Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, discusses the growth of his global enterprise that educates millions of children and adults. Learn how he envisions the future of democratized education.
Given Morgan Stanley Philanthropy Management’s expansive work with clients regarding increasing access and equity in the education sector, the team spoke with Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, the nonprofit educational organization, about leadership, the future of education and closing the digital divide.
Melanie Schnoll Begun: How has your role as a leader evolved from the time you created Khan Academy to today, when you run a nonprofit that is a global force in the educational space?
Sal Khan: At the early stages of Khan Academy, the organization was just me. I had to lead myself and a lot of meetings went on in my brain! Starting in 2010, I began to realize that stuff that’s in your head is not obvious to everyone else, and it’s necessary to hire people who are different than you and who complement your strengths and weaknesses. So I’ve been on a journey in the last 10 years, learning to get better at that—and bringing people in who can help scale the organization. Today I devote about 60% of my brain and my leadership time to management. I still reserve 30%-40% of my time to do the kind of entrepreneurship that I did back in 2006-2008, to make sure that we’re pushing the envelope on all dimensions of the vision. And I still make content! That helps me stay very close to the work that is impacting students and teachers directly.
MSB: What advice would you give to a leader seeking to recruit a team that can help them advance their goals and objectives?
SK: I generally like to bring in people who are ultra-aligned with the mission and the vision. I’m highly sensitive if I feel someone is operating from a point of ego or self-interest. Also, I try to audit and inventory my weaknesses, and understand where I don’t have capacity and recruit people who really, really complement my gaps. While it’s not always pleasant to go into a meeting and find that no one agrees with you, I know that the organization benefits from a senior team that doesn’t always see eye-to-eye. Ninety-nine percent of the time in our conversations, we’re able to achieve really good, constructive engagement and end up in a better place.
MSB: How are you viewing our environment, both in terms of the challenges but also the opportunities that have presented themselves?
SK: The weekend before the COVID-19-related closures in the U.S., everything began to go virtual, and Khan Academy traffic just kept growing. When we realized that schools were going to close, and people would need to lean on virtual alternatives not simply for in-classroom material, we started giving parents tools to structure the day for students in different age groups. We typically have about 30 million learning minutes per day on Khan Academy and we were seeing, on peak weekdays, 80 to 90 million. Our niche is a large one—pre-K through 14, all academic subjects, learn at your own pace—but what we discovered was we could offer a broader ecosystem of material. How do you organize the school day, how do you design accountability, how do you put all these pieces together? After it became clear that school closures were going to continue through the end of the school year, we created 12 new courses for students to use over the summer to get up to grade level and fill in any gaps. This was the external piece of the crisis.
On the internal front, at Khan Academy about one-third of our folks were already officially working remotely. At nearly every meeting previously, there would be someone who was distributed, so it was a reasonably straightforward transition to a situation where everyone’s distributed. And now that we have all become accustomed to these modalities—Zoom, Google shut down Hangouts, it’s now called Meetings, Skype—we should reassess how necessary all our business travel was before, since it’s clear now you can interact and connect well with people from a distance. And spending less time on a plane is good from a family point of view! A big question mark for us going forward is to what degree we stay virtual, a hybrid or optionally in person.
MSB: How do you see the space of education more broadly shifting or evolving in the near term as a result of what’s happened?
SK: We’ve been discussing for a long while how learning should not be bound by time or space. If today’s students are going to avoid falling behind in a way that’s debilitating to their futures, they need access to learning personalized to their needs. In the post-COVID-19 world, that notion is even more vital. As the crisis endures, the need to know if students have learned material or not increases, since in many cases any assessment can’t be anchored on seat time, because seat time will remain very uncertain and fluid. I believe this reality will gravitate folks to models that are more competency based. For example: Could your mastery level on Khan Academy be used as an indicator of how well you know the material? In the past, one of the frictions for leveraging a tool like Khan Academy was that not every child had access at home. But the closures are catalyzing people to address the digital divide. We have a lot of work to do to connect all students. But following COVID-19, if teachers could assume that most students have access, this would encourage them to lean on these types of competency-based modalities going forward.
MSB: What role do you see for partnership in your work?
SK: Our mission is simple: a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere. We are not under the delusion that we’re going to do that by ourselves. We have close partnerships with school districts around the country and around the world. We’ve even been in conversations with ministries of education abroad. We work with people who fill parts of the pie that we don’t. We have a partnership with College Board. We’re looking for more partnerships that can ensure that we can get traction with the populations which most need it. We’ve already had a partnership around a special SAT practice with Boys and Girls Clubs. We want to do more of that. We’re open and eager to work with anyone who we think can help, or who can help us push forward our mission.
MSB: What would or could be next for you? If and when you decide to start your next social enterprise, what would that be?
SK: My current view of the rest of my life, which will hopefully last many more decades, is essentially Khan Academy. That will be my priority until the board thinks I’m not the person who should be running it! However, I have a constant set of skunkworks projects that are essentially aligned with the same vision. Sometimes I do them outside of the Khan Academy umbrella, just to give them their own kind of startup feel, to see if those ideas can get traction.
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