Khan Academy Founder: Online Education Can’t Replace Face-to-Face Learning

Sal Khan

Eight years after Salman Khan started posting math tutorials on YouTube from a closet in his home, his online Khan Academy draws more than 10 million global viewers each month with free videos on everything from trigonometry to art history. With many companies looking to cash in on virtual education, the website stands out for its non-profit model, scoring backing from Bill Gates and inspiring Time to name Khan one of its 100 Most Influential People in 2012. The former hedge fund analyst has collaborated with Bank of America on, a site that provides basic financial education; a new test-prep partnership with the College Board aims to level the playing field for SAT takers. Khan visited Las Vegas on Monday to give a keynote address at the Western Association of College and University Business Officers conference, in which he shared his thoughts on the future of education. 

On the benefits of students working on their own timetables:

In a system like [Khan Academy], the student is in charge; they say, “This is my goal,” and they use their resources to achieve it. The teacher is one of those resources. It’s no longer an antagonistic relationship. By letting them take ownership of their learning, now they’re learning one of the most important skills in life.

On the limitations of online learning:

I never imagined that the virtual would be a replacement for the physical. If a student can get the lecture at their own pace, you don’t have to have lecture in the classroom anymore. It frees up class time for more interaction, more dialogue … more deep experiences. What I want for my children is a physical school where they have amazing teachers who mentor them, but where they’re able to learn at their own pace.

On shaking up higher education:

I don’t see any reason why there should be a 300-person lecture hall anymore … The University of Waterloo, they’re like Canada’s MIT, and they’re doing two-thirds [time] internships and one-third in the classroom. You go to Silicon Valley right now—Google, Facebook—and all of the interns are from Waterloo. A lot of them graduate with savings instead of debt.

On girls and computers:

I view computer science as kind of the fourth R. We’ve been thinking about how we introduce it, we say, to all girls and the other 95 percent of boys. We really want to emphasize the creative side of computer science. We are seeing girls are getting more engaged in it, and there’s still a long way to go.

On standardized testing:

You definitely have to have tests to measure where things are and how they can improve. But as soon as you use it as a stick and put fear into it, the quality of teaching is going to go down. The teachers are just going to say, ‘Let’s just do test prep,’ and the student is less likely to learn anything.

On the big picture:

We’re clearly at this inflection point in history [with the rise of the internet] … possibly the biggest inflection point so far. One of my dreams is that over the next 5, 10, 20 years we can take this thing, education, which has been a fundamental determinant between the haves and the have nots, and make it a fundamental human right.

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