Words by Noe Lebanidze
Illustration by Katie Herchenroeder
The name Salman Khan is probably at least somewhat recognizable to most of us. If that doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps you are familiar with the website ‘www.khanacademy.org?’
Educator and Entrepreneur Salman Khan visited City College on the first of April as part of the “Rudin Lecture Series.” His lecture, titled “Reimagining Education,” focused on the past and present of Khan Academy, his chief educational accomplishment, elaborating his philosophy on education and what it needs to accomplish in the contemporary world.
The non-profit Khan Academy is an educational organization and popular website. Known for its creation of free educational material, its stated mission is “providing a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.” In practice, this lofty idea translates to a website full of insightful videos – many of which narrated by Khan himself – explaining concepts as varied as American history to linear algebra to even art interpretation. The platform has been so successful that it is now officially affiliated with the SAT and is being translated into dozens of languages worldwide. For his work in furthering education, Khan was awarded the Padma Shri award in 2016 and the Heinz Award in 2010.
As a college student myself, I used Khan Academy a lot in high school and go back to it frequently to jog my memory in certain subjects. Like many fellow students, this lecture struck me as something unique. Many go to lectures to hear new voices, but it is not every day that you get to hear familiar ones. As one medical student remarked during the question and answer period, “it’s a little surreal hearing your voice in person rather than from my laptop.”
Khan’s lecture began with the story of how his education career began. What started off as a little online tutoring for a single cousin quickly escalated. “I found myself tutoring 10-15 cousins, family friends, all over the country,” he shares. He saw promise in the enterprise, and eventually quit his job to register Khan Academy as a non-profit in 2008. The organization floundered for a few years, making around $200 a month through intermittent online donations. The turning point occurred when Bill Gates took notice, as Khan was eager to document with a video where the Google founder praises Khan’s work.
Khans presented his educational philosophy as being derived from his earlier experience tutoring his cousins. “I saw a common pattern with my family member, that the reason they were having trouble with a subject wasn’t because they weren’t right, it wasn’t because the subject matter was too difficult. It was because they were accumulating gaps,” he remembers. Instead of making sure all students understand what it is they are learning, the American education system typically rushes through hoops without taking the time to identify and eradicate areas of confusion. After taking a test “you identify gaps, but then you completely ignore those gaps and move on to the next stage,” Khan says.
Khan’s stated solution is to mold the curriculum to the student’s needs. Instead of holding fixed when and how long subjects last with variable outcomes, why not hold fixed that every student should be able to become proficient in a concept, he asked.
This does not imply being against schools and teachers. Khan pitches his Academy as a supplementary tool to traditional education, much like the way it is used by most people. The videos and practice questions are a way to improve one’s understanding of a concept before or after class, not a substitute to classical education.
Khan’s thoughts on education were further elaborated upon during the question and answer session. After being asked about if he saw a future in alternative certifications of knowledge, Khan noted the student debts crisis and falling return of investment from higher education more generally. “I would like to create a world where there are alternate paths, and actually paths that wouldn’t even necessarily be towards a college degree,” he opines. Employers, Khan went on to say, don’t see bachelor’s degrees as the end-all when looking for people to hire, and expressed his view that a more holistic way of evaluating workers is needed.
The lecture ended on a lighter note, when preschool teacher and CCNY alumni Celeste Bradsher asked about how Khan Academy could be used for early education. In response, Khan stressed the future he saw in introducing his platform to more conventional institutions and repeated his call for more and more people to introduce Khan Academy to others.