Monday, August 10, 2020

Out of the Crisis #18: Sal Khan on institution building, solving the digital divide, and education as the lever for all decisions

"It was delusional for a guy operating in a walk-in closet, but I was like, 'You live once, you might as well swing for the fences.'" That's the impulse that led Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, to believe he might someday be able to turn the not-for-profit online learning platform into a world-shaping institution along the lines of the Smithsonian or Oxford. Even before the pandemic, it reached 20 million students all over the world every month, who engaged in 30 million minutes of learning per day. Now, with remote learning as the new norm, those numbers have tripled.

As an entrepreneur, Sal has always believed in thinking long-term. And when it comes to education, he sees the value in that approach even more clearly. As he told me, "The underlying lever for everything is education, and not enough people are thinking on large time horizons. Most people, they're not even thinking in their lifetime. There's probably things you could do in the world if you have a framework of even hundreds of years, much less thousands or tens of thousands of years."

Sal has made it Khan Academy's mission to envision a world where everyone has the ability to access free, personalized mastery learning, and he measures the value of his work purely in those terms. "I think any entrepreneur has this delusional optimism that surely the world will recognize how valuable this is," he says. "This was a social venture, but that the social return on investment is through the roof."

We talked about why he chose to make the organization not-for-profit, the duty to serve, closing the education gap, not being bound by time and space and many other things.

You can listen to our conversation on Apple, Google, or wherever you like to download podcasts.


There's also a full transcript beneath the show resources below.

Highlights from the show:

  • Sal introduces himself and talks about his quarantine set-up (2:44)
  • The strange silver linings of staying at home (3:45)
  • When the pandemic came on Sal and Khan Academy's radar screen (5:54)
  • Khan Academy's three pillars (7:42)
  • Coming up with Khan Academy's daily schedule as stay-at-home and work-at-home swept the country (9:02)
  • Operating as a not for profit (11:02)
  • How Sal became the founder of an education movement (13:19)
  • Being a "tiger cousin" to 12 year-old Nadia (15:33)
  • The Khan Academy MVP (17:17)
  • Starting a not-profit while working at a hedge fund, when there was massive potential for profit (20:00)
  • Thinking long-term about education (21:55)
  • The benevolent aliens helping Khan Academy (24:52)
  • What it was like when the pandemic drove up costs and also impact (26:10)
  • The duty to step up (27:11)
  • The hard work of accelerating during a pandemic (28:58)
  • How Sal thinks the education system needs to change (30:38)
  • The challenges and opportunities that have become apparent post-COVID (32:42)
  • Mastery learning and Bloom's 2 Sigma Problem (33:41)
  • Partnering with Duck Duck Moose to close the education gap (37:14)
  • What it will take to launch a new education paradigm post-pandemic (39:40)
  • Khan Academy's "Getting Ready For" programs (41:29)
  • Preventing wide-scale knowledge loss (44:13)
  • The Diamond Age (46:10)
  • Building institutions (47:58)
  • John Rawls's Veil of Ignorance (49:43)
  • Sal's advice for parents (50:59)
  • What Sal has learned during the pandemic (52:52)
  • Solving the digital divide and keeping an open mind (54:48)

Show-related resources:

Transcript for Out of the Crisis #18: Sal Khan

Eric Ries: This is Out of the Crisis. My name is Eric Ries.

Overnight, we became a nation of homeschoolers. Listen, homeschooling has its benefits. Mastery education, for example, has two sigmas better educational outcomes than teaching in a classroom, but schools provide more than just education. Parents and families rely on schools for so many social services. So, this transition has been incredibly hard for working families, especially all over the world.

Like with so many other examples, the crisis is exposing the underlying issues in our society. A quality education for our children in a safe and secure space shouldn't be impossible to achieve. It's not a pipe dream. It should be our everyday reality. We need to use this moment to reimagine our education system. Sal Khan may be the most famous educator in the world. When he first started producing online educational videos, he never intended to turn it into a business. In fact, all he was trying to do was teach his niece and nephew in a way that could supplement what they were learning at school. This initial experiment turned into Khan Academy, a nonprofit organization with the mission of providing a free, world-class education for anyone anywhere.

Khan Academy was successful before, but in the crisis, it has turned into a vital resource. Their usage jumped 250% in a matter of days, and they are now serving over 100 million students. They've launched tons of new resources in this crisis and were one of the founding members of the Coalition. Entire districts had to switch to Khan Academy overnight. They've provided weekly math learning plans, daily schedules, webinars for teachers, webinars for parents. Five thousand parents signed up for the first one, and office hours for teachers who are navigating this new online reality.

But Sal understands that right now, these are stopgap measures. We have to view Khan Academy's experience as a case study in how to bring about systemic change. It is showing us what a new education system could look like, but this crisis is also showing us just how fragile our old systems were. So, let's not waste this opportunity. There are people in the fight right now, who can help us build more resilient, equitable and long-lasting institutions, if we let them. Here's my conversation with Sal Khan.

Sal Khan: My name is Sal Khan. I'm the Founder of Khan Academy. We're not-for-profit with the mission of providing a free, world-class education for anyone anywhere.

Eric Ries: Sal, thanks so much for making time to come on and talk to us. I want to start with just these are dark times, how are you doing? How's your family? What's your quarantine been like?

Sal Khan: Thanks for asking. This is a time where that answer of how you're doing, it's all relative, relative to folks who obviously are dealing with health issues. They're dealing with economic issues. I'm just fine. I'm  actually in the walk-in closet where Khan Academy all started, but it has a window. I'm looking at a nice garden. I have my three kids and I'm actually enjoying the time with them. It gets a little tense in the household every now and then with all of us here, but we have enough space. My wife is able to work part time and do some remote work. My mother in law lives with us. So, I feel reasonably well supported and pretty fortunate in this situation. What about yourself?

Eric Ries: It's definitely been a journey, but we're also very privileged. Our two kids have been thriving in this time. We've really been trying to look at the silver linings of what the pandemic could mean in terms of our family and the educational opportunities that it unlocks, not just what's been taken away. Our kids are young. So, it has been a challenge. I think it's a little bit strange to say that there's positive things that can come out of such a bad thing that's happening in the world. So, we've really tried to focus on that as best we can.

Sal Khan: Yeah, I mean, I actually do feel a little guilt because part of my job normally is, I have to do a reasonable amount of travel, which I really don't like. I enjoy meeting people in other cities, I hate getting on planes.

Eric Ries: I know.

Sal Khan: I've had a little pang of joy every time my trips have been canceled. So, I hate to admit that. I've been taking a lot of my Zoom meetings walking, and I've been sitting under redwood trees in our local park. So, I've been enjoying that as well.

Eric Ries: It is really wild how things that we used to think require travel and they required conferences and they required all this schlep and prep. It's like now incredibly efficient. Just hop on a call, hop on Zoom, and get it done. I remember really vividly maybe in the first week of the Shelter in Place Order, I think even before the schools had officially closed, we had a conversation. It's very vivid in my mind because it was late at night. It was still in the very early days of trying to figure out what is this pandemic going to mean for families and kids and for all of us.

Our tone was very different than where we are now. It felt like a much more of a dire situation. We were still struggling with what was going to come next. But I remember even in that very, very dark moment, you had this very positive vision of you're almost calling it like America's homeroom, a way that we could turn the pandemic into an incredible learning opportunity. Do you want to just talk a little bit about when the pandemic came onto your radar, when you realized it was going to mean a major change for you and not just for your family, but for Khan Academy?

Sal Khan: Sure, it all feels like I'm sure for everybody a lifetime ago now.

Eric Ries: Isn't it? I know.

Sal Khan: If you go back to mid-February, it sounds like the world was very different then, but it was in  mid-February that we started seeing traffic pickup in China and South Korea. Those aren't major geographies for Khan Academy, but we do have users there. There was a South Korean teacher in particular, who started emailing us telling us how he was using Khan Academy to keep his students learning through the school closures there. So, that was the first sign that it kind of dawned on us that, "Oh, we have a role to play in what's going on with this pandemic in Asia at the time." And then you fast forward a couple of weeks, I live here in Santa Clara County in Silicon Valley, which actually I think had one of the first cases or one of the-

Eric Ries: Of community spread, yeah.

Sal Khan:... first cases of community spread. So, it was on our radar pretty fast, like, "Oh, this thing is now in Santa Clara County." People here started talking about things. The first week of March, there was a local private school that had a case of someone's family member coming in touch with that first case of COVID, I believe, so they closed down the school for a couple of days. So, that was the first moment that we said, "This looks like it could be a thing in California." We're in Santa Clara County. We weren't fully thinking about California or the country at that point.

But as you went through that, I think it was either the first or second week in March, the week before you and I had our phone call, every hour, it just became more and more clear that not only Santa Clara County might close as of that Friday or that Monday. I'm on the board of my children's school. We started having a board meeting. Do we close on Thursday? Do we close on Friday? Do we wait until Monday? So, my Khan Academy has said, "It's one of those moments where you look left and you look right, you're like, 'I think this is us.'" None of us could have imagined this circumstance happening. But over the years, Khan Academy, there's been three pillars to our vision.

One is to provide access to anyone who wants to learn, who wants to tap into their potential as early as Pre-K through elementary, middle high school, and college in math and reading and writing and science. We were imagining that this would be for either...We have these stories of kids who are in Taliban-controlled, Afghanistan, and young girls were forbidden from going to school who are using Khan Academy in that way. Obviously, there's a lot of usage in classrooms in the US. So, it's kind of a hybrid learning environment. Half of our usage has always been in classrooms. So, there's always been this notion that we could help learning not be bound by time or space.

Another pillar of our vision was learning could be personalized. All kids can learn at their own time and pace, and what matters is the outcome of do they master the material or not, versus how much time they spent in a chair or where that chair might be. So, all of a sudden, we realized, "Alright, schools might close in the next few days, maybe next week." We had a lot of the materials to keep folks learning, but it's becoming clearer by the hour that most teachers, parents, students, districts were just feeling overwhelmed. They were already worried about the virus. The economic outcome was starting to become a major concern.

And then all of a sudden, you're telling all these parents that you're working from home, if you have a job that you can do from home, your kids are going to be from home. You're expected to somehow, over the next three days, come up with a homeschooling curriculum to keep the learning. So, we said, "What do they need?" First of all, can we structure all of the resources that Khan Academy already has and other things on the internet so that we can help parents and teachers get their legs under them? So, we published these daily schedules. This was really me and a couple of team members on Friday night that weekend.

Eric Ries: I remember.

Sal Khan: I think that might have been the Friday we first chatted, or we were exchanging some emails. We just said, "Okay, if you have students of this age, this is what your day could look like." It includes having your breakfast and getting some outdoor time and doing some yoga. Also, when you do your math and reading and writing. We started running webinars for teachers and parents. It was around that same time that this homeroom idea came out, where it's just like "Everyone is feeling very isolated," especially in that first weekend because it was so jarring, especially with so much uncertainty that was going to happen over the next few weeks.

So, then we said, "Wouldn't it be cool if we just did a daily homeroom where we could just talk about stuff, talk about obviously COVID, talk about education or just talk about random topics?" So, we started that. We've been doing it every day since. But then when the school closures hit... Actually, that week, we're starting to stress test our server saying, "Who knows? We might get two times the usage." But by the end of that first week, when the schools actually did start closing around the world, especially in the US, we saw our traffic at about 300% of normal, has been varying between about 200 and 300%. Ever since, the registrations have been 5 to 10X of normal depending on the day. So, it's been a wild ride.

Eric Ries: It's a total inverse of anyone who's in the travel business or in a business that is really being shuttered by the pandemic and the shutdown.

Sal Khan: Yeah, it's interesting. We've always had this not-for-profit model, which has always been a source of debate. Is this a model by which you can scale? Is this a model by which you can attract talent and capital and all of the standard things? So, you can imagine now, our traffic is 200%, 300% of normal. Our server costs, we're on track to be 200%, 300%. They're almost linear in terms of usage. So, in some ways, for sure our costs have gone up, and we're trying to fast forward all these programs to support people even more. But we love it that our costs are up, because that shows that our impact is that much higher, but it did create pressures for us to-

Eric Ries: Of course.

Sal Khan: ... how do we keep up with the costs of things?

Eric Ries: Well, we'll be sure to include a link to the donations page in our show notes in the hopes that some listeners will be able to help. I want to thank you because I remember, you were one of the very first organizations to sign on to the School Closures Coalition, as we were building the website. I think it was that very weekend when we had those late-night conversations. I remember we had volunteers manning a hotline, as parents were calling in. A lot of them panicked about what to do with their kids. We were rushing to get your sample day by age. I remember we were trying to translate those documents onto the web as fast as we could, and teach our volunteers how to use them.

What I really appreciated was the kind of almost reckless abandon with which you threw yourself into the relief effort at a time when I was still talking to a lot of corporate leaders who were saying, "Well, let's wait and see. I don't know. Maybe it will pass," or "There's not really anything that we can do. We need to wait for the government to fix it." People had a lot of different excuses for why they weren't the ones in particular that were called to do it. First of all, just thank you. But I also wonder if you could kind of go back in time now and talk about your personal journey. How did you wind up running Khan Academy? I remember reading your bio of the many, many things that you did including... Weren't you an intern at PARC? Do I remember that right?

Sal Khan: I was. Very few people know that. At Xerox PARC.

Eric Ries: Yeah, Xerox PARC. If you're in the technology business, that's like sacred ground. So, of course, it caught my eye. I remember reading that in a profile of you once. So, I just wonder if you could talk about your journey. How did you become this unusual founder of this education movement? Maybe then we can kind of connect that to how those kind of... I remember you were talking about how that founder DNA, that founder instinct got reactivated in you as you saw the pandemic crashing all around us.

Sal Khan: Yeah, I'll give the background, but I think there's a general theme, which is when you're doing anything, you have to have obviously a reasonable idea that people need. You have to be able to execute on it well, and then there's timing, but every now and then that door opens. I can't tell you how many times I see people who push against the door when it's closed, but then when the door opens, when the window opens, they're not sprinting through it. No, you’ve got to sprint through it when the world has opened the door, the world has a need that you have a chance of serving.

But if you go back, I kind of fell into this in a fairly random way. Although, if I'm honest, in the back of my mind, I always gravitated into the space of education and human potential, etc. But my original background was in technology. I was a computer science and math major in college. My first job was a Product Manager at Oracle, then I worked at a tech startup called meVC. And then when NASDAQ took a dive, I was two and a half years out of college. I said, "Well, maybe I should apply to business school and take some shelter from the carnage that was going on in the economy." So, I went to business school, and it was interesting. That PARC internship you're talking about, it was actually between my two years of business school.

Eric Ries: Really?

Sal Khan: Yeah. They were trying to figure out how to monetize a lot of the technology that they had. Could they make businesses out of it? So, I kind of spent a summer digging around, looking under rocks, thinking about what their business plan could be written for any of this stuff. But then by my second year, I had a real interest in finance. So, I ended up after business school, working as an analyst at a very small hedge fund. It was really myself and my boss, who was our portfolio manager. We were based in Boston.

And then a year out of school, I was getting married and actually in New Jersey, but my family was visiting me. I showed them around Boston, while they were up. They were coming from New Orleans, which is where I was born and raised. It just came out of conversation that my 12-year-old cousin Nadia was having trouble with math. She had trouble with unit conversion. Because of that, she had bombed a placement exam the previous year, and she was put into kind of a slower math track.

So, I told Nadia, I'm like, "I'm 100% sure you're capable of understanding unit conversion. How about when you go back to New Orleans, I'm happy to get on a phone with you and remotely tutor you if you're up for it?", and she was. So, I started doing that. We just got on the phone. We found Yahoo! Instant Messenger, which was fairly popular instant messaging at the time, had a little thing going-

Eric Ries: Now you're dating yourself a little bit.

Sal Khan: I am dating myself. There was a thing called Yahoo! Doodle where you could actually draw, and other people could see it on the other side. So, we started to draw like math with our mice. And then I got her a little $50 pen tablet, so that we could write a little bit more clearly. But that was our tutoring sessions. Slowly but surely, she got through unit conversion. She got caught up with her class. Frankly, she got a little bit ahead of her class.

At that point, I became what I call a tiger cousin. I called up her school and I said, "I really think Nadia Arman should be able to retake that placement exam from last year." They said, "Who are you?" I said, "I'm her cousin," and they let her. She went from being placed into a remedial math class into an advanced math class. So, I was hooked. It was a fun way to bond with a young cousin across the country. I loved the subject matter. It was a part of my brain that I wasn't using at work. So, I started tutoring her younger brothers. Then word spread around the family that free tutoring was going on.

Eric Ries: Oh, sure, dangerous.

Sal Khan: It was dangerous although I was enjoying it. After about a year, I had about 12, 15 cousins from around the country and a few family friends that I was tutoring. By this point, we had moved out to Northern California. The background in software, I just saw that a lot of my cousins... What was holding them back wasn't some type of an innate ability or that they didn't have good teachers or anything like that. It was more that they just had gaps in their knowledge. They were in an algebra class, but they never really mastered dividing decimals, or they never really mastered negative numbers.

So, I started writing practice software for them, so that it would generate questions for them, and then they could answer them, get immediate feedback. I could track what they were getting wrong or right on a little dashboard that I put together. That was the first Khan Academy. It had nothing to do with videos. It was practice software for my cousins to learn at their own time and pace. It was a friend... By this point, we moved to California out here. ... who said, "Well, why don't you scale your lessons by recording videos and uploading them onto YouTube for your family?" This was in the early days of YouTube. I thought, "No, it's a horrible idea."

At the time, it would be like someone telling you today to use TikTok as an education. I'd be like, "No way, TikTok, it's frivolous." That's how YouTube felt at the time. I said, "This is normally for cats playing piano," but I got over the idea that it wasn't my idea. I gave it a shot. I remember that first video, it took like 15 minutes and then YouTube said, "Nope, you can't upload. It has to be less than 10 minutes." I was like, "How can you make an educational video less than 10?" So, then I did it. I was like, "Oh, that's not so bad." And then, I told my cousins, "Watch this at your own time and pace. It supplements these exercises I've created for you. We can dig deeper on the phone."

And then after about a month, they famously gave me the somewhat backhanded feedback that they like me better on YouTube than in person. I took that as positive feedback, and I kept going. It soon became clear that people who weren't my cousins were watching and were using the software. Actually, so many people were using the software at some point that I have to just shut it down. My $30 a month web hosting was crashing because of it.

You fast forward to about 2009. I frankly had trouble focusing on my day job. There are about 50,000 to 100,000 people depending on the month using it. I was getting letters from around the world, people were saying how they were benefiting from it. In the back of my mind, I was like, "Gee, if it's reaching 50,000 or 100,000 people a day, who knows? Maybe one day, it could reach 500,000 or a million. Do I dare dream 100 million or a billion people?" So, I quit my day job. Khan Academy was set up as a nonprofit with a mission of free, world-class education for anyone anywhere. That's kind of when I tried to make it work. I think any entrepreneur has this delusional optimism that surely the world will recognize how valuable this is. This was a social venture, but that the social return on investment is through the roof.

Eric Ries: Talk about how you decided to make it a social venture. I mean, you've gone to business school. You were hanging out in Silicon Valley, I'm sure many people must have told you, "You’ve got to monetize this. You’ve got to build equity value." I'm not sure what the jargon is. I'm kind of dating myself, trying to remember what the exact jargon would have been. But I got to believe there are a lot of people around you who were excited about the for-profit potential of what you were doing.

Sal Khan: Oh, yeah. I didn't know anyone who had started not-for-profit, I'd never worked in a not-for-profit. All of my friends were either in tech, hedge funds. They were entrepreneurs or they're venture capitalists. A few of them were willing or they introduced me to people who are willing to write a quick check for me to start it as a for-profit. It was intriguing, it was tempting, because then hey, I could work on my passion full time starting tomorrow.

But by meeting two or meeting three, it got a little squirrely. Nothing wrong with for-profit, but especially in something like education where we started saying, "Oh, maybe we do a freemium model. We give this stuff away for free, but the really valuable stuff, we charged for." That just felt a little squirrely to me based on these letters I was getting from people around the world saying how valuable it was for them. For me to imagine if I put a paywall, some of those people would not be able to get that benefit.

I also saw in my hedge fund, my day job, we used to talk to five, six publicly traded companies a day. We saw that many founders had very positive intent of what they want their company to do, sometimes even have a social aspect to it. But as companies grow, as you have more shareholders, especially once they last beyond the founder's influence, you seldom actually see companies that are able to keep that focus on some type of a mission over generation. So, that was my experience in the for-profit world. I just kind of did a thought experiment. I was like, "Let me be a little bit delusional." I've always been a fan of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series where-

Eric Ries: Oh, sure.

Sal Khan:... Hari Seldon collects all of the world's knowledge at the periphery of the Galactic Empire because he saw dark ages coming. He says, "I can shorten the dark ages by having the world's knowledge at the periphery of the galaxy, and that dark ages could shorten from being 10,000 years to 1,000 years." I remember when I read that in middle school, two things really struck me. One was Hari Seldon is right. The underlying lever for everything is education, and not enough people are thinking on large time horizons. Most people, they're not even thinking in their lifetime. They're thinking next quarter, bonus cycle. I was like, "How powerful is that? There's probably things you could do in the world if you have a framework of even hundreds of years, much less thousands or tens of thousands of years."

So, my science fiction nerd hat said, "Maybe Khan Academy could be like the Foundation." Where anyone in the world, wherever you're born, if you just have a low-cost device, you could tap into your potential. It could keep us from being in a dark age or in pockets of the world where there are dark ages, it can still give kids a lifeline. If you imagine the great institutions of the world, the Smithsonian's, the Oxford's, those are all not-for-profits. They all have issues that make them maybe not perfect, but they've done a lot of good for the world.

So, I said, "Well, let me just take that bet. What if Khan Academy could be one of those one day?" It was delusional for a guy operating in a walk-in closet, but I was like, "You live once, you might as well swing for the fences." Everyone who starts a for-profit business, they all dream of being the next Google or Apple.

Eric Ries
: Why not? Why not be delusional?

Sal Khan: Yes, Smithsonian or Oxford and frankly, even at that time, even when I was operating in a walk-in closet, we were serving more kids per year than Oxford serves in their thousand-year history. So, I'm like, "It's not that crazy."

Eric Ries: It's interesting to me how often Hari Seldon comes up talking to entrepreneurs. This is not the first time Foundation and books like that are so powerful. This theme of thinking long term, of course, very near and dear to my heart. But it's precisely because when we talk to people who have that long-term vision... I mean, I was just talking to Brian Chesky. He was talking about how so many of the errors that people make when they do the wrong thing, it's not so much malice, it's wrong time horizon.

When you're trying to optimize for tomorrow or the next quarter, you miss out on these opportunities to think in a bigger and more impactful way. So, I don't think it's crazy at all. I guess maybe I've been around entrepreneurs long enough to find it to be normal. I guess you just have to hope that the mule is not coming-

Sal Khan: Or is somewhat benevolent.

Eric Ries: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So, there's some hiccups that can come.

Sal Khan: I have a narrative that I share with the team and there's whole Slack threads about whether Sal really believes it or not, but that benevolent aliens are helping Khan Academy because we've had a lot of things fall our way that have helped us in this journey. That they're helping Khan Academy because they want us to help prepare humanity for first contact.

Eric Ries: Yeah, I think I saw a movie about that once.

Sal Khan: Is there? Because I've been trying to write a screenplay. I think that's interesting.

Eric Ries: But it is interesting that that sense of serendipity that, again, is common to entrepreneurs. I know I feel this way about LTSE that there's just been these moments when the very right person arrives at the very right time through no fault or credit of my own where something that I thought was the worst thing that ever happened to us, actually secretly turns out to be the best thing that ever happened. It's kind of the curse of entrepreneurship that you can't tell good from bad since you don't know what the long-term consequences of anything are. Therefore, the only rational or psychologically sane way to approach that is through equanimity and not to get too excited or too stressed out when the good or the bad happens.

So, kind of take that mindset, you've been on this crazy journey, you had this long-term vision. It's such an unlikely success that perhaps we should attribute it to aliens. And then now you're faced with this global pandemic, which is immediately driving your costs up, immediately driving your impact up, immediately making new things possible. Just walk us through, when did that dawn on you and what was it like?

Sal Khan: Yeah, as I said, when we started seeing traffic pickup in Asia and we started having these conversations that week before schools actually closed and what do we do? I remember there's two things that our team was thinking about. One it was and I said, "We turned left, turned right. I guess this is us." But then, we were very sensitive that we shouldn't be viewed to take advantage of the situation, but then I reminded the team. I was like, "We're not a business. We have a mission of free, world-class education for anyone anywhere. We don't profit." None of us become any richer. In fact, our jobs become harder.

So, it's interesting because we have a lot of people who come from the for-profit world. You constantly have to remind, and I have to even remind myself like, "No, this is good for the world. If we step up, it's good for the world." That helps. Sometimes, I'm in negotiations with partners around revenue or something. Halfway through the negotiation, I'm like, "Look, guys, I'm not negotiating for me. I don't get a penny if you guys give us an extra dollar. This is for the kids of the world. You really got to negotiate against that?" At first, everyone kind of laughs like, "Oh, funny joke." I'm like, "No, I'm serious. This is real. I really believe this." It helps.

But it's the same thing, I told our team, "No, not only would we not be taking advantage, it's our duty to step up. We're a not-for-profit." Government is... They're caught flat footed and not to blame them. No one could have been able to move fast enough in this world. For-profits, their model almost doesn't work in this world. A lot of them were and are doing the right thing, making their products free and whatever else, but even that, how long can they do that? A lot of people are going to be suspicious of it. Is it going to be a bait and switch if a district moves on to that? Frankly, there's just trust issues. What are they going to do with our data? What's the quality? So, it's our role as a trusted not-for-profit that's highly accessible to step up.

And then the other issue was, how much can we step up? Because we were already running at a deficit before. We knew that it would cost more if we wanted to accelerate. I just told our team and this was a little bit of my mindset when I quit my job in the early days and back in 2009 was, "Look, this is the window where we've got to step up, it's our duty. Let's do all we can and then hope that the universe or the aliens or whoever conspires to make us whole or ensure that we can keep doing the work we're doing." So that's the bet that we decided to take a couple of months ago.

Eric Ries: How's it going so far?

Sal Khan: I don't regret making that decision because it has accelerated our team's ability to do a lot of things that I thought we were going to end up doing in six months or a year. We pushed it forward and there's cost. You can imagine, it's also been hard on the team. The team's been energized and excited to have a role to play in this global pandemic. They're excited that our resources are two to three times as impactful as they already were. They were already serving 20 million students every month. They were already serving about 30 million learning minutes per day, but now we're serving 80, 90 million learning minutes per day.

So, everyone was excited, but at the same time, you could imagine now everyone's working from home. People had small kids at home. They're worried about their health. So, it was stressful. So, we've had to balance that and ensure that everyone knows that this is kind of a marathon with a few sprints in between.

People have come out of the woodwork to help support us. We're continuing to run at a deficit, but we've had corporations step up when they found out. Definitely people are taking our phone call. If anything, a lot of people are asking us to think even bigger about how we can support folks, not just through the end of the school year, not just through the summer, but back to school. How can we even reimagine kind of the architecture of education over the next few years?

Eric Ries: This seems like one of those moments, once in a generation opportunity to do that kind of rethink. I certainly know since having kids myself, I've become very radicalized on the need for reforming education. But talk a little bit about what you see as the changes to the education system that we need to make both right now and as we kind of get back into the new normal. If you could wave a magic wand, what do you think needs to be different about education?

Sal Khan: Yeah, even pre-COVID, I would have said, access is a major issue. Obviously, there's internet and device access. But even when kids have that, access to truly rigorous, high quality courses. It's well documented. Large chunks of the world and even in the US, majority of minority and majority schools don't offer courses that we would assume are table stakes. Sometimes, they don't offer algebra two or physics or biology, much less than calculus or statistics. That's a majority of minority and majority schools.

And then even when they are offered at a lot of schools, they're not at the same standard. It's well documented that in the American school system, kids go through the motions of taking algebra and geometry and trig, and oftentimes calculus. And they get to college or community college, and large chunks of them, 70% of all kids going to community college, these are kids who graduated who are trying to do the right thing, 70% have to take remedial math, which is the equivalent of about seventh grade math.

Which tells you that even though they nominally had access to courses, those courses really weren't serving them; or kind of the second point, because they move forward at a fixed pace, the kids were kind of just promoted, pushed ahead with significant gaps that essentially stunted their learning. So, the second pillar... Access is number one. The second one is personalization--that we want to create a world where every student can learn at their own time and pace. Every teacher will tell you that when kids show up the first year, oftentimes, they have the standardized test scores.

They know that kids are all over the place. They know that some are three years behind. Some are two years behind. Some are one year behind. Some are ready for grade level, and some are ready for one or two years ahead of grade level. How does a teacher address that huge variance and those different gaps that are unique for every student? Well, that's where technology could be helpful to let the teacher personalize, allow students to work at their individual paces. And then the teacher gets data, so they can do more focused interventions to unblock kids wherever they might be blocked. That was pre-COVID.

Post-COVID, there's this extra thing, which actually was always kind of true. It goes to that access point, is that learning fundamentally does need to not be bound by time and space. We know that obviously, it's been weird right now. It's going to be weird through the summer. This coming back to school is going to be weird in terms of you might go back to school, but you might have to shut down pretty quickly. You might have some type of shift-based architecture. You might have situations where you start, but families just don't feel comfortable sending their kids because of health issues. They might have an elderly grandparent at home or someone's immunocompromised.

In all circumstances for the next 12 months, we cannot assume that learning is bound by time or space, which is frankly something that we should never have assumed. Right now, we have the technology to do it. So, the way we're thinking about it is can we create tools that are valuable even in "normal times" that allow for the personalization, allow for the rigorous access to coursework and skills and concepts?

But at the same time, if schools get closed or weird, you can lean much more heavily on them. You can keep learning through summers. You can keep learning through breaks. You can keep learning from home. That everyone in the chain has data to understand what's working and what's not working. That kind of ties into another concept that it has been trendy, but it hasn't gone mainstream in education, which is mastery learning or competency-based learning.

Eric Ries: I was actually just about to ask you about that.

Sal Khan:We're on the same wavelength.

Eric Ries: Oh, my goodness. Yeah. I was just about to ask you about Bloom's 2 Sigma Problem.

Sal Khan: Yeah. So, Bloom in... I think it was 1984. He published this 2 Sigma Problem, which was that he showed that if a student who is operating essentially at the 50th percentile... Although he speaks in terms of standard deviations, just imagining percentiles makes it a little bit easier. If a student was operating at the 50th percentile, if they're able to get a personal tutor and the value of the personal tutors that the personal tutor can understand that student's unique gaps and pace. With that personal tutor, they work in a mastery learning framework, which means if I'm your tutor, we go through, let's say, factoring quadratics.

If you only understand 80% of it, in a traditional model, non-mastery based, I would just give you a C and we would move on to the next concept. That's what happens in traditional classes. But in a mastery framework, I'm your tutor. I'm like, "No, look, it's not okay to just know 80%. Let's keep working on it. We'll keep working until you get to 90, 95%." Bloom, his threshold was 90%. And then we move on to the next.

Eric Ries: You don't move on to the next concept until you're proficient in the previous concept.

Sal Khan: Exactly. You could even loosen a little bit where maybe sometimes it is okay to move on, but you are always motivated or incented or have the supports to go back and up your previous gaps. So, either way, you're always motivated to not just stay in 80% or 70%. You should always be filling those gaps and topping them off to 90%, 95%. He showed in that earlier research, and it was in a narrow domain that was very easy to test and kind of a multiple-choice type of test. He had a two standard deviation improvement.

So that takes a student in the 50th percentile to like the 95th plus percentile, which is kind of a mind-blowing result. Because in most of education research, even a 0.2 standard deviation over one year from an intervention would be a great outcome. He was talking about two standard deviations, so 10 times as much. Since then over the last 30 or so years, there's been many studies that got various outcomes. Bloom also saw with kind of an intelligent tutor automated system and this is back in 1984, that he was able to get a one standard deviation improvement, which is still huge.

Eric Ries: Still massive.

Sal Khan: Over the years, people have done it in different contexts, some with live tutors, some with kind of online systems, but they've been able to show that look, if you allow people to learn at their own time and pace, fill in their gaps, give them immediate feedback, that you're seeing anywhere between a 0.2 and a 2 standard deviation improvement, even 0.2 is actually quite good. That could take a student from the 50 to 58th percentile in the year. So, you can imagine if you do that for 12 years, that student is actually capturing years of work.

Eric Ries: You can't overstate how powerful of an intervention it would be if we actually could get it widely deployed. Yeah, but most of us are not good at reasoning statistically, ironically, because of the math education that we had. Sometimes I think it's easy for people to be like, "Well, what's sigma here, sigma there? What does it matter?" This would be the difference between every child being dramatically smarter overnight.

Sal Khan: Yeah. We just did an efficacy study with our Khan Academy Kids product, which is free, non-commercial. That was fascinating example of the benevolent aliens. This was a for-profit company. Duck Duck Moose I've always said makes the best early learning apps. They showed up at our door one day saying they wanted to donate their company to Khan Academy.

Eric Ries: Wow.

Sal Khan: I was like, "Where does that happen?" And then we said, "We should just create kind of Pre-K, Kindergarten, First Grade in a box that goes with reading, writing, math, social emotional learning." It's essentially like 100 apps in 1 with 100 of books in it, all of it-

Eric Ries: Our son loves it.

Sal Khan: Yeah, it's all free, not commercial. We did an efficacy study. This is a randomized control trial, which is kind of the gold standard. Where the control group, these were low income children, who, their average family income was $25,000 a year. These kids were operating at the 30th percentile on average. While obviously, the average is 50th percentile. With just six weeks of 20 minutes per day, that gap was completely closed between these kids who live in poverty and your and my kids. That's six weeks. They saw, I believe, is a 0.7 standard deviation-

Eric Ries: Unbelievable.

Sal Khan:... in six weeks from 20 minutes a day. So, you can imagine, traditionally, these kids are showing up already at kindergarten a year or two behind your and my kids. So, immediately their confidence gets shot. People's biases get built against them. It's only going to get worse from there because the whole class is going to have to move at a fixed pace. So, yeah, obviously, I'm a big believer in this and we're seeing the-

Eric Ries: Here's the thing I want to ask you about though, because one of the things I find so shocking, I've, like I said, become very radicalized by my own kids' experience of education, but I keep reading books and articles about education reform or mastery learning. So, much of the literature, it's considered a failed result. Not because it's not true, it's obviously been well replicated. This is like a 50 year old finding now, but because no one's been able to scale it to a classroom setting, because the amount of time, effort, and energy for a teacher to provide mastery type education to 30 children at same time is not physically or emotionally possible.

Therefore, people conclude that there must be something wrong with mastery learning or it's only for the few. All I can think every time I read that, it's like, "Maybe the problem is the classroom setting itself, not mastery learning." So, talk about what would it take? If this is going to be a reset moment for many of our institutions, what would it take to really come into the new normal on the other side of this with a new education paradigm that actually could provide this kind of improvement?

Sal Khan: Yeah. For me, it's not a problem with even the physical classroom. I think there's huge value in that. I would want your and my children to have a physical classroom experience, but it's really the incentive structures and the norms that sometimes there's a lot of inertia to them. You're absolutely right. Actually, even well before Benjamin Bloom, 100 years ago in Winnetka, Illinois, they did the Winnetka Plan where they did essentially mastery learning. They saw off the charts results, but they did it with like worksheets, which is logistically complex. So, they decided to discontinue it despite the results, because to your point, it was too logistically complex. It was hard to support, but that's what software is good for.

So, there's a teacher in Hesperia, California. He serves 90% free and reduced lunch to kids, 90% of them are not just one grade level behind, three grade levels behind when they show up in the sixth-grade class. He has all the kids starting from 1 + 1 on Khan Academy. If they know it, they get through it in minutes. But then they go concept by concept and in a mastery learning framework. By the end of the year, 90% of them are at least a grade level ahead, at least a grade level ahead. Two of them are even two or three grade levels ahead. This is a group of kids that most people would say... They kind of give up on. So, it's well documented.

What I've been advocating, especially through this crisis, I actually just got off the phone with a legislator in a state. I was like, "Look, we want to be there for your schools. There's going to be a crisis when you come back to school this year. Some kids would have kept learning on platforms like Khan Academy, other kids would have not. So, whatever was normally a summer slide, which only exacerbates variants and inequity, it's going to be that much larger."

So we're creating these Getting Ready For programs, like Getting Ready For grade level, which essentially allows you to replicate what Tim Vanderburgh does in Hesperia, California, which is like all of the essential skills, if you're a sixth grader to get ready for sixth grade as quickly as possible, accelerate you through them, if you already know them. And then you can work on sixth grade at your own time and pace.

We've been advocating with school districts, like "Look, that first week or two of school, a lot of school districts are even thinking about coming early, focus on that. Get every kid at the start and then work at their own time and pace in those first two weeks, so that they can master every gap that they've ever had. If they can do that, not only will it mitigate some of the damage from COVID, but they'll actually might be more prepared than they would have been even normally. And then continue with that self-paced learning."

There's an open mindedness to it right now is that every state has their credit requirements. It's often driven by the state university system. In California, it's the A-G requirements. In New York, it's the Regents system, where you need four years of math. You need three years of English. You need two years of foreign language, etc. I've been saying, "Look, kids are going to be learning at home, at school. They're going to be moving around. Credit recovery is going to be a huge thing. What if a student could get their credit that they need for graduation through mastery on Khan Academy?" The eeacher just vouches, "Yeah, that 90% that Eric got, that was his work." It's very hard to cheat. Someone would have to cheat for you for 100 hours.

And then if the teacher just proctors like our course challenge on it, which is kind of a little summative test, you can take as many times as you want, because it gives you different items every time, then yeah, that's Eric's performance. That wouldn't be a substitute for the in-person classroom, because kids will need the supports to be able to get through that. We obviously have supports on the platform. But the idea is when the teacher helps, unblock them. The teacher can put them in small groups, you can have peer-to-peer support. That's the value of the classroom.

And then the teachers have a true north. They're not saying, "Oh, I just need to cover the material," which is what usually they're told. You have 180 school days, you have 60 standards. Cover them one every three days, even if half the kids don't understand it. Now, it's just like, "Get them to mastery." If a kid by the end of the year only has 60% mastery or 70% mastery, that's okay. It doesn't mean they're a failure.

Eric Ries: At least they have some mastery.

Sal Khan: They can keep working on it. They can work it on that summer. You shouldn't just promote them to the next class. If they're only 50% mastery in algebra two, there's no point in taking precalculus, and then calculus. And then they go to community college and the community college says, "You're not even ready to take algebra two. You should let them keep working on algebra two."

Eric Ries: I saw a study, and we'll find a link and put it in the notes here, saying that kids are going to lose a year of math, because of the closure if we just extrapolate from the basic trends. That's assuming that the schools do reopen when people think. Whereas it seems to me based on the research I've been looking at, we're still pretty optimistic about what's going to be possible for schools next year. So, how do we prevent just this wide scale knowledge loss?

Sal Khan: Yeah. So, I'm familiar with the same research you're talking about. It's actually our partners, NWEA that published their assessment. Yeah, you'd only see the summer slide and now you're going to have five, six months. It's going to be that much worse than it. So, not only are you not learning for those five, six months for a lot of students, but they're forgetting, so that's why it turns into a year. The ideal obviously, if kids can keep learning on Khan Academy through the end of the school year through the summers, but we know as many kids who are using us, 20, 30, 40 million now, that's still not all of the kids. They're not using us at the same level as they could or should to truly keep learning.

And that level, especially if you're not going to school right now, is 20 to 40 minutes a day. Students able to do that, especially in math, not only will they be able to keep up with where they should be, I think they're actually going to accelerate. So, we're trying to get that word out. But as much as possible for this coming back to school, that's why we're creating these Getting Ready For courses to quickly fill in kids' gaps and get them to a grade level, give teachers a sense of where they are, and that they can keep leveraging that tool to then get into grade level.

If school has to close, if it's shift based, whatever, just lean as heavy as you need to lean on Khan Academy. We're a supplemental resource, but we have all the standards in it because we've always wanted to support the homeschooling students, the girl in Afghanistan who needs to learn everything from scratch. So, in that way, we're a very--a supplement is one way to think about it.

Eric Ries: It's almost like The Diamond Age.

Sal Khan: That's another book. So, in the early days, everyone would read Foundation and The Diamond Age. So, Diamond Age, for those who don't know, it sounds like you do know. It takes place in this like Neo-Victorian dystopian future, near future where-

Eric Ries: We're getting near every day sadly.

Sal Khan: Where this noble person wants his granddaughter to be educated by creating a tablet app that teaches her everything that she needs to be a fully empowered member of nobility. It gets bootlegged in China. It all takes place in China, and these 200,000 orphans who live on barges are able to leverage this app to essentially foment a revolution and takeover. That's another. It talks about the power of education. That one, I stopped recommending, because it has some weird stuff in it like kind of underwater explicit things. There's weirdness in that book, but the idea that "Hey, if you can get this type of thing in the hands of young people, it gives them at least a lifeline."

Eric Ries: Foundation is a little more plain vanilla.

Sal Khan: Foundation is a little bit more plain vanilla. Exactly.

Eric Ries: But I do think this kind of theme of thinking big and really trying to imagine not the world as it is right now, but as it could be, that's been coming up again and again in these conversations. There's something about the pandemic that is making it easier for people to reexamine or question. Yet, a number of folks that I've been talking to, executives, CEOs, I've been urging folks to get involved. They have this kind of sense of hopelessness or futility, like everything we're talking about seems kind of small, even this. It's like okay, some kids are learning some extra math on videos, how does that compare to the scale of this disastrous thing which has befallen us?

I really like something that you said earlier about really trying to see Khan Academy not as a successful startup or even as the next great tech company, but as the next Oxford or the next really lasting institution. I think it's hard for us to remember that those institutions, powerful and indomitable as they seem today, were not like that on their first day. The people who are building them didn't know exactly what it was going to become. They didn't see the future. So, many of the seeds that were planting right now, on the other side may yet become the lasting institutions that our grandchildren thank us for having created.

Sal Khan: Yeah. I think it's all about having that point of view of institutional building, because you're absolutely right. I mean, for sure, 10 years into the Smithsonian or Oxford, they were not how you would imagine today. Even today, you view these as these pillars of our society type of things. I mean, these are all institutions that I love and think very highly of. The world needs more museums and libraries and great universities, but the scale of what we can do even now is kind of the scale of all of those things combined to times 10 or 100.

I feel a lot less delusional talking about creating an institution that could serve a billion or one day five billion, serve everyone, and that--who knows what happens after we die? But if you imagine that you're reincarnated, you're less likely to be reincarnated in our homes, you're more likely to be reincarnated in a village in India or Africa or China with not a lot of opportunity. If future-state you at least just has a low-cost device or something and you discover Khan Academy, you will have a lifeline. You will have a way to improve yourself. You will have a way to hopefully even prove what you know and get degrees and plug into society.

Eric Ries: The veil of ignorance of John Rawls, we'll put a link to that too.

Sal Khan: Exactly. If we can unveil the veil of ignorance, I'm pretty confident we'll be kind of in a brave new world. I mean, we're working on this good, brave new world, not the dystopian brave.

Eric Ries: I was just talking to another CEO about that we're all starting to get a crash course in the power of exponential growth for good or for ill. So, obviously, the pandemic is exponential growth gone awry, like a cancer or a Ponzi scheme. But many of the reforms to create a new institution, to educate a billion children, we're going to have to harness the power of exponential growth.

Sal Khan: Yeah, absolutely.

Eric Ries: Let's switch topics for a second because you were talking before about parents and the stress, even your own team has been under, all of us have been feeling this. Parents are already being taxed to an extreme level with everything that's going on. For a lot of folks, they're being asked to work from home and school from home maybe for the first time. So, what can parents be doing? Let's say there's a parent who's listening now and they buy into your thesis of mastery learning or they're intrigued by that possibility that even 20 minutes a day might make a big difference. What advice would you give them about how to educate their children?

Sal Khan: What I've been telling parents, including myself and my wife is, number one, take care of yourself. It's so overwhelming. It's very easy to imagine that everyone else's family has it all figured out, and everyone else's kids are perfectly well behaved and learning etc, etc. So, what I've been telling everyone including myself is "Look, if your child is able to even do 20, 30 minutes a day of reading, of writing, of math, they're actually going to be just fine." That's actually a great habit, a great muscle that you could build, not just through the COVID closures, but every summer, every holiday. Any habit that you do 20, 30 minutes a day, that's how you really build it into a competency.

So, on top of that, if you can scaffold other activities, that's great, but that should hopefully lower your stress level and hopefully lower the stress level in the house. Because I also tell myself and everyone else, "We all can feel guilty about our kids not getting everything or whether we're doing everything we can for them, but the worst thing we can do for our kids is be stressed out." Because if we're stressed out ourselves, we'll snap at them. They'll feel the stress. I'm sure they're feeling anxiety themselves. So, if we're calm, we're relaxed, we're in a good place.

Obviously, there's a lot that's negative about this, but there are silver linings. This is a time to get to know our family better, spend time with our kids. Kids grow up fast, we're going to, in some ways, reminisce about some of this time when we were all in the home together for many months. So, as well as we can, take care of ourselves. There are supports like Khan Academy to keep your kids learning. It can be as little as 20, 30, 40 minutes a day. Appreciate some of the small silver linings that we are able to get out of this.

Eric Ries: So, what have you learned during the crisis? What's been the most surprising to you?

Sal Khan: I don't know if it's surprising, but I've learned that at times of crisis, for the most part, bring out the best and most of the people I interact with. This goes into government leaders, school districts, everyone that I have talked to, philanthropists, is just trying to do what's right by students to optimize learning. People haven't been trying to take advantage of this. So, that's just been a very heartening notion. I think the open mindedness, the entrepreneurial mentality that you're seeing, even in some institutions that you don't normally associate with that.

We're seeing large school districts, places like Las Vegas, Miami, New York, literally in weeks, closing the digital divide, distributing hundreds of thousands of laptops, just making things work. Things that you normally associate with scrappy Silicon Valley entrepreneurship, people are doing it on the scale of school districts with 300, 400, 500,000, a million students. So, that's been really heartening and inspiring. It gives me more energy to say, "Look, this is a little bit of a marathon. It's like a sprint marathon. It's more of like a mile race type of thing, but there's a window where groups like Khan Academy step up. Because if we do, there's an openness to work with us."

Eric Ries: So finally, how do we get out of the crisis?

Sal Khan: Well, we could talk another hour about how to get out of the crisis. I mean, we could obviously talk about the biology of it. I made a few videos on the biology of COVID and the epidemiology of it.

Eric Ries: I'll be sure to link to that.

Sal Khan: That was early days when we were much more in panic mode, but it is intriguing to see what's going to happen now that things are going to loosen up and with schools and all of that. We've talked about that. This could be a 6- to 18-month saga that we go through just on the buyer side. On the economic side, it could be longer. But I think a lot of what we talked about, which is we create more and better supports, a lot of those are going to be online because they're not bound by time and space.

One of the silver linings is a lot of energy behind solving the digital divide in much of the world, but especially the United States right now, we keep an open mind. We don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. That there is a huge value in the physical experience, but there's going to be new models of hybrid, where you can anchor on the virtual. But then when the physical is available, you can get the benefits of that. But then when you have to shut it down, you can be in between. So, I think that's what's going to keep us 6, 12 months, maybe longer.

Eric Ries: So, thank you so much for taking time and for all of your work on behalf of kids and learners everywhere.

Sal Khan: Great. Thanks for having me.

Eric Ries: This has been Out of the Crisis. I'm Eric Ries. Out of the Crisis is produced by Ben Ehrlich and edited by Jacob Tender and Shawn Maguire. Music composed and performed by Cody Martin. Hosted on Breaker. For more information on the COVID-19 crisis and ways you can help, visit If you're working on a project related to the pandemic, please reach out to me on Twitter. I'm @E-R-I-C-R-I-E-S. Thanks for listening.

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