REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: Sal Khan talks education styles

Khan Academy founder gives talk at his alma mater

On Wednesday, Salman A. Khan ’98, founder of Khan Academy, was brought to MIT by StartLabs to speak about starting Khan Academy and what he’s doing now. He fielded questions from MIT President Rafael Reif, who interviewed him on the stage of Kresge Auditorium.

Reif’s first question asked Khan to reflect on how his years at MIT influenced his current career path. “You come here and some of the stereotypes are true. I mean, the people here are incredibly smart, incredibly hardworking—,” started Khan.

“The professors, particularly,” Reif interjected, drawing laughs from the audience.

“Yes, the professors, of course,” Khan answered. “But I think some of the stereotypes don’t hold true. I found that this is one of the most warm places ever. I really felt like I was coming into a community.”

According to Khan, within a week of arriving on campus, MIT opened up his mind to the possibility of tackling problems on a large scale. He took an active role while here, making sure to explore both inside and outside the classroom. He participated in LeaderShape ­­— an Independent Activities Period (IAP) leadership retreat — and was president of his senior class.

“I love this place to death, but it’s an intense environment,” admitted Khan. “Some of my most memorable and deepest learning experiences at MIT were during IAP,” said Khan, adding that he has no regrets about his undergraduate experience. “I met my wife here, there are no regrets about that,” laughed Khan. “We’re 10 years in, it’s all good.”

But the heart of the talk was about Khan’s vision for education. Like many educators, he doesn’t think that lectures are the main way students should learn.

“The most important part of the learning process is problem-solving, peer tutoring, working on things with your hands,” stated Khan.

Khan came across as an engaging, humble speaker. He was initially hesitant to pinpoint a “secret of success” for Khan Academy. When pressed by Reif, he offered that the casual atmosphere of his online tutoring videos is what most likely draws students to his site. Khan, who made his first video to tutor a family member, explained that his videos would probably have been very different if he knew that Bill Gates would be watching his videos instead of his seventh-grade cousin.

In addition, Khan drew several parallels between Khan Academy and MIT and Harvard’s joint edX venture.

“I think they’re doing a lot of good,” said Khan, praising edX and the other MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) for their mission to provide a high-quality education to anyone who wants one.

Khan expects that other universities will follow suit if they see MIT and Harvard start to change their educational models. He made the analogy that “everyone wants to wear the jeans that Jennifer Lopez wears,” another comment that drew laughter from the audience.

Although Khan is adamant that his organization will always be free, he admits that at one point, he considered making it a for-profit organization. After the first few meetings with companies, however, he realized that he wasn’t comfortable with commercializing the website. “I could be dressed a little bit better,” Khan joked.

Now, the site is run on donations by large supporters such as Google and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

After the interview, StartLabs hosted a private reception with Khan at the R&D Pub in Stata, in which a panel of Khan Academy employees answered questions from the audience. The Khan Academy staff, like Khan himself, all struck me as surprisingly young and motivated. Each of them seemed excited about their work, and weren’t afraid to drop hints every now and then about recruiting.

“You get to work with, in my mind, the best team in industry,” said Khan, namedropping Craig Silverstein — the first employee at Google and one of the original builders of the search engine itself — as one of the nonprofit’s employees. “It really is a superstar team where you’ll get better mentorship than frankly anywhere else.”

There was a never a shortage of questions at the reception as people crowded into the pub. Some of the students at the reception were clearly huge fans of Khan Academy. “Be scrappy, bottoms-up, and get something going,” encouraged Khan in response to a student on how to bring Khan Academy to his old high school.

In the future, said Khan, he hopes to continue to reach out to the underprivileged community, and eventually be able to educate children from all over the world.