By Jill Tucker
San Francisco Chronicle
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The mission of Khan Academy is a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere. One of founder Sal Khan’s favorite success stories is about an Afghan girl who secretly studied for the SAT on Khan Academy and then sneaked into Pakistan to take it. The young woman is now in college in the United States.
San Francisco Chronicle
Sal Khan has interesting ideas about what constitutes riveting dinner conversation.
At the moment, he’s partial to “mind-blowing” similarities between Greek, Latin, Germanic languages and ancient Sanskrit as well as the fact that Iran and Ireland are the only countries with names that mean “land of the Aryans.”
“That’s still my favorite thing to share in conversations,” said the founder of Khan Academy, a free, online learning platform serving 15 million people a month. “The other thing is you can get hypothermia (and die) in 80-degree water.”
“I’m a nerd,” said Khan, who is a nominee for the 2018 Visionary of the Year award sponsored by The Chronicle.
The winner of the award will receive a $25,000 grant that can be applied to the cause of his or her choice.
In Silicon Valley, nerds like Khan — with companies whose users number in the many millions — are often billionaires. While Khan isn’t poor, he falls well short for any list featuring big-money moguls in tech.
He probably could have been rich off the idea, but when he came up with the vision for Khan Academy, he wanted it to be free.
The mission — a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere.
That sole mission of the company, unchanged since he founded it in 2008, is plastered on the Khan Academy website as well as the walls of his Mountain View headquarters.
As a side note, Khan said he wrote that mission statement in about 20 minutes as he hurried to complete an Internal Revenue Service tax form to establish the nonprofit. It stuck, and it’s his life’s work.
“We still haven’t delivered on it,” he added. “It’s a big goal.”
He’s made a big dent though.
The online venture has an oft-repeated origin story. In 2004, Khan started helping his cousin in math, long-distance tutoring sessions that involved the telephone and an interactive notepad so she could see what he was writing.
It was a success and other family members and friends wanted in, so he started writing software for math practice and tracking each person’s progress. He also began creating videos, which he posted online, in which he would write on a digital scratchpad as his voice-over explained the problem.
He realized he had something as other viewers flocked to the videos.
With the general concept of making education accessible, he created Khan Academy and ultimately attracted big-money donors: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Google, Comcast, Bank of America, The Walt Disney company, the Broad Foundation, AT&T and Oracle, among others.
In the past 10 years, the site has grown exponentially, with more than 62 million registered users as well as some who don’t register, and more than 1 billion video views. The academy is used in more than 190 countries and the content translated into 18 languages.
In addition to math, the subject areas include the sciences, history, economics, finance, grammar, preschool learning, SAT preparation, civics and more. Instruction and practice modules offer measurement and geometry for kindergartners and college-level multivariable calculus, art history, computer programming and global finance.
Want a primer on bitcoin, mortgage-backed securities, or the art of Oceania? That’s all there, too.
“They’ve made the world a smaller place,” said Ken McNeely, president of AT&T California. “He has really found a way of leveling the playing field and democratizing education around the globe.”
One of Khan’s favorite success stories is about an Afghan girl who secretly studied for the SAT on Khan Academy and then sneaked into Pakistan to take it. The young woman is now in college in the United States.
“That’s like the sci-fi version of the vision, but it’s happening,” he said.
But Khan, 41, is still not satisfied. “Within my own lifetime I do want to see a billion kids, that Khan Academy is a significant resource for them,” he said. “This is something I want to devote my life to.”
While the videos and practice problems were the foundation for Khan, his academy now includes SAT prep sponsored by the College Board and financial literacy sponsored by Bank of America. The companies get acknowledgments on the site, but there is no advertising.
Khan exemplifies a trend in tech, with investors and entrepreneurs interested in making a difference rather than just making money, said Nora Silver, founder of the Center for Social Sector Leadership at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business.
He is a prime example of someone who has made a big difference.
Khan Academy “has really made learning new material, and even difficult material, accessible to everyone around the world,” she said. “Think about that.”
Early critics questioned the concept, and whether the idea was aimed at eliminating teachers and traditional classrooms. They complained that the instructional videos didn’t necessarily teach students to think critically.
But in recent years, such critiques have waned and Khan Academy has become a part of the education landscape, used by teachers to help introduce or reinforce concepts and by families to ease crying jags over confounding homework.
The nonprofit has recently expanded into the bricks-and-mortar world, opening an independent private school in the downstairs space at its corporate headquarters. The Khan Lab School is developing a mixed-age personalized learning model, inspired by Khan’s idea of education described in his book, “One World Schoolhouse.”
Tuition for the lab school ranges from $27,000 to $32,000, depending on the grade level. Two of Khan’s three children attend.
But the core of Khan Academy still resides to a large degree in the online site and specifically, the instructional videos, including thousands Khan has made himself. In each, his voice is distinct and enthusiastic as he solves the infamous potato question on the 2017 AP Calculus test or describes early world history.
Strangers sometimes recognize him on the street by voice alone.
He is often asked which video or topic is his favorite, and it’s often the one he’s been working on recently. But pressed, he’ll confess he’s mostly likely to share the Sanskrit story with strangers.
In a nearly 10-minute video on “Sanskrit connections to English,” he describes the Sanskrit word dyauspitr, which literally translated means sky father.
“Some of you might be getting goosebumps now when you see where this is going,” he says in the video before making the connection in pronunciation and sound to Zeus Pater in Greek and Jupiter in Latin. “They way it comes out of your mouth is very, very, very, very, very close.”
Sitting in his office, surrounded by chalkboards covered in lists and ideas, Khan appeared to revel in the concept of a global common language, as well, perhaps, of the potential to wow dinner companions.
“The world,” Khan said smiling, “is incredibly connected.”