Features, benefits and questions raised by @KhanAcademy: notes on a talk by Salman Khan

Here’s a video of Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, speaking at the Good Experience Live conference in April 2010. My rough notes on the video are below, followed by some questions it raises.


Salman Khan describes himself as a former maths geek and was also an analyst at a hedge fund. He had (at the time of speaking) produced 1,400 videos in 4-5 years. Started doing algebra and after about 70 videos, realised he’d finished, so moved on to pre-algebra. The Khan Academy videos are now the most viewed open, free, educational resource on YouTube, with 200,000 unique students a month.

There’s an assumption that something that’s free and online has to be worse than something that’s expensive and exclusive, like being in a classroom. Why should that be true?

The videos were initially a nice-to-have legacy from teaching cousins in New Orleans. The feedback from cousins was, “you’re better on YouTube than you are in person”. They also did some sessions using Yahoo Doodle as a shared whiteboard, which led to the videos being focused on Khan writing on a ‘blackboard’ screen (he likes blackboards, not whiteboards). Khan himself did not appear in the videos, because he did not have a video camera at the time.

The videos are not scripted. It’s just stream-of-thought. This was apparently inspired by laziness in the beginning: “it’s just for my cousins”.

Khan says he cannot learn anything unless it’s distilled down into simple nuggets, so his videos are reflection of the kind of learning resources he would have liked to have had. He says he will not make a video unless he has an intuition on how to explain it in simple terms.

Feature & benefit couples:

  • You can pause, fast-forward and rewind watch on your own terms and learn at your own speed; people have written apps that slow down or speed up the delivery, without changing the pitch
  • You’re not worried about pleasing the teacher; it can be stressful trying to meet teacher’s expectations with video, you’re just doing things for your own benefit and not worried about stopping to check something
  • You hear but don’t see the teacher people report that this feels intimate; if they see
  • Very conversational feels like a chat, it doesn’t feel like a “finished product” and Salman Khan sometimes makes mistakes people report that it makes them comfortable to see the teacher stumble now and again.

Salman Khan says, “When you really learn something, it’s arguably the highest high any human being can have.”

Questions raised

The success and positive feedback about the Khan Academy videos flies in the face of some “good practice” orthodoxy about educational resources, so it raises many questions.

Mostly I think these are around how people’s use of the videos fits into their wider learning experience. My guess is that few if any learners rely solely on these videos and do not also use other resources, activities, exercises and forms of feedback. So:

  • How many learners use the Khan Academy as a supplement to some other (formal or informal) learning programme?
  • How many use the Khan Academy resources as their primary or central learning experience, and supplement this with other learning?
  • How do they practise, try out and challenge what they learn from these videos?
  • What formative or summative feedback do they get to make their learning more effective and/or give themselves a sense of progress?
  • What proportion of learners are organising this practising and feedback themselves? And what does that tell us about the value that traditional learning institutions add?

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