Sal Khan Just Answered These 30 Big Questions

Sal Khan is answering just about any question asked of him right now on Reddit. There’s no word on how long he’ll be there but I’m guessing it won’t be for much longer.More importantly, he’s shared some stunning new information on Khan Academy. – 4:30pm EST 12/28/11

Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, took part in an ‘Ask Me Anything‘ also known as an AMA on Reddit today. He answered a ton of questions and I’ve picked out a few of the ones that I thought you might be most interested in.

Be sure to head over to the AMA to view the full conversation. The layout of Reddit can be a bit confusing so here’s a tip: just scroll until you see Sal Khan’s name in blue. That means he answered a question (which will be right above the answer.) I’ve embedded the 30 biggest questions below on this page in a more readable format as well as pulled out a few key takeaways from the Q+A:

Key Takeaways

  • Khan Academy is now seeing an incredible 4 million unique users per month. That’s up from 1 million in the same period last year, and up from 3.5 million in October. Think Edudemic will hit that mark? ;)
  • Thanks to the AMA, Khan may team up with Michael Nielsen to help the world get a better understanding of quantum computation.
  • Khan is a big fan (and graduate) of MIT and MITx. He thinks it’s the future of education. More on that below in the questions.
  • The Khan Academy team is currently 22 people strong and they’re hiring ~1 more per month.

Questions & Answers

How fast is Khan Academy catching on? Are there plans to expand / increase the developers of the program?
We’ve had roughly 4 million unique users this past month. Was 1 million this time last year. Our team is now 22 people and we are hiring about 1 person per month. Most of the expansion is on the software engineering side, but we are also adding a few other video producers.

What do you think it will take to fully disrupt the education space?
I think this will happen sooner than later. MIT’s MITx project might provide those credentials.

What made you switch from being a hedge fund analyst to, as you say, doing something of “social value”? Thanks for your videos, your work is truly revolutionary and exactly what the education system needs.
I sometimes make fun of my old career, but it was very intellectually challenging and I worked with some very impressive/smart/nice people. Intellectually, it wasn’t so different than making videos (had to learn about and develop ideas about many, many different aspects of the world). In the end, the videos were just more satisfying (and I get to learn about even more things!). Whenever I am confronted with a major decision like this, I think “what would the protagonist in a sci-book do?”

What awesome future plans are in the works?
The first videos took almost no time to prepare for since I thought they were only for my cousins :) It is probably obvious from the quality… The videos take very few people, but we have a team of 22 working on our site (and working with schools to improve the experience)

What is the academic subject you know the least about?
Too many to list. Could start with French Lit.

What subjects do you plan on teaching in the future?
Planning on doing micro/macroeconomics in January. Computer science and accounting are also in the pipeline.

Where do you see Khan Academy fitting in the context of a person’s complete education?
We are still trying to fully figure out the implications of what we’re doing. I do think that the traditional MODEL needs to change. I also think that the model we’ve been experimenting with makes the teacher more important, not less. I try my best to make things about intuition and real understanding rather than pattern-matching or memorization. I see us as a tool to liberate class time to focus on more creative activities. In the ideal world, the Khan Academy will progress to the point that you can get a deep understanding of most topics independently and “school” will be a physical place and support network that helps you explore and apply what you know (build robots, start businesses, write a book)

What do you think of MIT’s new online course system, especially given that you’re the commencement speaker there?
Depending on how they execute on the vision,MITx is a much bigger deal than most people realize. Signals that MIT is moving away from large lectures and towards even more self-paced, project-based learning. The fact that anyone will be able to get an MITx credential for very little could send a shockwave through higher education. It sounds like it will be at a very rigorous standard so it probably won’t be for everyone. I see our role at the KA as getting as many people as possible to the point that they can benefit from something like MITx. Between OpenCourseWare and MITx, very proud to be an alumnus.

If you could reform public education, what would you do?
Talk about some ideas at: I think it won’t be done with top-down government policies though. I believe that when a critical mass of parents and students see other students doing amazing things with their time, the change will happen from the ground up.

How would you compare the value of in person lectures to that of online learning?
In person conversations can be hugely valuable. I was a big fan of the case method in business school. A one-way lecture in a large hall can sometimes be appropriate for the shared experience, especially if it is more focused on inspiration and big ideas rather than dense material. I, personally, like to get my head around a subject (through books, videos, websites, etc.) before I engage in real-time with people. I never asked questions in class for fear of looking silly or holding everyone else up. Always figured I should try to get my question answered offline with the book or by asking a friend.

Hi there Sal, I’m a student in a terribly bureacratic city school system. One of the biggest problems I see is that many inner city students simply don’t care or are apathetic. Do you have any suggestions on how we can motivate them to learn (and enjoy it too) so that they can ‘make the curve’?
Hard question and I don’t claim to know the answer. We are trying to experiment with some inner city charter schools and the results seem to be good (to early to make any definitive statement). I think giving the student ownership of their learning and not forcing them through content that frustrates them is a first step, but, by no means, is a complete solution.

Do you ever think about what you’ve achieved with Khan Academy in the short amount of time its been around, and if so how does it make you feel, do you feel like you have a legacy?
It has been strange in a good way. I try not to think about things like “legacies”. We’re still a young organization and I don’t want to be complacent. Most important thing is that we put our head down and keep making/improving things.

How do you decide which topics to cover?
Some combination of need and my personal interest. Need could come from a really popular subject that a lot of people have trouble with (like organic chemistry) or a narrower subject where there aren’t good explanations out there (like credit default swaps)

What or who inspired you most to take so much time to do something so significant?
For me, it started very incrementally. I always hoped that it would be “significant” to many people, but what convinced me to keep going was the positive feedback from cousins and the early people who bumped into the videos on YouTube. Figured it was worth doing even if it just helped out a handful of people. Everything else is gravy :)

Which subject did you enjoy teaching the most?
I know it might sound cheesy, but I get a kick out of all of them. I won’t make a video on a topic unless I think there is something interesting about it and I enjoy it. The reality is that most things are really interesting if you look at it the right way.

When do you plan on making more advanced videos like quantum mechanics, general relativity and more advanced mathematics?
We do want to do those topics eventually. It might be me or it might be a traditional expert in the field. I will definitely do much more advanced mathematics in the next year than what we have now.

What made you study for so many degrees? (Three from MIT and an MBA from Harvard!)
MIT let you take as many courses as you wanted for the same tuition. I was the hungry kid at the all-you-can-eat buffet :) My prime motivation for going back to Boston in 2001 to get an MBA was to find a wife (and it worked). Silicon Valley in the late 1990s was not a great place to be a young single guy. My secondary motivation was to broaden my experiences and allow me to think about what I really wanted to do longer term (I did end up changing careers).

I passed statistics and chemistry thanks to your videos. I appreciate you so much! So, here’s a question. On average, how long does it take for you to create one of your tutorial videos?
Depends on the video. If I do an example problem in, say, algebra, I don’t do any prep so it takes me about 10 minutes. If I am thinking about introducing a complex topic that I already know well, I think about it on my walk to work so it may be 30 mins -1 hour total. If it is a topic that I need to brush up on, it might be half a day. When I did organic chemistry, I spent 2 weeks immersing myself in the subject before making the first video.

Where has your site had the biggest impact? Are you seeing much use from developing nations? Can you share your best success story?
We’ve gotten some pretty powerful testimonials. We’ve also been seeing good results in the schools using it in Los Altos.

When recording your lectures do you have a particular student you’ve made in your mind that you are talking to? Does that student change depending on the videos difficulty or message? (I know it used to be your family but has it changed now that you have a much larger audience?)
I try to think of myself before I knew the topic. I try to think of what confused me.

How much preparation goes into the lecture in terms of research? Do you have notes with you as you lecture? Do you consult people for certain subjects?
Depends on the video. Some require no research, some I spend a few hours on. I do, every now and then, ping a friend to get clarification on some edge-case.

Who were your favorite teachers when you were growing up and why?
Mrs. Roussell – elementary school GT/Art teacher. First teacher who expected us to be creative rather than just following directions. She was hilarious too. Mrs. Ellis – 5th grade social studies teacher – treated us 5th graders like we were grad students. Ran her class like a good college seminar. Really treated us as equals and listened to what we said. Mr. Hernandez – high school math teacher – Advisor for the math club. Once again, treated students as an equal and expected a lot from them. Mrs. Kennedy – high school journalism – Once again, more like a mentor or experienced adviser for those of us on the newspaper. Felt like we were on the same team. Really smart and witty too.

How do I get my kids to enjoy learning about math and science? My husband and I always struggled with these subjects so we have no interest in them and are not proficient in them at all. We don’t want our kids to have that same struggle. Advice?
You and your husband should rediscover math and science for yourselves (and I know a good website for this :) ). If you both do it, it will change the conversation at the dinner table!

If you had the opportunity to talk to the president about the education system what would be the one thing you wish he would understand most?
That high school and college degrees are not ends by themselves. They are supposed to be means to an end and that end is a happy and productive life.

Could you cite examples of foreign education systems which you think the U.S. should mimic?
No. I actually think the U.S. is no worse than any comparable country (think about any similarly diverse and large country). The US does have major problems with the education system, but at least the culture of the country is one that promotes creativity and entrepreneurship better than any place that I know of. I would make the US Education system more American (promoting creativity, ownership of learning, and independence) and less Prussian (moving together in an assembly line).

Who are a few people who you respect greatly in terms or character or achievement?
Mark Twain. Muhammad Yunus. Bill Cosby. Richard Feynman. Bill Gates (regardless of how you feel about Microsoft, he has redefined philanthropy and is directly saving a ridiculous number of lives. He’s also amazingly smart and down to earth) .

Would you ever seek a government position involved in education such as Secretary of Education?
No. I would feel helpless sitting on top of a bureaucracy. Would want to make videos or work with team on the software rather than sit in meeting or pass legislation.

In the future where you would like video lectures to be the primary source of receiving the information who would you like to see making certain videos? Who would you like making the videos on quantum mechanics for example? Do you think the videos could benefit from having teams write them?
Definitely never want teams writing or scripting videos. Would ruin in the connection with the student. I’ve spoken to a few interesting people about quantum physics. I think Bill Cosby would be an amazing teacher.

You’ve shown the world how the teaching of math, science, and a little bit of history can be changed for the better. Do you have ideas on how the teaching of english (or the native tongue of where ever these videos are watched) and foreign language could be altered in a similar manner?
We’ll experiment with language. Not sure what approach will work best.

Your favorite book? Movie?
Books: Confederacy of Dunces, Catcher in the Rye, Dune, Ender’s Game (the entire series), Foundation Series, Lord of the Rings, Childhood’s End (Arthur C. Clarke), Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Courth (Twain), Tale of Two Cities, Pride and Prejudice.
Movies: Gandhi (try to watch it once a year), Star Wars.