Sal Khan has been as busy as ever.
Over the last year, he’s helped Khan Academy manage a three-fold user increase, has grown and developed an online program geared toward early learners, and launched a new peer-to-peer tutoring platform to keep students connected and learning during the pandemic.
The very week that the pandemic closed schools in the U.S., usage on Khan Academy’s platform soared. “A lot more folks started leaning hard on us,” says Khan, the founder and CEO of Khan Academy, a nonprofit that provides free educational resources.
“Who would have thought that a pandemic would have made education such a hot topic—would have made online education, and Khan Academy, almost like an essential service?” wonders Khan during a recent interview with EdSurge.
As his education work expanded, Khan was hunkered down with his family in the Bay Area. He worked from their home, while his wife, a physician, saw patients remotely and in person. Their children, who attend Khan Lab School in Mountain View, Calif., were relatively well-positioned to take on remote learning when it was forced onto students last spring—the school is tech-savvy, yes, but it also promotes student agency and goal-setting, he explains—and they transitioned “almost seamlessly” to the new environment, Khan shares.
The prolonged time at home was not without its challenges, Khan admits. “Obviously, some aspects have been suboptimal for everybody,” he says, acknowledging that his family has been extremely fortunate. “Every now and then, it’s been hard to do a call while the kids are screaming or something like that, but between meetings, to see them or have lunch with them or go on a walk with them, that part has been actually quite nice.”
With the vaccination rollout in the U.S. moving along and most schools resuming in-person learning, EdSurge caught up with Khan to discuss what the last year has been like for Khan Academy, what he’s learned and what he’s planning to do next.
What follows is an interview transcript, condensed and edited for clarity.
EdSurge: How did you adapt to meet the needs of students during the pandemic?
Khan: In normal times, we see about 30 million learning minutes per day on Khan Academy. When the pandemic and the closures started, we saw that go up to 90 million learning minutes per day by the end of that week.
The year-over-year increase started to taper off [eventually], which actually was an interesting trend that I think a lot of folks have seen, primarily because I think the overall learning time in the system has gone down year-over-year. Schools themselves are not able to do as much instruction as they were doing when they were open fully.
And on the Khan Academy Kids side, that’s where we saw massive [growth]. Khan Academy Kids is a relatively new program. It’s been around three years now, but the pandemic accelerated Khan Academy Kids expanding into first grade. It accelerated our work around creating teacher tools.
But even before the pandemic, we were pleasantly surprised by how many teachers were using Khan Academy Kids—I’m talking about preschool, kindergarten, first-grade teachers. It’s accelerating the work into second grade. It’s really catalyzed us to do a big push on science content right now.
So Khan Academy for Kids, specifically—when and how did you develop that program, and how has it been used with families and kids during the pandemic?
Let’s rewind to six or seven years ago. Everyone used to ask me, “What about early learning?” Honestly, I had a young family then, and I saw more than ever how important those pre-K years are. And I saw the advantages my kids had before they showed up to kindergarten. Most people who are middle-income or better, the Common Core kindergarten standards almost seem ridiculously easy. Like, of course my kid knows how to do those things. They probably got that [concept] when they were 3 or 4 years old.
But then you see so many kids who might show up in kindergarten the first day—and this was eye-opening to me—who haven’t seen a book, some of them have never been read to.
And so immediately, out of the gate, in kindergarten, you’re setting up a hierarchy of who’s likely to succeed and who’s likely not. So there’s clearly a space for this, but I would tell people, “I have ideas, but that’s not my expertise, and we don’t have the expertise in-house.”
I literally used to tell people that if we ever do something in early learning, it should be as good as what the Duck Duck Moose team does. My oldest son, who’s 12 now, was born in 2009, and he kind of grew up on it. Duck Duck Moose was the first company that could come up with really compelling apps that were good—arguably good—for kids, in 2009, 2010, 2011. And I had the whole suite of their apps downloaded for my kids. I love how they had the fun and the quirkiness that could capture kids’ attention. Even as an adult sitting next to them, I would enjoy it. And they were also not just edu-tainment. They were real education.
And then in 2015 or 2016, my assistant says, “Hey, this company wants to meet. It’s called Duck Duck Moose.” I’m like, “I’d love to meet them! I’m a big fan.” And so we meet, and I remember we were at our little meeting room, and they’re giving a presentation about themselves. I was like, “Look, guys, I know all about y’all.” I showed them my phone, where I had all their apps downloaded. I’m like, “What are y’all here for?” And they’re like, “Well, we’re getting all these acquisition offers.
«But as opposed to just cashing out,” they said, “we’d rather have a real legacy of impactful education work. If Khan Academy would take us, we’d want to donate our company to Khan Academy, and keep it within the Khan Academy umbrella.” We basically said, “OK, well, this is incredible.”
[We thought], what if we could create one app that is holistic across reading, writing, social-emotional learning and math? One app that adapts to the users where they are, which is kind of a core principle of Khan Academy—that notion of personalization and mastery learning—and then be standards-aligned, which is also different than what most edtech on the App Store does.
So that’s what started us on that journey. They started with pre-K and kindergarten standards. And then they moved into first and second grade. The pandemic really accelerated the need to launch teacher tools. You really don’t have things for that age group that can really support the teacher. We see it as going from being for kids as young as 2 or 3 years old, all the way to second- or third-grade standards—that’s where we eventually want to go.
And much of the content is encouraged to be taken offline, right? It’s not 100 percent screen time?
In any of our use cases, I would never recommend doing nothing but the screen. Especially in this developmental stage.
Even the students who are able to put in 20 minutes a day, it can make a really large impact. There’s a randomized controlled trial that was done with UMass. It was relatively small, but had very promising results, closing the gap between kids at the bottom quartile and the average. And you know, even that 20 minutes is ideal with your parent or sibling or grandparents sitting next to you.
Sometimes you just need 20 minutes of sanity and you need to give the kids a device. Well, this is a much more nutritious 20 minutes of sanity for your kids than letting them view things they opened on YouTube or whatever.
For this age range, the 2- to 7-year-olds, relationships and social-emotional learning are at least as, if not more, critical than, say, reading and math. So how do you balance academic content with the social-emotional learning content?
The app leans quite heavily on social-emotional while mixing in the academic. It’s all kind of mixed into a stream. That’s the default mode of the app, which keeps cycling between all of these various aspects. And then on top of that, I know obviously apps should not be a child’s entire school. It should be in conjunction with outdoor play, being with friends, and ideally a pre-K program.
Tell me about your peer-to-peer tutoring platform, schoolhouse.world. Where did that idea come from?
There’s always been this dream that not only could people learn from the [Khan Academy] website, so to speak, and practice using the site, but they could learn from each other.
We’ve always known that the gold standard has always been high-quality tutoring, but no one’s ever acted on it because it’s hard to scale and it’s expensive. So there’s always been this idea of, well, what if we create a mechanism where you can have high-quality, vetted volunteers to run small-group tutoring sessions?
Khan Academy started with me being an analyst at a hedge fund and I was tutoring my cousins. Partially it was because they were my cousins, but honestly, I think I would’ve tutored anybody. I would have loved to do that type of community service, half an hour a day, during my lunch hour or something—get on and meet with interesting kids or learners of any age around the world and help them out. I thought, if that would have been meaningful for me, I’ve got to believe it would be for a lot of other folks. And in high school, I remember how much I enjoyed doing that.
A lot of what I believe in is that students tutoring other students is powerful on both sides. The students tutoring learn more empathy and communication, they learn the subject matter even deeper. And then obviously the student learning it is getting personal attention. And sometimes, the person who learned it last year can explain it better to you than the person who learned it 10 years ago.
So when the pandemic hit, I was like, “It’s now or never.” We already talked about Khan Academy being heads down, just trying to support all this traffic, so I said, “Let me see if I can create a prototype with some friends around this idea of people saying what they need help with and volunteer tutors, and I could publicize a little bit on social media.”
We built a prototype of schoolhouse.world last summer, at the end of the summer. We’re like, “This is kind of working.” We were having these really beautiful stories of people being able to help each other and feeling like it was really making a difference in their life.
We got our first philanthropic funding in the fall, and then tutoring became the hot topic. A bunch of states said, “Hey, could we use this as a platform for tutoring in our state?” So New Hampshire, Mississippi, Arkansas, North Dakota, Nevada—they said, “We want to use this as our state tutoring platform.”
That’s where we are now. And it’s still in the early stages, but several thousand people are using it every week for free tutoring. We’re getting very strong results. A lot of people think this is better than paid tutoring. We have retired physics professors, we’re having all these people come out of the woodwork, which is pretty fun.
How do you expect the tutoring to scale and evolve post-pandemic?
I think it’s going to be a permanent fixture post-pandemic. The pandemic was kind of the catalyst. But Khan Academy is the official practice program for the SAT, and the only reason why we’ve seen people still go to some of the paid test prep is they’re like, “Oh, we like the human element.” Well, now you have that, too. And in some ways, it’s stronger.
We keep evolving. We started with these scheduled sessions. Now we’re going to be launching, in the next month, a cohort model, where you can join cohorts with a leader that will guide you through a progression of work. We’re creating office hours. We’re expanding the subject and grades. We just added all the major STEM AP courses to what Schoolhouse covers.
We’re exploring, in the next year, whether we can start serving kids under age 13. That could even start to address some of what we’ve been talking about with Khan Academy Kids—what if someone else’s Grandmom can read to you, right? There’s book readings at the library, but it’s sometimes not easy to get the library either as a volunteer or student. What if that type of thing happened organically on schoolhouse.world?
What have you learned about online education over the last 13 months?
It’s all about implementation. It’s not that online is “good” or online is “bad.” It’s not that a classroom is “good” or a classroom is “bad.” We’ve all been in horrible classrooms, and we’ve all been in magical classrooms. And I think the pandemic has shown that there’s ways of leveraging video conferencing [and classroom technology] that are actually incredible, and there’s other ways that are horrible. We’ve seen that.
So there’s this temptation to say, “The future is going to be online learning,” or “Online learning was horrible. Let’s throw it away.” But no, it’s the same type of question. Now, the good thing is people are finally asking the question: How do we make things more engaging? Well these are the same questions you should ask in a classroom. Kids were there in body, but you did not know whether they were there in mind.
So now when people are saying, “Use break-outs,” “Make it interactive,” “Don’t lecture,” I’m like, yes, yes, yes. This is true online, and it’s definitely true in the classroom as well. Don’t immediately gravitate to the solution. Gravitate to the problem you’re trying to solve. And if the problem you’re trying to solve can be solved partially or fully with online learning, great. But if it can’t be, don’t force it.