Khan Academy: We Hope To Disrupt The Traditional Tuition Model

By Prashant K. Nanda
Mint, New Delhi.


Khan Academy, which revolutionized the way schoolchildren learn math and science in the US, on Wednesday entered India through a Hindi platform. Promoted by Salman Khan, a former hedge fund analyst in the US, the academy seeks to disrupt the traditional model of tutoring in India.

According to Khan, free world-class education for anyone, anywhere, anytime is the way forward. He said Khan Academy, whose free video tutorials were used by many, including Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates, aspires to play the role that libraries did for previous generations but in the virtual world. “The dream for Khan Academy is to be an institution for the world,” he said in an interview.

Khan Academy in India is supported by Central Square Foundation (CSF), a venture philanthropy promoted by Ashish Dhawan, co-founder of ChrysCapital. Dhawan and Khan in an interview spoke about their India plan, the free tutoring space and learnings from supporters such as Bill Gates.

Edited excerpts:

Question: What would you call Khan Academy, a tutorial, a start-up or a learning philanthropy?

Khan: Maybe a combination of all of the above. We are a not-for-profit organization with the mission of providing free world-class education for anyone, anywhere. The dream for Khan Academy is to be an institution for the world. I see it playing the same role in the virtual world that libraries played for previous generations.

Question: What made you come to India? How much your Indian connection influenced you to come here? Or is it that Ashish Dhawan persuaded you to start operations in India?

Khan: It is all of the above. I believe in free world-class education for anyone, anywhere. My family is from here. The president of Khan Academy is also from India. Because of these connections, you understand the area and need for education.

Then the opportunity and the need for good education is massive. There are millions of students and many of them are not optimally served right now. But it’s Ashish and his Central Square Foundation who made it a no-brainer for us. To have a strong partner on the ground who is already executing things on the ground (is a good state to be in).

Question: What’s the thought behind launching Khan Academy Hindi?

Dhawan: Math and sciences are absolutely critical. So both personally and looking at the opportunity, we thought Khan Academy would be a good move. I used Khan Academy videos for my kids several years ago. I really liked the platform and probably watched 150-plus videos. That got me interested.

There are 250 million children in schools and 10 million teachers… but 80% of children are getting a terrible education. And we are not going to fix that anytime in the near future.

So, given how bad the raw material is–the quality of teachers and accountability–education technology can play a much bigger role here than in the developed world. Khan Academy is one of the interesting platforms. Math is something which easily translates–so we saw a good opportunity to leverage the English platform. Then, Hindi makes more sense as it caters to almost half a billion people. Khan Academy videos are used as a supplementary tool often, but it’s in a way the core as it offers complete education solutions.

Question: What about other languages, including Bengali?

Khan: Bengali is close to my heart (Khan is a Bengali). Of course we are looking at other languages. We are going to focus on all major languages. What we are trying to do in India is about a whole different scale effort.

Question: What are the three core areas of focus for you in the next year? Is its just translating existing videos?

Khan: I think it’s about further creating content aligned with a national standard; building capacity not just in Hindi but also in other languages; working with state, local government and schools tie up on content; partnering with telecom companies to transmit contents, etc.

Dhawan: There is a vibrant tuition market in India, so Khan Academy can be used in that setting, after-school supplementary tutoring. That model is existing in India and the question is how to embed Khan Academy in it. Pilots have to be done to see how effective it will be.

Some state governments are already interested in the model, seeing our Hindi content, in using it for teacher training. Once teachers use it, they will see how they can incorporate it in classroom settings.

Question: You have spoken about the flipped classroom model. But it is largely a business education experiment, done well in parts. Do you think it can be replicated for the school systems in India and elsewhere?

Khan: You actually need help not to listen a lecture, but while working on a problem. I don’t see why lecture should be the focal point in a classroom… it does not matter whether you are in a rural classroom or in Harvard University.

Classroom is for interaction… lecture can happen at own pace of a learner. Learning through videos does not have a judgement (on how you study and how much you understand in the first go). Flipped classroom model is happening in some cutting edge schools and we can go there over time.

Dhawan: We have a Nalanda Project, a pilot for Khan Academy in Pune. Here, less time is being spent on lecturing and more on practice. What we found is that with a differentiated instructions model, teachers are giving more attention to the bottom of the classroom–understanding their pain points. This can be scaled up.

Question: Though some say that Khan Academy is a precursor to MOOCs (massive open online courses), your content is less interactive than that. Are you planning to go the MOOC way and tie up with platforms like edX and Coursera?

Khan: There are differences between what we do and what MOOCs do, though we all are sharing knowledge. Khan Academy is very interactive. Students can watch a video, take a test, interact and 80% of our resources are on this part.
The core difference is that Khan Academy is based on the idea “learn what you need and when you need at your own pace”. In MOOCs, it’s largely taking the traditional university course and mapping it to virtual.

Question: Tutorials in countries such as India and South Korea are largely based on the traditional model of learning–it’s lecture and learn by rote. Can you disrupt this model in India?

Khan: I hope we can disrupt it. So what’s happening is “I cannot afford tuition so I am using Khan Academy” is changing to “I can afford it but I use Khan Academy”. Famously, Bill Gates uses Khan Academy for his kids, and he can of course afford a tutor. So my message to Indian students is look, you don’t need to spend all this money (for tuition).
What’s the revenue model in India?

Khan: Our revenue model here is going to be similar to in the US, raising money from philanthropists. At least 80% of our money is from philanthropy but it’s not from big foundations always. Students give small donations, $5 or $10 to say thank you.

I hope we can do similar things in India. We can partner with corporations. We have partnerships with the likes of Bank of America but you don’t see their advertisements on our platform. It’s their corporate social responsibility. We can do so with companies in India.

Dhawan: The private sector plays a meaningful role in education in India. By 2025, I believe 60% of Indian students will be in private schools. State governments play a less meaningful role in India.

Having said that, the bottom half of the socioeconomic spectrum cannot afford private education and if you want to serve them, you have to go to the states. Since Khan Academy is now going to have a team here to raise funds, it will have resources now.

Question: What kind of resources will CSF provide to Khan Academy?

Dhawan: Our first job was to get Khan Academy excited about India. Thanks to Sal’s background and the opportunity here. We felt there is a need for a Hindi platform and we focused on developing that. As they have decided to have a sharper focus on India, we will be as supportive as possible.

Question: Does it include funding as well?

Dhawan: It includes some amount of funding, opening of doors, running pilots, whatever that will help Khan Academy succeed in India and benefit millions of students.

Question: You have the financial backing of entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Reed Hastings (of Netlfix), Eric Schmidt (of Google) and Carlos Slim. When you meet them, what exactly do they tell you about education? What’s your management lessons from them?

Khan: My discovery is that before you meet these people, you make assumptions that they may be always strategizing about their business. When you meet them in person–especially the likes of Gates, Slim and others of their stature, you realize they genuinely wants to do a lot of good. They are shockingly humble. And I am not saying this because they back us.

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