An Outsider Calls for a Teaching Revolution

Alison Yin for The Chronicle

Salman Khan's short educational videos are available free online. "I can't think of a higher-impact use of my time," he says.
February 26, 2012

In just a few short years, Salman Khan has built a free online educational institution from scratch that has nudged major universities to offer free self-guided courses and inspired many professors to change their teaching methods.

His creation is called Khan Academy, and its core is a library of thousands of 10-minute educational videos, most of them created by Mr. Khan himself. The format is simple but feels intimate: Mr. Khan's voice narrates as viewers watch him sketch out his thoughts on a digital whiteboard. He made the first videos for faraway cousins who asked for tutoring help. Encouraging feedback by others who watched the videos on YouTube led him to start the academy as a nonprofit.

THE INNOVATOR: Salman Khan, Khan Academy

THE BIG IDEA: Build a vast library of short educational videos, a challenge to end the lecture as we know it.

More recently Mr. Khan has begun adding what amounts to a robot tutor to the site that can quiz visitors on their knowledge and point them to either remedial video lessons if they fail or more-advanced video lessons if they pass. The site issues badges and online "challenge patches" that students can put on their Web résumés.

He guesses that the demand for his service was one inspiration for his alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to start MITx, its self-guided online courses that give students the option of taking automatically graded tests to earn a certificate.

Mr. Khan also works the speaking circuit, calling on professors to move away from a straight lecture model by assigning prerecorded lectures as homework and using class time for more interactive exercises, or by having students use self-paced computer systems like Khan Academy during class while professors are available to answer questions. "It has made universities—and I can cite examples of this—say, Why should we be giving 300-person lectures anymore?" he said in a recent interview with The Chronicle.

Mr. Khan, now 35, has no formal training in education, though he does have two undergraduate degrees and a master's from MIT, as well as an M.B.A. from Harvard. He spent most of his career as a hedge-fund analyst. Mr. Khan also has the personal endorsement of Bill Gates, as well as major financial support from Mr. Gates's foundation. That outside-the-academy status makes some traditional academics cool on his project.

"Sometimes I get a little frustrated when people say, Oh, they're taking a Silicon Valley approach to education. I'm like, Yes, that's exactly right. Silicon Valley is where the most creativity, the most open-ended, the most pushing the envelope is happening," he says. "And Silicon Valley recognizes more than any part of the world that we're having trouble finding students capable of doing that."

Salman Khan discusses Khan Academy at TED 2011: