News reporter's notebook

Sal Khan ’98 encourages students to find and pursue passion projects

Khan emphasizes importance of developing portfolio of work and accomplishments

Sal Khan ’98, founder and CEO of Khan Academy, spoke at the fifth annual Brazil Conference at Harvard and MIT April 5–6. The Tech interviewed Khan March 29 to discuss education, MIT, and Khan Academy.

Khan advised students who have found their passion project to “run with it.” For students who have not yet found such a project, Khan advised them to try to find experiences where they can develop skills, both during college and in full-time employment. “Always be fiddling with things,” he said.

Khan said that MIT is a “very rigorous place” where it can be hard to pursue side projects or entrepreneurial undertakings, but also a place abounding with opportunities. He said that he learned a lot from the people around him at MIT, but that after graduation, those people dispersed.

Khan said that college students should be learning by working with each other and building things, rather than through traditional lectures. “You take all of these really motivated, bright, young people, and they’re all on campus together … and then you spend most of your time in these 200-person lecture halls taking notes and trying to stay awake, and that’s a horrible use of everyone’s time,” Khan said. He said that he often found it more productive to read a textbook than to attend a lecture.

Khan said that college students should learn at their own pace with online tools, such as edX and Khan Academy.

Khan said that he thought college education would be improved if students spent more of their time working on projects that would go into their portfolios. A student’s portfolio would be a documented collection of their work and accomplishments.

For example, a student might work on solving the lack of access to clean water. The student might go to a few seminars about the chemistry of desalination and get involved with a graduate student working on the same problem, but would spend most of their time working on the problem.

Khan said that he thought that assessing candidates’ portfolios would be more effective and efficient than conducting interviews. He said that application processes could be improved by having candidates conduct a single rigorous, recorded interview in which they answer common questions. The applicant could take as many tries on that interview as they needed.

This would save both companies and applicants a tremendous amount of time, Khan said. Currently, a job applicant answers many of the same or similar questions during multiple rounds of interviews at several companies, and a company puts many candidates through as many as four or five rounds of interviews for one opening. Interviews can also produce inconsistent results if a candidate simply has a bad day or an interviewer’s perception of a candidate is affected by implicit bias, Khan said.

Khan said he envisions that in the next 10 years, or ideally in the next three to five years, Khan Academy will provide learners with bridges and credentials they can use to access internships, jobs, and higher education.

Khan said that he felt that a flaw in current credentialing systems is that they do not say anything about an individual’s abilities in leadership and in teamwork, which are important in the workplace.