In 2004, high-school-age cousins living 1,500 miles from his Boston home) were begging hedge-fund employee Sal Khan for help on their math homework. In response he began doing online tutoring, and then taping short instructive videos in a closet of his house, which he posted on YouTube for his family members to work their way through. Once public, anyone could look at them. Before long hundreds of thousands of people were. Khan has a gift for calmly and quickly getting to the nub of technical instruction, and then explaining problem-solving methods in clear, simple language. As the audience for his video lessons exploded, Khan decided to quit his job at the hedge fund and give himself a year to see if he could create “Khan Academy” as a viable educational nonprofit providing instruction on a wide range of topics.
A few months into the experiment, he was burning through $5,000 a month of personal savings to support his family, and feeling stressed. Then he received an unsolicited $10,000 donation from Ann Doerr, wife of prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist and donor John Doerr. A friend’s child had been helped by Khan Academy videos and she was intrigued. She and Khan met for lunch; she later gave him $100,000 to stay afloat. Two months after that meeting, Doerr sent Khan a text saying she was sitting in a session at the Aspen Ideas Festival and Bill Gates was lauding his online instructional videos in a speech. It turned out the Gates children were also improving their math skills with the free Khan videos. Barely a year after Khan quit his hedge-fund job, the Gates Foundation invested $1.5 million to expand operation of the Khan Academy, followed not long after by another $4 million donation. Google awarded $2 million to translate content into ten languages and create additional practice problem sets.
There are now efforts to fold Khan Academy materials directly into the instructional process at a few pilot schools. Khan Academy is being used by homeschoolers, by students seeking extra help, and by adults brushing up on old skills. Its instructional videos have been viewed more than 580 million times. The organization’s self-described mission is “to provide a world-class education for anyone, anywhere, for free.”
- Philanthropy Roundtable conversation with Sal Khan, philanthropyroundtable.org/
- Laura Vanderkam, Blended Learning, (The Philanthropy Roundtable, 2013) pp. 47-48