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Podcast / April 08 2020

Sal Khan: Real Lessons on Virtual Learning

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As the coronavirus rages, 89 percent of students around the world are out of school and turning to online platforms to keep studying. That has its limits and its own set of challenges, but it’s far better than no school at all. Nelufar speaks with Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, about internet inequality and the future of education in a post COVID-19 world.

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Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.

Hey folks, Nelufar here. OK, before we begin our show today, I just wanted to acknowledge the difficulties we are all facing, big and small, right now. I know that this is a strain on all of us, particularly those of us keeping the lights on, keeping our shops stocked and caring for our friends and family. My hat’s off to all of you. When I started this whole Course Correction journey, I wanted to tackle gigantic global problems in a personal way. But none of us could have seen what the coronavirus would bring. Now more than ever, I am so proud of the work we have done in making this series, because I feel like Course Correction is one way of thinking ahead to the problems that are going to be even more urgent and need extra attention when we get through this. And we will get through this — together. Now, here’s today’s episode.


This is Course Correction from Doha Debates. I’m Nelufar Hedayat. Each episode we’ll look at one big global issue…and meet the people who are actively working to fix it.

The most pressing problem we’re all facing right now is the coronavirus pandemic. And it’s affecting every facet of lives — how we work and how we socialize, from the moment that we wake up, until we go to sleep. And if you’re a student, a teacher or a parent, chances are your daily life has changed completely, because almost everywhere schools are closed. According to UNESCO, schools closed for 89 percent of all students in the world.

This has forced schools teachers and entire countries to try and figure out how to secure one of the most basic of human rights: access to education. But how to do this when you can’t be in class for the foreseeable future? Well, it looks like a lot of institutions and teachers are turning to the virtual world. But online learning has its limits.

MAN WITH AMERICAN ACCENT: If I had to pick between an amazing teacher and no technology, and amazing technology and no teacher, I would pick the amazing teacher every time, hands down. But the ideal is an amazing teacher empowered by hopefully really good technology.

NELUFAR: Sal Khan is the founder of Khan Academy, an online platform which helps students learn independently, at their own pace, using things like short video tutorials. Online tests allow their teachers and parents to keep track of their progress. Khan Academy is nonprofit; all the lessons are completely free, so it’s accessible to any student with a smartphone or computer and an internet connection.

NELUFAR: Why do you do this? You have like three degrees from like MIT and Harvard and stuff, like, why don’t you go make money? Why are you, why are you working in this space of like charities and nongovernmental organizations? What is, what is your deal?


It’s a generous question. You know, I, I guess my, my old world, my original background, was in software and in math. And then after, after business school, I ended up working as an analyst at a hedge fund, which is about as for-profit as one can get in their life.


SAL: But while I was doing that — this is back in 2004 — I had just gotten married a year out of business school, and at my wedding, my cousin was visiting me — who was 12 years old at the time, visiting me with her family — and it just came out of conversation she was having trouble in math. And she was in New Orleans at the time, I was in Boston at the time. So I offered to tutor her remotely, and she agreed. I started tutoring her every day after work, over the phone, whatever, you know, instant messenger, whatever we could find off the internet. And slowly but surely she got caught up with her class, she even became a little ahead of her class. So I was hooked. It was a fun way to connect with family members who are several thousand miles away.

I started tutoring her younger brothers, and then over the next about a year, 18 months, word got around my family that free tutoring was going on. And I found myself with 10, 15 cousins, family friends from around the country, that I was tutoring every day after school. And I was just really enjoying it.

And I — with a background in software, I was always fascinated by, well, it looks like my cousins, the reason why they’re having difficulty isn’t because they aren’t bright. It’s because they had gaps in their knowledge, and I was starting to make little software widgets for them to get that practice, to fill in those gaps, and I called it Khan Academy as a bit of a joke. I — the domain name was available. It was just me with my cousins, so that’s what I called it. And there was a friend, I have to give him full, full credit. And he said, “Why don’t you make some videos to supplement this, the software you’re making?”

NELUFAR: So this whole thing is completely organic? This came from like — I mean, this is an organic as an idea as I can possibly imagine. Like this came from you, your love of your family, your love of learning, this is all completely natural. You weren’t trying to, like — you weren’t an entrepreneur like entrepreneuring your way through this, right?

SAL: Yeah — yes and no. I mean, absolutely organic. When this project was starting to become meaningful and it started to become clear that people who are not my cousins were benefiting, and they were sending me these letters, telling how it was benefiting them, how they were able to pass classes.


SAL: I wanted to emotionally protect it. So all my friends from business school, they’re like, “How are you going to monetize this? What’s the business model?” And I kept saying, “No, it’s not a business. I’m just doing it because I enjoy getting these letters.” I realized that the only way to protect its mission, the only organizations that are able to stay true to a mission over multiple generations, fundamentally are not for profits. If you think about the libraries, the museums, the great universities. And it was delusional for a guy operating out of a walk-in closet 10 years ago to say, “Maybe this project can be the next Oxford or the next British Museum or the next Smithsonian, that could serve billions of folks for generations.”

But I said, you know, you live once. I might as well try.


NELUFAR: Tell me what an average school day looks like at the Khan Academy. What is, what is it like for people in India? What is it like in Indonesia? And Indiana?

SAL: Yeah. Well, the — most of our users are folks who are already attending some form of traditional school, and maybe they’re learning photosynthesis in school, and it’s just confusing to them. Maybe they’re not quite connecting with what’s going on in a class, and so they go home and they usually do a Google search.

Oftentimes, if they already know about Khan Academy, they’ll search Khan Academy photosynthesis, and they’ll fall into our lesson on that and they can get a five-minute, 10-minute lesson about the various parts of photosynthesis, they can get practice and feedback. Our goal is to do what a good tutor would do. We’re helping you — you have this immediate need, maybe you’re cramming for an exam the next day —

NELUFAR: Been there, Sal. I’ve been there.

SAL: We’ve all been there.


SAL: But a good tutor would say, “All right, I’m going to help you tonight, but why don’t you stick with this and keep working on this a few minutes every day?”

And about half of our usage, half of our traffic, comes from classrooms. This is where a teacher, say a algebra class, they will, they can assign particular exercises on Khan Academy and then students can go do it and get immediate feedback and the teacher knows what everyone did. And what was the most missed question, things like that.

The ideal case is, the teacher says, I want you to achieve mastery in this unit by this date. And the notion of mastery is, in a traditional school system, you take a test, you get a C, too bad! You didn’t know 20 percent of the material. We’re now going to move on to the next subject that’s probably going to build on that gap that you just had. Mastery learning is, no, no, no, let’s just keep learning that concept so that you can fill in that 20 percent gap, and then move onto the next concept.

NELUFAR: This is so different to how I went to school. I went to school very much like, you know, almost like Gradgrinds from the Dickens book, you know: education, education, education. You’ve got to study like this, and this is the right answer and wrong answer. But I had the benefit of a Western education system, right? I grew up in Londontown.

But first I want to talk a little bit about the immediate crisis of what’s happening with the coronavirus. We live in a global pandemic where so many young people are forced out of schools and into their homes. Universities, educational institutes — schools are all having to figure out how to do this remotely. How do you think the coronavirus is affecting not just Khan Academy, but like education around the world?

SAL: Yeah. As you mentioned, 1.5 billion kids who normally would be in school are, right now, not in school. So it’s clearly already had a major impact. And we’ve been looking at some historical assessment data, and traditionally, school kids don’t go to school in the summer, and there’s some learning loss. And now if they’re not in school for five months — and it’s pretty clear that schools are going to be closed through the end of the year in most of the world —  that students might lose as much as a year of learning. And most schools in the world have not given parents or teachers or students a robust plan, because the things all happened so fast. I don’t blame them.


SAL: And so what we’ve been trying to do, we’ve inadvertently built, been building the resources that can help bridge people through this situation. We never thought that a, that a situation like this would happen, but we’ve been putting out daily schedules for students of different age groups of how they can leverage Khan Academy and other resources, how they can structure their day — not just the academic learning, but make sure you get outside, play a little bit, take a break, things like that.

NELUFAR: How did you do that in, in Bekaa Valley, in Lebanon? How do you do that in Afghanistan, where I’m from? Like how do you do that in those kinds of situations?

SAL: Yeah, that’s a huge issue right now. And it’s not just in Afghanistan, it’s even in parts of the UK or the United States where it’s very unequal access to devices and broadband. And I think that’s the really unfortunate thing is, in the, in the near term, over the next few months, not just for the academic learning that kids might need the online access, but frankly, just the mental health of it. Imagine how hard it would be to go through this social distancing if we did not have access to video conferencing and if we didn’t have access to the internet. So it’s a major source of inequity in the short term.

In the longer term, or even the medium term, I think the writing’s on the wall for everybody that internet access and some form of device access isn’t just a “nice to have.” It’s really a human right, especially if we’re getting into these situations. Now, obviously in some parts of the world, and parts of Afghanistan where there’s other issues around safety or some social structures that are difficult, it becomes harder.

But we do, you know, there’s a — my favorite story actually comes out of Afghanistan. There was a young girl — this is pre-COVID, this is six, seven years ago — a Taliban takeover, they take over her town, they forbid all the young girls from going to school, so she’s just at home doing chores. She’s a middle-class girl, and her brother-in-law, who is in his 20s, sees that she wants to learn, so he’s able to get her a pretty basic internet connection and a laptop. And then she discovers Khan Academy and she just learns on that. And her big a-ha was about six months later when she realized she was learning more than her brothers in the Taliban-controlled school, which is not, I don’t think the highest bar —

NELUFAR: No, no it isn’t. It’s quite a low bar.


SAL: But, but you know, she starts, she learns from middle school all the way through physics, chemistry, biology. And then she decides that she actually wants to become a physicist and she wants to study in the United States. She lies to her parents to take the SAT, which is a college entrance exam in the United States, so that she could travel to Pakistan to take the SAT, because it’s not even administered in Afghanistan.

And so she kind of smuggles herself across the border to take the SAT. She does shockingly well. And that’s when I found out about her. Someone she met over the internet somehow got in touch with me, and then we were trying to get her into the country so that she could come to college here. And then one of the writers — Nicholas Kristof at The New York Times — wrote an op-ed about her: “Meet Sultana, the Taliban’s Worst Fear,” and that gave her political asylum. And this last summer she was doing quantum computing research at CalTech. So that’s the kind of stuff that we want to see happen a million times over. Obviously Sultana was a special case. Even given her not-so-perfect context, she had some things going for her. She had her family’s support, etc. But I hope over time we can solve some of these access issues so that there could be another million Sultanas, or a billion Sultanas.

NELUFAR: I love the idea of Khan Academy. Going forward, after, after this pandemic, this coronavirus situation we’re living through, do you see it as being supplemental? Do you see it replacing traditional education systems? I mean, how do you want to take this forward?

SAL: I definitely don’t see it replacing traditional education systems. If you’re talking about — especially school-aged kids, you know, young people — school isn’t just about the information delivery. It isn’t just about mastering the algebra or the reading or the writing. It’s also about the socialization, learning to work in groups, learning to just be a part of a community. And even on the academic side, there is a subset of students who might be able to learn a lot on their own, but most students do need some type of support from teachers and peers to do it well. And there’s just some intangibles that’s very hard to learn online. So the ideal circumstance is that tools like Khan Academy are used in conjunction with a physical classroom. It can be that tutor for everyone, that free tutor, that can either solve a specific problem or help you keep learning after school or during the summers. When you’re in class, teachers leverage it to allow every student to learn at their own pace so that they don’t accumulate these gaps. So that a teacher in a classroom of 25 or 30 or 35 students can act — doesn’t have to just teach to the middle with half of the kids getting lost and half the kids getting bored.


SAL: The kids can learn at their own time and pace. But we also want to support those children who might not have access to either a school at all or their school does not have access to real world-class instruction.

Even in the U.S., especially, if you look at minority-majority schools in the inner city, a lot of them don’t even teach things like algebra properly, or precalculus, or physics. And so no matter how bright or motivated a student is in some of those conditions, they just don’t even have access. And we hope Khan Academy can help there.

I think the other place where it’s clear that Khan Academy is going to be important going forward is — what we’re going through over the next five months, it’s unlikely that it’s just going to be the next five months. Most of the epidemiologists are saying that the virus is likely to come back in October, November, with flu season.


SAL: And so I think every school system has a few months to figure out a legitimate plan. And whatever plan you have, it’s got to be able to go fluidly between the physical and the home learning experience. And so I think when school’s in session, Khan Academy can be a strategic supplement, like we described. Students could use it an hour or two hours a week, but then if you have to close schools and with a few days’ notice, then kids can lean more heavily on Khan Academy and make sure they continue learning.

NELUFAR: Yes. Do you think that these kinds of online classes, and, and, and online learning in general, can they help things like teaching critical thinking?

SAL: Yeah. You know, online can do certain aspects of that. I think over time, especially with the situation where now, there’s a lot of experimentation and school districts with, with videoconference-based learning, and obviously that approximates a classroom even more. But to your point, the ideal is obviously a combination of both.


SAL: We actually started a physical school and there’s one under our offices. It’s closed right now. That’s where my kids go. But the whole reason why I started a physical school is to think about what schooling could look like if you have tools like Khan Academy that liberate you from the traditional one-pace-fits-all lecture that allows students to learn at their own time and pace. And if you visit our school — it’s called Khan Lab School — the kids are interacting more than you would traditionally see in a, in a normal school.

NELUFAR: Really!

SAL: They’re collaborating more. There’s a lot of peer tutoring. Older students are helping younger students. So in a strange way, ironic way, the technology unlocks the humanity in the classroom. That’s our, that’s our hope.

NELUFAR: So what is your advice then, Sal, for parents and teachers, students — anyone who’s being homeschooled online right now or for the first time — what advice are you giving?

SAL: So, a couple of things. There’s a lot of stress in the world right now, so no one should beat up on themselves in the coming days and weeks. Do what you can. That’s my first — and do whatever you have to do to just stay sane. And that’s what I tell myself a lot these days.


SAL: But on top of that, just get started. Sometimes it might feel so big — that there’s so many things that it forms a kind of paralysis. But you could go to Khan Academy — there’s other resources — but on Khan Academy, we have schedules, students can go there, teachers, parents, depending on what age, what your goals are. I would say at minimum, if a student can do an hour of math and an hour of reading/writing a day, that’s a good start. It doesn’t have to happen in one —

NELUFAR: That is a good start.

SAL: Yeah, it doesn’t have to happen in one block. It could be split into 20-minute, 30-minute sessions throughout the day. Make sure you get a lot of breaks. And the reason why that’s good is, even if you think about a normal school day with six hours, seven hours, in the school day — if you think about the amount of time where you’re doing really focused learning, it’s not seven or eight hours. It actually is probably closer to two hours or three hours.

NELUFAR: Well, in my case 25 minutes, but we all do our best. What about parents and teachers, Sal? What can parents and teachers do, in this time, what would be your advice?

SAL: Well, after taking care of yourself, provide some structures for your children. I would say, you could use tools like the Khan Academy has. It’d be great if you can supplement that with at least a daily check-in. If you’re a teacher, get on video conference with your students, make yourself available a couple of times a day.

My children’s teachers are doing that at school. It’s really working out great, where my kids have goals through the day, but then they have a check-in where the teacher is reviewing it over videoconferencing with a small group of students. In some ways, it’s even more intimate, or they’re getting more attention than they might have otherwise, because they’re getting that one-on-one attention.

So I would say, you know, take it one step at a time, but don’t be afraid to experiment. And everyone — no one’s judging anyone right now, so it’s the best time to, to try new things.

NELUFAR: Yes. OK. Very final question: What are your hopes and your fears about online learning, about places like Khan Academy going forward in the real world, say in the next five years?

SAL: Well, the, the fears are that it’s either misused — you’ve asked a couple of times about does it replace the teachers or classrooms? I’m like, no, that’s the exact wrong thing to — and I know, you know, a lot of people do imagine those types of things. That would be a very, very unfortunate thing. You know, as someone who started Khan Academy, who’s associated with online learning, if I had to pick between an amazing teacher and no technology, and amazing technology and no teacher, I would pick the amazing teacher every time, hands down.


SAL: And — but the ideal is an amazing teacher empowered by hopefully really good technology.

And I, I, and that’s where I hope this goes and my hope long term is a world where ideally you can use it in school, but even if you don’t have access to school, if you don’t have access to a great school, you have access to world-class learning at your own time and pace. And it can be connected to real opportunity in the world that the Sultanas of the world can be identified by local employers or even global ones or universities, and say, “We’ve, we’ve got to give her a shot. She could help humanity.” And if we do that, I think we’re going to accelerate the rate of progress tenfold. I mean, I always think about for every Albert Einstein we find, think about how many Albert Einsteins we don’t find who could have pushed humanity forward, but instead are just doing chores in some village in Afghanistan.

It sounds utopian, and I often joke with our team at Khan Academy that, you know, so many things in my life have fallen in a positive way, especially in regards to Khan Academy, that it feels like benevolent aliens are using me and Khan Academy as a vector to prepare humanity for first contact.


SAL: And, you know, if that’s the case — we’re going to try our best to, to prepare humanity for first contact.

NELUFAR: OK man, that is definitely an ambitious place to start from. Sal Khan, thank you so much for joining me.

SAL: Thank you.


NELUFAR: That’s our show today. And now I want to hear from you. How have you managed to keep learning while school’s shut down? What challenges have you faced, and what solutions have you come up? What advice would you give to other students, parents and teachers?

Tweet us at @DohaDebates or get in touch with me @Nelufar.


Course Correction is written and hosted by me, Nelufar Hedayat. The show is produced by Doha Debates and Transmitter Media. Doha Debates is a production of Qatar Foundation. Special thanks to our team at Doha Debates — Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. If you like what you hear, rate and review the show. It helps other people find us. Join us for the next episode of Course Correction wherever you get your podcasts.