The other Salman Khan — educational entrepreneur

Written by  //  November 15, 2010  //  Science & Technology  //  3 Comments

When most Indians hear of Salman Khan, they think of Bollywood’s bad boy. But in this blog post I’ll talk about the good boy Salman Khan — founder of the Khan Academy, which is busy creating online educational videos on all subjects. As of the time of this writing, the Khan Academy has 1800+ videos in mathematics (almost all of school-level mathematics), physics, chemistry, biology, history (very few videos), finance, and test preparation for some standardized tests in the United States. Khan’s educational videos don’t feature his face — the videos feature a pad on which Khan makes electronic scribbles and talks about what he’s doing. In some cases, he also brings in pictures and maps from various sources to explain what he’s doing. Here’s a sample history video.

The story

A son of Bangladeshi/Indian immigrants to the United States, Salman Khan did his undergraduate studies at MIT, where he got degrees in mathematics and EECS, following which he received an MS in EECS (again from MIT) and an MBA for Harvard Business School. Khan worked at a hedge fund for a few years, and started preparing online videos in an attempt to tutor some of his relatives who had trouble with mathematics. As he found that more and more people were using his videos, Khan shifted more and more of his time to creating videos. Eventually, his wife allowed him to quit his hedge fund job and devote himself full time to creating videos.

Khan describes the story in more detail in an interview for Mixergy.com.

In recent times, Khan’s videos were praised by some time programmer and now philanthropist Bill Gates — Gates also got a chance to meet up with Khan and posted his notes here (if you don’t have Silverlight, you can view a YouTube version here). A complete list of press coverage of the Khan Academy can be found here.

Khan’s thesis

Khan lays out his grand mission, vision, and social return here. He thinks of the open collection of educational videos as only one part of a much larger vision: an online school where every student can learn at his or her own pace, and where instructors and peers can help students in a focused manner rather than teaching the same material to lots of students. Toward this end, Khan, and some hirees and volunteers, are currently working on exercise apps for much of the mathematical content, whereby students can watch videos, try lots of exercises, and keep trying the exercises till they get ten in a row right. If, as the student tries an exercise, a specific deficiency is discovered, the student can go back and watch the relevant portion of Khan’s own video. In an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Khan elaborates on the themes of what he considers problematic with most school and university education: (i) Long lectures delivered to huge audiences assuming a single pace of instruction for all, (ii) Everybody is expected to move on to the next topic even if they haven’t understood the previous topic thoroughly enough, (iii) Very little actual feedback to instructors and students on specifics of where they’re going wrong and what changes need to be made.

How good a teacher is Khan? And how useful is he?

I’ve watched Sal’s (Salman Khan lies to call himself Sal) videos on a range of topics including: mathematics and physics (not for actual learning, just to see his style and know if I can recommend the videos to others), biology and finance (both for actual learning and to see his style), and history (just out of curiosity and to see his style, though I ended up learning some stuff too).

First, I think that Sal Khan is not the best teacher. Without intending to praise myself too much, I could probably do a better job, at least on the mathematics and physics videos than he did. For mathematics, there are a lot of somewhat better teachers available — one example is Patrick’s Just Math Tutorials; another (much smaller) is Better Explained.

And certainly, Salman Khan’s videos are nowhere near as good as those of Thinkwell. Thinkwell’s full video courses cost about $150 per course, but you can see many of their sample videos at their blog and snippets of most of their lectures at MindBites. The contrast between Sal’s uninformed but intelligent speculation on a lot of subject matter and the informed commentary of Thinkwell’s lecturers is all too evident (to me).

Despite these drawbacks, Sal Khan has, in my view, created a very important niche. Thinkwell’s videos are an awesome production job, but they’re costly. In contrast with Thinkwell, Sal Khan can create his videos at a much lower cost — and hence offer them effectively for free. He can also create many more videos in numerical terms, and hence can cover many more areas. With many videos at a price of zero, Khan has reached out to a much larger number of viewers.

Moreover, the subtle differences between a Thinkwell and a Sal Khan may matter a lot at the higher echelons of education, but for large numbers of people struggling with basic stuff, the subtle distinctions in quality are not as much of a priority as having something fairly good that can be played and replayed for free. Sal Khan may be only at the 75th percentile among people teaching college-level mathematics material, but that still makes him better than 75% of such people, and add on to that the advantages of playing, replaying, and exercise apps, and his usefulness goes up tremendously.

That said, I find some of the estimates of social utility made by Khan in his video unusually high. For instance, Khan comes up with a total potential figure of $250 million in social utility generated per year, but it relies on a number of dubious assumptions. The most dubious assumption of these is the assumption that a single video view generates about $1 in social utility. While this is certainly true for some people viewing the videos — particularly those using Sal as their private tutor, it probably will not be true for the majority of people viewing the video. My own calculations would indicate a (eventual) social utility generated per year (by video views) of something in the range of $10-15 million. That is still a
huge social utility generated and I commend Sal Khan for his visionary effort in this direction.

Even if many people find Khan’s videos non-optimal to learn from, competition from people like Khan may encourage companies like Thinkwell to lower their prices, offer a larger fraction of their videos for free, and further distinguish the quality of their products. It might encourage others to enter the arena offering free videos, perhaps of a better quality than Khan, and perhaps with a different style and emphasis.

3 Comments on "The other Salman Khan — educational entrepreneur"

  1. Arghya November 15, 2010 at 6:06 pm ·

    Nice post Vipul. I’d heard about this guy but not really thought about the quality of the services he offers. My point is slightly tangential- how is social utility of a particular video quantified? Is there any rational basis to this calculation?

  2. Vishal Sathyan March 9, 2011 at 4:05 pm ·

    But, he can never start this project. He is just 46 (b. Not December, but July 1965), but is suffering from many serious ailments. He is now in critical condition in the hospital, which became the spot of Shahrukh Khan’s death. It’s sure that he will die within a week.

  3. dublin iced beverage November 14, 2014 at 11:07 pm ·

    It’s hard to find experienced people in this particular subject, however, you seem
    like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

Comments are now closed for this article.