Why did Salman Khan found the Khan Academy?

How Khan Academy is revolutionizing schools

Former hedge fund manager Salman Khan teaches millions of students worldwide on the Internet - for free. Countless schools and universities are following him.

Teaching many students at the same time is a nightmare for some teachers. For Salman Khan it is a dream come true. He has many students - very many in fact. The Khan Academy has several million users per month.

The American Salman Khan founded the Internet teaching portal in 2006 and has since uploaded thousands of learning videos, several thousand of which he recorded himself. The Khan Academy model is known under the term “flipped classroom”: the pupils learn new material at home on the computer - each at their own pace. Problems that arise are discussed with the teachers at school and practiced there with the other students.

According to Khan, the main advantage of the new form of teaching is that each student learns at an individual pace. "The current school system is like an assembly line," he says on the phone. “Even if you miss a step or do it incorrectly, you are forced to continue. In the end - in a figurative sense - defective products are created. "

School for everyone

“Learn almost anything for free” is the motto of his online training institute. Khan's goal is to offer the most comprehensive education possible for everyone - free of charge. He wants to turn the school system upside down. In 2012, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people. This is not surprising when you look at the current boom in free lessons on the Internet called Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC).

Salman Khan found a well-known sponsor for his project early on, none other than Bill Gates. The foundation of the Microsoft co-founder and his wife has invested $ 1.5 million in start-up capital in the Khan Academy, and the Internet company Google has invested $ 2 million. The Mexican multibillionaire Carlos Slim Helú recently got on board.

There are quite a few things about Khan's model that don't look particularly attractive to schoolchildren at first sight. For example, holidays are just as wasted time for Khan as the long summer vacations. In his opinion, they should even be abolished. Doesn't he get floods of hate mail from students for this?

On the contrary, he says. "You can see it in two ways: that I am canceling the summer vacation - or that I want to extend it to the whole year." Summer holidays mean, according to Khan, that you can devote yourself to a single thing over a longer period of time that you have chosen yourself. This is exactly what he wants to make possible for all students in the world. “The reason people look forward to the summer vacation is because school is so passive. Somebody keeps telling you what to do. "

Four university degrees

During the interview, the former hedge fund manager sits in his office in Mountain View in Silicon Valley, right next to the Google campus. The first thing we learn from him is that the New Orleans accent, which sounds shuffling to European ears, also exists as a verbal rapid fire. Khan explains at high speed, point by point, why his school system is the better - no, not the better, the more sensible.

And immediately he corrects himself again: Of course he didn't invent it, just adapted it to the technical means of the early 21st century. And of course, it's not the best system for everyone. For example, it would have been of little use to himself: "I was one of those students who learn best when they read the material in a school book."

With Khan, the traditional system has borne fruit. It resulted in the New Orleans-born son of an Indian mother and a Bangladeshi father who left the family early, graduating from four universities - in math, electrical engineering, computer science and economics. He holds degrees from two of the most prestigious universities in the United States: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Harvard Business School. This was followed by a well-paying job as an analyst in Boston.

Tutoring for the cousin

Then came 2004. Salman Khan got married. His twelve-year-old cousin was also invited to the wedding. Nadia, who always got top grades, had screwed up a math placement test. Khan tried to figure out why, and gave her remote tutoring using pen tablets and a simple computer program. Nadia repeated the test and passed with flying colors. Soon Khan had twenty tutors.

In 2006 a friend advised him to record his lessons and upload them to Youtube. Khan sat in a walk-in closet and recorded the lessons as he scribbled them on a black computer "school board". You don't see him, you just hear his voice. The Youtube time limit was ten minutes back then, so each lesson lasted a maximum of ten minutes.

The response was enormous. Khan turned his project into a charity funded by donations. In 2009 he quit his job as a hedge fund analyst and has since devoted himself entirely to his academy. At first it was rather difficult with the donations. But then, in 2010, Ann Doerr, wife of American venture capital manager John Doerr, gave him $ 100,000, and that got the ball rolling.

In his book "The Khan Academy", Salman Khan sets out his sometimes radical ideas of the ideal school. For example the classroom. Up to 100 students of different ages should sit in it. "Instead of 20 classrooms, a school can create two rooms for quieter activities and some for group work." In the pilot schools that are testing the Khan model, do 100 students actually sit in one room? “These schools are adopting part of our model. But the classroom doesn't exist yet. "

Salman Khan has not yet received any actual criticism, only touching letters of thanks. Every now and then the Khan Academy is misunderstood and suspected of wanting to replace flesh and blood teachers with computers. "We don't want that at all!" Emphasizes Khan. Although you can neither see him nor the other teachers on the videos, he knows that the human element is central in the classroom. "In the traditional school model, human resources are far too underutilized."

Instead, it is corrected and disciplined, criticized Khan. "Teachers should spend almost 100 percent of their time in the classroom actively with the class, doing things that stimulate the brain, not monologizing." Khan calls this a "humanization of the school".

He is not the first to ask for such a request, but it is only now that we are apparently technically able to implement this request. Khan is therefore considered to be the pioneer of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), i.e. lectures and exercises that are accessible free of charge on the Internet. There are already initial studies on MOOC, but the area is still in its infancy. Khan has obviously hit a nerve with the times: The criticism of the traditional school system is exponentially polyphonic.


MOOC stands for “Massive Open Online Courses”, which means free courses on the Internet. Usually it is professionals such as university professors who record lectures on video or record the lessons on a tablet computer. The videos are supplemented with (interactive) exercises and tests. In addition, many providers help students to form study groups. Many of the platforms are strong in the natural and computer science fields. But there are also offers such as “Listening to World Music” from the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to the technical quality of the courses, the recognition of performance records is a problem that has not yet been resolved in online courses.


But Khan doesn't see it as rigorously as he puts it in his book in practice. For example, when it comes to the voluntary nature and choice of subjects for the students. “I'm not saying that students should do what they want. A mentor should also motivate them to do things that were actually not suitable for them before. " So also mathematics for bookworms and literature for number freaks.

Khan starts from one premise: humans are naturally curious. But, one can object, when a person comes to school, a lot has already happened. Khan, father of two children, quotes a study in his book according to which it is not hours of homework solving, but having dinner with parents and getting enough sleep are essential for success in school. Bloss: Ultimately, the Khan Academy cannot influence that.

Another problem that has not yet been resolved: Khan pleads for the abolition of the notes. But certificates of achievement that are (internationally) recognized are inevitable. In addition, the Khan Academy is aimed at a global student body, but the content of the videos is exclusively Western-oriented. "A young person in the US who goes to Harvard needs math more than a child in Africa," admits Khan. In Mexico, the Academy is already teaching hard skills, for example how to lay an electrical line.

“Learn almost everything for free”, promises the homepage. What can't you learn at Khan Academy? Your founder laughs. “For example, we don't yet have a video on the history of Switzerland. But we can touch almost any field of knowledge or at least cover the virtual aspect of it. "