you one off the top of my head. You decide to do a history of trus- busting in America, which is basically we’re going to do American history. We’re going to talk about Teddy Roosevelt and breaking up Standard Oil. And Google says, “Hey, calm down. We’re a big funder of yours. Calm down on the antitrust stuff.” Is that a note that you would take?
The only thing we would, I would say, is if you have evidence that what we’re saying is inaccurate, we always want to hear it. And we don’t care who you are. If you could be a 13-year-old who’s dug up some contrary evidence, then we would hear it for sure. But if what we’re saying is fundamentally accurate, no, we wouldn’t take it down. Now, if someone’s making a solid academic argument that maybe our tone is skewed one way or the other, and that there’s actually good evidence that there’s counter facts there, then we would probably say, “Okay, yeah, you’re right. Those are important counterfactuals. Let’s put those in as well.” But, once again, it’s all in service of our reteaching as well.
I will say, to corporate America’s credit, before Khan Academy I would’ve thought that there would’ve been a lot of those pressures. We haven’t seen it from corporate America. We do have corporate funders, corporate sponsors. And sometimes we’ve gone into kind of, we’ve got a long-standing partnership with the Bank of America around financial literacy. And I had content, I still have it up there around explaining the financial crisis. And I’m very open-filter about all the parties, what they could have done better. Never has Bank of America or anyone said, “Hey, Sal, that makes us look a little bit this or that way in 2008.” No, if it’s correct content, they’ve been…
In fact, that’s why they wanted to partner with us because they said, “Look, if we try to do financial literacy content, people are gonna think it’s just Bank of America propaganda or marketing. When we do it with y’all, people will trust it. And so the last thing we want to do is undermine folks’ trust in you by us somehow trying to micromanage.” And they also know that we’re pretty pure about that. The whistles would blow if they were. But I don’t think they even want to do that.
So, we’re running out of time, but I want to ask everybody this question, which is: there’s a lot of change in the world, there’s a lot of problems to be solved. What keeps you up at night, both in terms of Khan Academy and then the broader landscape that the organization sits in?
The thing that keeps me up at night is a fear that we don’t capture the moment of what can be done right now. Everything that we talk about at Khan Academy, providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere, and this project, Schoolhouse, of anyone getting free tutoring in the world, or being able to prove what they know so they can get jobs. This all, in theory, can exist. Nothing that I said is based on some type of new discovery that’s needed in cold fusion or AI. It can all exist, and it’s just about putting people together in the right way and convincing them that, one, convincing the students that if they do these things that they will benefit, but also convincing the systems that this can work. So, my biggest fear is that we blow it somehow. I often think that if 2010 Sal saw 2020 Sal, he’d be like, “Oh wow, Khan Academy, way bigger than I could have ever imagined. That’s amazing, 2020 Sal must be all relaxed.” But, 2020 Sal is, if I wasn’t meditating, maybe even more stressed than 2010 Sal. I meditate so I’m handling it all. Now I think the opportunity, we’ve shown that Khan Academy can scale, we can reach millions. We’re at the precipice of all of these really big ideas. A lot of what we talked about, these are like systemic plate tectonics that can shift literally over the next five to 10 years. Khan Academy can be one of those catalysts that can make it happen. But if we don’t, I am afraid that the plates are going to just move to where they were before, and because of it a lot of people aren’t going to be able to reach their potential. So the stakes are high, that’s what keeps me up.