With everything that has happened recently in our world, with the COVID pandemic having the biggest impact, learning online has become ever more common. Brick and mortar universities and schools turned into Zoom universities and schools over night. But this turn to online education was not a first for learning; if anything, these concrete buildings were one of the last places to enter the online scene.
One of the first places most think of for online learning is YouTube videos, more specifically Khan Academy videos, created by the organization founded by Salman or Sal Khan, a former hedge fund analysts who gave it all up to education. Khan Academy has been creating simple and easy to read videos, showcasing topics from basic math to test prep for the SAT. But their wide range of videos didn’t happen over night. They were created over decades.1
This learning website started out with one teacher and one tutee, and it was a family-driven story. Salman Khan met his first future tutee, Nadia, his niece, at his wedding in 2004. Nadia was a focused twelve-year-old who had just experienced her first big educational setback. She had just failed her sixth grade math placement test. Khan was surprised to hear something like this happening to Nadia; he thought she would probably have a mathematically-heavy career, such as becoming a computer scientist.2 Nadia’s problem-solving abilities excelled while she and Khan would often do brain teasers together to pass the time. They would break down the riddles and problems that would leave top interviewees shaking in their boots.3
Being educated through the traditional U.S. educational system, Khan understood that this failed test meant that Nadia would be put into a remedial math class, which would be a class far below her level. This placement meant that she couldn’t take algebra when she was in eighth grade, nor calculus in twelfth grade, creating a slope downward to Nadia’s wasted potential. A failed test is just that, failed. Was there anything that could be done? Nadia’s mother didn’t think there was an answer to help Nadia get back on track to be as successful as possible. But her mother had the same thoughts as Khan did, and was distraught thinking about her daughter’s future. She thought, “How will this one single test score impact how my daughter will go through life? What can I do? How do I help her succeed?”4
After Khan’s wedding, Nadia’s family went to visit him in Boston, where he worked as a hedge fund analyst. During the visit to Boston, Sal Khan and Nadia’s mother discussed and pondered, “What can we do to help Nadia and how can she be put onto the right educational track?” Sal Khan wondered, “What if the test could be retaken?” The ability to retake the test would mean that there could be another chance to pass, and another chance to prove that Nadia truly understood the subjects better than the original test showed.5 They sent an email to the school, and the school gave the ok for Nadia to retake the placement test, but only under one condition. Nadia needed to get a tutor for math and be able to show improvement before retaking the test. Khan made a rash offer, saying that he would tutor Nadia remotely from her home in New Orleans from his apartment in Boston. He had never tutored anyone before, especially being a hedge fund analyst. This rash offer made Nadia, the first tutee, the first person to be part of the unofficial, yet-to-be-named, Khan Academy.
Khan Academy didn’t originally start on YouTube. It started with a pair of drawing tablets, the online program Yahoo Doodle, and a simple telephone call. Nadia learned about math and Khan learned about how teaching works. The first week was full of many learning curves, from learning different mathematical unit conversions to the biggest one, which was a revelation on Sal Khan’s part.6 He realized that teachers are a stressful part of the classroom for students. For teachers, the relationship between them and the student is a helpful one but on the students’ end, the relationship is completely different. The students feel pressured to give a correct answer immediately after the question is asked. This is a terrifying feeling for a struggling student, not knowing the answer but still expecting to get the correct answer over a topic that isn’t understood.7
By the end of the first week, Khan explained to Nadia in a bout of frustration, “Nadia, I know you are smart. I am not judging you. But we are changing the rules here. You’re no longer allowed to guess, and you’re not allowed to give me wishy-washy answers…Either give me a definite, confident answer or say ‘Sal, I don’t understand. Please go over it again.’ …I won’t think less of you for asking questions or wanting something repeated. Okay?”8
The conversation that followed changed the tone of how the rest of the tutoring sessions went. Nadia finally had the Aha! moment of learning. The mathematical unit conversions that had Nadia stuck and confused were solved easily without issue. Her confidence with math was growing with each session completed. She was on her way to passing her math placement with high marks. Nadia’s mother took note of her success and asked Khan if he would be willing to take on two more students, Nadia’s younger brothers, Arman and Ali. The pair of brothers also struggled with math and could use a helping hand in their studies.9 Nadia finally took her math placement after hours of hard work with Sal Khan and their drawing tablets. She passed with flying colors.10 The Academy’s first successful student, one of many to come.
Once the word got around about Sal Khan’s success working with Nadia, more of Sal Khan’s friends and family wanted to have their children join in on the tutoring sessions. Soon, Khan had around fifteen students under his wing who were all performing at or above their grade level in math. The method that Nadia and Khan used with Yahoo Doodle and a phone call were getting harder and harder to manage with the number of students now learning from Khan. Even with having three or four students on a phone call to teach a lesson, the logistics of it were ineffective to having a one on one session. How would he have all of his students working on the topics that they needed the most help with?11
Sal Khan figured out that each one of his tutees needed two main things: lessons to learn from, and problems to practice on. He created an online program in 2006 that would give students individualized problems that would change based on what the student got right or wrong.12 This program that Khan created continued to grow throughout the year, tracking each student on what types of topics they missed verses what they knew, essentially creating a map of the swiss cheese-like holes in a student’s learning.13
The second challenge that Khan faced was how to teach and tutor all of the students he currently had. Realistically, he knew in the back of his mind that there was no way he could tutor each one of his tutees to the extent he had tutored Nadia with one on one phone calls. He had to think of something else. What if Sal Khan had taken on too many students? Sal Khan expressed his concern to his friend one evening. As he questioned his abilities, his friend got their gears turning. “What if you made videos of you explaining the math topics on YouTube?” his friend wondered out loud. “Putting math videos? On YouTube? YouTube is for cats playing the piano, not education.” Khan expressed without missing a beat.14 The more Khan thought about the idea of YouTube, the more he grew to like the thought of creating a channel. Making simple videos would be a lot easier than trying to coordinate phone calls with multiple students at once, who all have clashing schedules.
Up until early 2007, Khan Academy had not been more than a simple domain name and some videos used by his friends and family. Through word of mouth, the channel and website had caught the attention of students, parents, and teachers alike. The students used his videos as supplements to the concepts they missed in class. Teachers used the videos Khan made to expose students to particular concepts so that class time could be used to put the concepts into practice.15
The first partnership Khan Academy had with any educational organization was with Peninsula Bridge. This organization was a collection of summer programs run for motivated middle school students who came from underfunded schools to learn over the summer months. The first person Khan talked to about the summer camps was Ryanne Saddler, the site director and US history teacher from one of the schools that hosted the camp. Khan went over his spiel about the videos he created, the self-paced practice problems, and the feedback dashboard at lightning speed during their meeting. Saddler enjoyed listening to Khan explain and talk about his project, but felt that she didn’t have the expertise to fully appreciate it all, being a history teacher hearing about math. She suggested that he explain his project to the rest of the teachers that would be working in the program.16 The meeting with the rest of the Peninsula Bridge team was scheduled for March 15. Khan prepped tirelessly as the date approached. During the meeting with Saddler, she had asked Khan if his program worked on Mac computers. “Of course!” he said, not fully knowing whether the program actually worked on Mac computers. He had never owned a Mac before. After the meeting, he rushed to the store and bought one, recoding and hacking into his new computer to make sure everything worked with his site.17
The day leading up to the big board meeting was nerve-wracking to say the least. Without Khan’s knowledge, his domain name khanacademy.org, renewed on the same day. This normally wouldn’t have been a problem, but the credit card used to renew the domain had expired. The website was wiped from the internet and held captive behind a paywall. This realization that the website was gone had a strange impact on him. He wasn’t nervous anymore. What gave him the big idea that a small handcrafted website, that was now gone temporarily, could change the way people learned? He thought he stood no chance, coming into his first major meeting about his website with not a single webpage or program to show for the hours put into the site.18
Khan walked into the board meeting with his old-fashioned PowerPoint and YouTube videos in tow to present to his first large group of educators. The board meeting had many different people, including Khan’s first contact, Ryanne Saddler.19 During his explanation, she had him show the group the video over basic addition. Khan thought that the video on basic addition was clunky and awkward. He cringed at his own voice as he drew a number line, counting out loud as he went to solve the problem.20 Even with his clunky video showcase, the board agreed that the use of his website and videos would help students with math. This was a big step for the Academy. The ground rules were soon made about how Khan Academy would be used on the three campuses that already used online videos. Khan’s videos would be an addition to what they were already using and would only be allowed to be watched during the computer time during the camp.21
The next big discussion was over which grade level to start the students’ learning at. Most of the students were middle school students behind for their grade level. “They don’t need to start at the bare bones, basic materials…” Khan thought to himself. He suggested that they start the students off at a 5th grade level. Most of the teachers agreed, but a couple believed that students would benefit from starting at the very beginning and work their way up. The group decided that they would do both, some classes starting from the very beginning and other classes from a 5th grade level, recording the progression of each group.22
The camp soon started and the experiment began. As the camp progressed, so did the students. Two interesting discoveries were made with the progress of the two groups. The first assumption was that the students who started from the beginning would excel through the basic math skills like addition. The classes that started from the beginning had a few students who did struggle on the basics, like two digit subtraction and multiplication times tables. Khan’s second assumption was that the classes who started at the 5th grade level would excel far beyond the classes who started with a lower grade level. This turned out not to be the case. The 5th grade starting group stalled in their learning at around 6th and 7th grade concepts. The head start classes couldn’t progress any further while the base level classes could excel past their grade level learning. The teachers at Peninsula Bridge and Khan both came to the same realization.23 “The time spent finding and fixing the gaps turned out both to save time and deepen learning in the longer term.”24 The rest of the summer went smoothly and the little website and videos grew and changed. The function of being able to find out when a student was “stuck” on a concept was added into the program at the request of one of the teachers running the camp.25 Over all, everything was a success.
The success of the Academy made it’s impact stronger. By 2009, tens of thousands of students were watching the educational videos and using the website. The growth got to the point where Khan had to stop new users from signing up so that the current users could use the site without it crashing. This was an insane feat that Khan never considered when he created the website three years prior for his ten or so family members. The success continued into August that same year. Khan Academy was chosen by the Technology Museum of San Jose as a finalist for their major award.26
These milestones that Khan Academy had achieved got the gears in Khan’s head turning. The more he created and taught, the more he thought about his bread-winning job as a hedge fund analyst. Khan realized that he didn’t want to organize investors and track the stock market in his nine to five anymore; he wanted to invest into the students he was teaching. Khan started saving his pennies so that he could quit his job in the late summer of 2009 and focus on his quickly growing project that would turn into Khan Academy brand and website.27
With Khan finally handing in his two weeks notice with his investment company, his passion-project was morphing into a tangible job. But there was one major issue with going full time with Khan Academy. Khan, his family, and website were living and running through his savings account. The first few months were a struggle. Finding sponsors proved to be harder than Khan thought. Sponsors and foundations were scared to put their money into something that had never been funded before. “Well this sounds exciting, but how come no one else has given you money?”28 By month four of living out of savings, Khan and his wife started to panic. With the savings dwindling and having a toddler, not having a stable income became stressful. “What are we going to do if I don’t get some sort of money coming in from Khan Academy?”29
Hope soon came when Google invited him to talk about Khan Academy in January 2010. A few of the senior engineers and executives had been using the site with their children and wanted to know more about the program. The first meeting went well, the members were intrigued by Khan’s explanation of what he built, the data he had collected, and how he would use the data to make the site better. Even with the interest of the company, nothing really came of the meeting. A few weeks later, Google invited Khan for a second meeting. The second meeting Khan had with Google was interesting. They had asked Khan to write a proposal over what he would do with $2 million. Two million dollars is a lot, especially for Khan Academy having only a spending total of around $2000 for the span of the website’s life. “What could I do with $2 million?” Khan wondered to himself. He wrote about how he would hire an engineering team to upgrade his website and different stats about the students he could reach with all of the videos he was creating. Khan sent in his proposal and waited. He waited for the next few months with a couple reassurances about how Google was looking into his proposal. These few assurances didn’t pay his bills. “What did I say? What did I write that made Google question my abilities so much?” There was nothing Khan could do but wait. Defeated, Khan was on the job hunt since pulling out of saving was no longer an option by the end of April.30
Bing! An email popped up on his computer mid April during Khan’s job hunt, “I am a big fan!” Instantly intrigued by the subject line, Khan opened the email. The name wasn’t recognized by Khan while reading the email. Ann Doerr was asking Khan for an address she could send the Academy a donation. This question wasn’t shocking to Khan, people in the past have donated anywhere from a dollar to a hundred at a time via PayPal. This simple request felt different. A few weeks later, a letter and a check for $10,000 arrived by mail from Ann Doerr. “Who was this, Ann Doerr person?” Puzzled, a speedy Google search told Khan that her husband, John Doerr was a venture capitalist. This donation was huge, not only for the website but for Khan’s family. He quickly wrote Ann Doerr an email thanking her for her incredible support. Doerr replied to Khan asking to meet up sometime over lunch if possible.31
They agreed to meet in downtown Palo Alto in May. Over lunch, they talked and discussed what Khan Academy could become. What is the true potential of the Academy and how many people could it help? “What about you and your family, Sal? How are you supporting yourself?” Doerr asked Khan. This question hit a little too close to home for Khan. “I’m not; we’re living off of savings.” He answered, keeping his voice in check. Doerr pondered for a minute and switched conversation. The lunch soon ended, phone numbers were exchanged, and both went separate ways.32
Ding! Ding! Ding! Khan’s phone chimed as he was parking at home after the luncheon. “You need to support yourself. I am sending a check for $100,000 right now,” read the text from Doerr. $100,000?! Khan thought, almost crashing into his home.33 This donation by Ann Doerr was the first large scale donation given to Khan and to Khan Academy. With this money, he could now support himself, his family, and his website. Khan was on the road to hire more people to help run the site, make videos, and expand on more subjects than just math.
Just as quickly as Khan got his first large backer, other donations, and the press, followed. Roughly two months later, he got a weirdly-worded text from Ann Doerr. “At Aspen…hundreds of people…” “Bill Gates onstage, talking about you.” As Khan read the texts, he booted one of the students at the summer camp off a computer to see if her texts were true. They were true. Bill Gates talked about his site, praising it because of how useful it was while helping his child with homework. Soon after the Aspen conference, Gates met up with Khan and awarded him a grant for $1.5 million to hire his first team with an office space. Google also awarded Khan the $2 million to build out his library of videos and to get his videos translated into the top ten languages spoken around the world. From then on, the Academy continued to grow and grow.34
Today, Khan Academy is supporting more than 36 languages and has a growing team of 150 people that help create the videos and run the backend of the website.35 In addition to the website, the YouTube channel has over 7 million subscribers and over eight thousand videos from the start of the channel in 2006.36 Khan Academy is backed by many organizations including Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, AT&T, and Google.37