Numbers add up for online academy
A hedge-fund analyst’s online lessons for his family have grown into a global school
When Salman Khan started teaching maths over the phone, little did he think it would expand into an academy instructing more than six million students a month.
The one-time hedge-fund analyst began the Khan Academy as a side project to help family members. Now it has become a respected source of learning for everyone from primary school students to what Khan describes as “curious adults”.
When his phone tutoring grew too big to manage effectively, a friend suggested Khan use the power of the internet - and YouTube specifically – to keep up with his family maths lessons.
“At first I thought it was a silly idea – YouTube is for cats playing piano, not serious mathematics – but I gave it a shot,” he said.
The videos went viral. The academy has since spread worldwide. Online the Khan Academy has more than 4,000 video tutorials online, covering a range of subjects from maths and science to economics and computer programming.
A couple of years ago, it turned from a side project to a full-time occupation.
“The social return was pretty large. I quit my job in the autumn of 2009. Like a lot stories like this, you start from a fairly naïve point of view, but it takes longer than you expect it to find that kind of support,” he said.
“When we did find the support, it was fairly significant.”
The academy has attracted some well-known figures in the tech world.
The not-for-profit academy is funded by donations, with companies such as Google backing the firm, and a hefty donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation helping it to develop further.
“To go from getting a lot of rejections to all of a sudden Bill Gates and Google reaching out and asking, ‘How can we support you?’ – that was pretty incredible,” Khan said.
It has moved out of the virtual world into the classroom. That began with a pilot project in schools in Los Altos, California, to more than 30,000 classrooms worldwide.
The move has changed how children are learning, both in the classroom and outside.
“In order for people to learn something, they need to be able to go at their own pace. They need to do a lot of problem sets; videos are nice but it’s even more important to be able to do as many exercises as you can, get as much feedback, get the explanation exercises if you get them wrong,” Khan said.
“If you’re a teacher it’s important to be able to see what your students are doing, what questions they are having trouble with, how much time they are spending – all sorts of data that we could give. [Google and the Gates Foundation] thought it was worth a shot; that’s what they believed in.”
Khan continues to look after the bulk of the science and maths content, but the academy has branched out to bring in two art historians, and even a medical lecturer.
A series on the financial crisis a couple of years ago attracted the attention of a lot of those “curious adults” he refers to.