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Salman Khan visits Rice, talks origins of Khan Academy

By Jim Zhang     3/5/19 11:23pm

Salman “Sal” Khan, founder of the online education non-profit Khan Academy, told the story of Khan Academy, which included a surprise donation from a Rice alumna, as part of the Rice University President’s Lecture Series.

According to a survey sent out by the university prior to the lecture, over 78 percent of Rice students who responded have used Khan Academy sometime in their educational career. Of the 78 percent, 95 percent of students found it useful. Leebron said that he believes all students owe a great debt of gratitude to Khan, who gives a “great sense of optimism for the future of education.”

The origin story

Khan began his talk by addressing Khan Academy’s reputation as a tutorial service, emphasizing its growth throughout the years to expand beyond simple YouTube videos.

According to Khan, the organization began in 2004 while he was working as an analyst in an investment firm after he offered to tutor his young cousin in math. 

According to Khan, more and more family members began asking for assistance, so he began posting his videos online through YouTube.

“I found myself everyday after work trying to help them with math, science and whatever else,” Khan said. “And I saw a pretty consistent pattern … they were struggling not because they weren’t able to learn it, it was because they had gaps from fifth grade, sixth grade or seventh grade.”

At this point, Khan was still working as a hedge fund analyst, but increasing support for his videos led to him considering managing Khan Academy full-time.

“I really let myself dream, and I sat down with my wife — we were saving money to buy a house … but it felt like ‘Hey, let’s just give it a shot,’” Khan said. “So I took the plunge. You have to start with delusional optimism.”

But, as Khan said, leaving his job to start a non-profit proved to be taxing.

“It was incredibly stressful,” Khan said. “I would literally wake up in the middle of the night and think ‘What have I done? My career, my family …’ It was a tough time.”

Khan recalled how, at times, he nearly felt compelled to return to his former career until he received a sudden $10,000 donation from Rice University alumna Ann Doerr (Jones ‘75). Doerr soon invited Khan for lunch, asking about his long-term plans for the non-profit.

“So I said: A free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere,” Khan said. “And Ann said, ‘That’s ambitious.’”

Following their meal on his drive home, Khan received another donation from Doerr. The donation was accompanied by a text, according to Khan, which read: “You really need to be supporting yourself. I’ve just wired you $100,000.”

“So that was a good day.” Khan said. “It was the beginning of a whole series of crazier and crazier — in a very positive sense — of events.”

Present and future

Khan said he does not intend for Khan Academy to ever replace face-to-face education.

“[But] it can liberate the physical classroom to do more interactivity, to do more simulations, Socratic dialogue, peer-to-peer tutoring,” Khan said.

Khan then explained his views on the current, traditional model of education, noting it can be unaccommodating in resolving small, but potentially fundamental gaps in knowledge.

“Even though we can identify those gaps, the whole class is forced to move on to the next concept,” Khan said. “But those gaps keep accumulating as you’re pushed ahead in the system.”

Khan concluded by expressing his hope for a more adaptive, accessible approach to education for students moving forward.

“You allow people to tap into their potential,” Khan said. “And bigger and bigger and more and more positive things will come about.” 

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