Math made easy
MV's Sal Khan makes math tutoring videos a global phenomenon
Can a hedge-fund guy find fame, fortune and fulfillment as a social entrepreneur?
Meet Salman Khan of Mountain View, an MIT-trained former hedge-fund analyst who is fast becoming — somewhat accidentally, as he tells it — math teacher to the world.
Khan's online tutoring service, begun as a sideline to help a long-distance cousin with her math homework, has become one of the hottest phenomena in the world of education, with as many as 300,000 students a day.
Khan was living in Palo Alto and working in Menlo Park five years ago when he first posted some how-to-do-algebra videos to YouTube as a way to tutor his cousin Nadia in New Orleans. The seventh grader, and later her brothers, Arman and Ali, loved them — and the math posts went viral. Khan kept on making videos, eventually quitting his day job to nurture the online, not-for-profit Khan Academy.
His short lessons — now more than 2,400 of them on topics from algebra to venture capital — are available to anyone in the world with a Web connection.
He appears to be succeeding where many for decades have tried and failed: attracting a global, mass audience to an educational website. Students from Alabama to Zimbabwe are flocking to the Khan Academy, and the videos are being translated into 10 languages.
The Khan Academy is "a glimpse of the future of education," says Bill Gates.
Children in the Los Altos School District pilot-tested the self-paced Khan Academy in classrooms last year, and Khan is talking with other local schools.
Investors have knocked at his door — with notions for a company that could "do well by doing good" — but to date Khan has remained resolutely nonprofit.
The enterprise has drawn the backing of major education philanthropists, including Gates, Netflix founder and chairman Reed Hastings of Santa Cruz and, locally, venture capitalist John Doerr and his wife, Ann, and Intuit founder Scott Cook. Khan also won $2 million last fall from Google, in a competition where finalists were picked by Google employees and winners chosen by a public vote on the Web.
Meanwhile, Khan says his cousin Nadia is "doing well," having recently completed her freshman year at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.
"I tell her there's a lot riding on her success," he said laughingly in a recent interview in his sun-filled office above a shop on Castro Street. "She's majoring in writing and pre-med, but I say that's by choice, because she was a rock star at math."
Fresh out of MIT
Born and raised in Louisiana, Khan first came to the Bay Area in 1998 fresh out of MIT, to work in high tech.
After a year at Oracle, he had moved to MeVC — a startup that aimed to make venture capital available to the public — when the tech market crumbled in 2000 and he decided to go back to school.
At Harvard Business School from 2001 to 2003, Khan got acquainted with the world of hedge funds.
"It seemed both intellectually interesting and like a good way to make a living," he said, explaining his decision to go to work for Wohl Capital, then based in Boston.
When the boss's wife took a job at Stanford Law School, the venture relocated to Sand Hill Road and Khan and his wife followed.
Better than in-person
Talking with his cousins in New Orleans, Khan realized he might have stumbled on something important when they told him they liked his tutoring on YouTube better than in-person.
"Once you get over the backhanded nature of that, there was actually something very profound there," he told an audience in March. He was speaking at a Long Beach conference sponsored by TED (Technology Entertainment and Design).
"They were saying they preferred the automated version of their cousin to their cousin, because now they can pause and repeat their cousin without feeling like they're wasting my time. If they need to review something they should have learned a couple weeks ago or years ago, they don't have to embarrass themselves and ask their cousin.
"The very first time you're trying to get your brain around something, the very last thing you need is a person asking you, 'Do you understand this?'
From the start, Khan saw no reason to keep his math videos private, and others began watching them. He was rewarded with feedback from "random people around the world."
One user commented that, for the first time, he had smiled after doing a derivative. Parents of a 12-year-old with autism said their son had found success with Khan's videos after other programs had failed.
"Here I was, an analyst at a hedge fund. It was very strange for me to do something of social value," Khan told the appreciative TED audience.
But he was excited by the feedback, so he kept going.
"I kept making videos and hoping someone would notice," he said.
In September 2009 he quit his day job to focus full time on the academy, digging into savings for the first eight months. Thanks to donations, the Khan Academy can now pay salaries to him and his small staff.
The academy's mission — "providing a free world-class education to anyone anywhere — has attracted, in the founder's words, "talent that money can't buy."
The staff today numbers about a dozen, plus six interns. To date Khan has produced every single one of the videos himself.
The popularity of the videos is due to their digestible chunks — each one is 10 to 20 minutes — and a tight focus on the individual user, Khan believes.
"My focus was to build a useful tool for my cousins and then, once it grew, to build something useful for the stand-alone learner," he said. "People like the style I teach in. It's very conversational. They appreciate that there's a human on the other side."
It doesn't hurt that the human is friendly, engaging and articulate.
The offerings are so basic that Khan says "it's shocking for me that this didn't exist 30 years ago.
The videos were embraced by parents, home schoolers and users around the world. About a third of the visits are from outside the United States, he said.
But Khan was surprised to get a query last year from a board member of the Los Altos School District. "We just assumed they wouldn't want to work with us, but they asked all the right questions.
"As soon as we started working with them, we found they were better run than most for-profit companies. (Bureaucratic) issues with the firewall were changed in half a day."
Los Altos uses Khan in what it calls a "hybrid learning model" in which students spend part of every math class working through new material at their own pace. Khan generates a data "dashboard," so at any moment the teacher can see how each student is progressing, or where some are stuck.
"Los Altos was willing to do something fairly radical," Khan said. "We didn't have to change what we were doing for that. I've got to give them a lot of credit."
Khan's finance and computer-science background particularly focuses him on "analytics"— using student-generated data to guide the user's experience and find the appropriate next step.
A student's results are available to authorized parents, teachers or tutors, allowing them to monitor progress and pinpoint strengths and trouble spots.
Khan's reluctance to form a for-profit enterprise appears connected to a spoken fear of "jinxing" the magic, and his evolving vision for the future.
Khan said he feels better every day about the decision to stay nonprofit. "When I'm 80 I want to feel that I helped give access to a world-class education to billions of students around the world," he said on his website.
"I already have a beautiful wife, a hilarious son (he recently went on a second paternity leave), two Hondas and a decent house.
"What else does a man need?"