Salman Khan could be a poster boy for elite education: He has three degrees from MIT and a Harvard MBA. A few years back, while working at a Boston hedge fund, Khan began tutoring his cousins in New Orleans by posting YouTube videos of himself talking over Microsoft Paint drawings. Soon, strangers were watching his lessons. In 2009, he quit his job to expand what he calls the Khan Academy, which includes 1,800 lessons on everything from finance to the French Revolution. Bill Gates is a fan-the Gates Foundation gave Khan a two-year grant (he also got funding from Google). Tim Kiladze talked to Khan about the future of education and the greatest equation ever.
You've built the academy around free material. Why is free so important? At some point, the for-profit route gets shady. If you charge money, you cater to wealthier segments of the population, so you skip material for community colleges or GEDs. Also, I want this stuff to be around in a hundred years. In the for-profit world, you either go out of business and the content disappears, or the business gets sold and you no longer control the access to your material.
What made you decide to cover finance-particularly TARP and securitization? There was a lot of misinformation flowing around during the financial crisis, and it was pretty clear that even the "experts" on TV really didn't know what they were talking about, or they weren't being honest. I would go on tirades at parties, telling friends, "I heard the Fed chief say this, and that's completely wrong," and they were fascinated by it. So I just made a bunch of videos.
You also have a lot of basic finance videos. How come? At the hedge fund, we had these junior analysts who were straight-A, 4.0, summa-cum-laude graduates from Harvard and Yale, and I would have to spend a month explaining why something is priced the way it is, how markets work, or even the basic mechanics of backlogs and inventory. I thought, "Hey, if these guys don't know it, then few people probably do." And it's working. I got a letter from a banker who works in mortgage-backed securities thanking me for my explanation.
What's your take on the future of education? For a minute, let's put aside things like socialization, which are super-important. If you think about simply learning organic chemistry or calculus, that can be done at least as well online as in a classroom. In roughly five years, I'm very serious about experimenting with existing schools or opening our own. The Khan Academy could operate a one-room schoolhouse, where students use our material to get core skills in math, science, grammar and vocabulary. Once they complete their work, they would have the rest of the day to build robots or write stories or take pictures.
What's your business plan? Either we continue getting foundation money or we develop a user donation model, like Wikipedia. If you have five million users and you get just 1% of them to give $20, you're sitting on $1 million a year. And we're not like PBS-we know who's watching the videos and how frequently, so we can be a little more intelligent about asking for donations.
Are you experimenting with any new material? I'm thinking about doing basic literacy videos for my 20-month-old son. But I'm only playing with the idea because I'm a little embarrassed. I don't want people to judge me too harshly.
What's your favourite tutorial so far? Proving Euler's identity, which is ei = -1. A lot of people believe it proves the existence of God or explains the universe's order. That video still gives me chills.