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Khan Academy founder Sal Kahn on filling the gaps in a COVID-impacted education

In this episode of Facing Forward, Margaret Brennan talks with Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy -- a digital learning non-profit known for its online education tools worldwide. Brennan and Khan take a closer look at the race to get America's kids caught up after a lost year and what the future looks like for remote learning. 

Listen to this episode on ART19


  • On remote learning replacing in-person lessons: "I'll be the first to say that if I had to pick for myself or my own children or anyone else's children between an in-person amazing teacher- if I had to pick between that and the fanciest distance learning online artificial intelligence, I would pick the in-person human amazing teacher every time. So I'll be the first to say that pure online or distance learning is- cannot be a substitute for an amazing in-person teacher."
  • On post-COVID "disaster recovery":  "I think we have to make the best of the constraints that we have now, but as we start to get out of this COVID period, it really does have to be viewed as a disaster recovery project because these gaps that these kids are accumulating and this lack of self-esteem and what's hitting them socially and emotionally, this will have long lasting repercussions for- for decades if we don't- if we don't try to fix it."
  • On bridging the digital divide in the wake of COVID-19: "If there is a silver lining on this front because of COVID is that there's never been more energy behind this. And I'm feeling optimistic that in the next three to five years, this- we- we won't completely solve this, but it will be mitigated to a large degree."

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"Facing Forward": Khan Academy's Sal Khan transcript

Producers: Richard Escobedo, Anne Hsu, Kelsey Micklas

Research Producer: Kimani Hayes

Tom Williams

MARGARET BRENNAN: Thanks for joining us from California today.


MARGARET BRENNAN: So I read you were raised by a single mom who worked as a 7-Eleven cashier in Louisiana, and you were rocking math competitions as a high schooler. So you went on, as smart kids often do, to some pretty prestigious universities. You went on and worked as a hedge fund analyst. So how did you go from that to this nonprofit business of online school tutorials?

KHAN: Yeah, that's, I guess, a reasonable synopsis of the first 30 or so years of my life. You- you know--

MARGARET BRENNAN: In two sentences, your life. 

KHAN: Two sentences, that' s pretty good. The- you know, my original background out of undergrad was in technology and software. And then after business school, as you mentioned, I ended up working in finance. But I've always had this interest in education. In 2004, I was a year out of business school. I was working at a hedge fund in Boston. I had just gotten married and my family from New Orleans was visiting for the wedding. And it just came out of conversation that my 12 year old cousin Nadia was having trouble with math. And so I was convinced that I- I might be able to help her. And so she agreed to take my tutoring. So she goes back to New Orleans. I started remote tutoring her, and it was unit conversion that she was having trouble with and, you know, first had to overcome her lack of confidence. But once we got past that, she got unit conversion. She got caught up with her class. She got a little ahead of her class. And that same Nadia, who was put into a remedial math track, was then put into an advanced math track. So I was hooked. I started tutoring her younger brothers, word spreads in my family that free tutoring is going on. And before I know it, 10, 15 cousins, family, friends from around the country every day after work, I was- I was getting on the phone trying to communicate online with them. You know that- I called it Khan Academy almost as a joke because it was like me and my cousins. And then about a year later, now 2006, a friend said, Well, how are you scaling your lessons? And his name is Zuli Rumsen. I have to give him full credit. And I said, Zuli, you're right. It's much harder to do with 15 cousins what I was doing just with Nadia. And he said, well why don't you record some of your lessons to complement your software. Record them as videos on YouTube and then your cousins can access them whenever they want. And I initially thought it was a horrible idea. I said, Zuli, YouTube is for cats playing piano. It is not for mathematics. But I gave it a shot and you know, I told my cousins, I'm going to make these videos on things that you- you know, I feel like I have to answer a lot, review a lot. But then when we get on the phone, we can dig deeper. And after about a month, I asked for feedback. They famously told me they like me better on YouTube than in person. And it soon became clear that people who are not my cousins were watching. And so between the software and the videos, it started taking on a life of its own. And by 2009 there was about 100,000  folks using it every month. And then that's when, frankly, I had trouble focusing on my day job and I- I- I set kind of Khan Academy as a not for profit pretty convinced that, look, the social return on investment here is off the charts. Surely some philanthropists will recognize that. And so that kind of delusional optimism I- I took the leap and quit my day job. And, you know, 2009 was a tough year because the world doesn't always conspire the way you think it will. So we were living off of--

MARGARET BRENNAN: That was the financial crisis. 

KHAN: We were living off of savings and our first child had just been born. But by mid-2010, we got our first real philanthropic funding and Khan academy was able to become an organization.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So fast forward, you've now kind of become like the poster child for remote learning, which is interesting because now we're in the midst of as a country figuring out how to educate kids at home. And for people who aren't parents and don't have kids and might think this is all, you know, not important to them, I think, one of the big challenges for our country right now has been laid bare that- that you can't get the US economy chugging along until you can get parents fully back into the economy. And that's in large part dependent on getting their kids back into school. But it's also going to mean getting their kids back up to speed. So that's why I want to dig into kind of like the bigger picture here. Why do you think when people are at home and listening to what's going wrong with our education systems right now, that the impression is remote learning does not work?

KHAN: Well, as you mentioned, as someone who is, I guess, sometimes viewed as a poster child for online learning, which sometimes gets combined with remote learning, I'll be the first to say that if I had to pick for myself or my own children or anyone else's children between an in-person amazing teacher- if I had to pick between that and the fanciest distance learning online artificial intelligence, I would pick the in-person human amazing teacher every time. So I'll be the first to say that pure online or distance learning is- cannot be a substitute for an amazing in-person teacher. Now, with that said, even before COVID, we know that there's large parts of the planet, including a lot in the US where you don't have access to certain courses. You might not have access to a teacher that you're really resonating with. And that's where it is important to be able to raise the floor for students. And so that's where online learning, that's where Khan Academy, other resources, things like "MOOCs" can be valuable. But the ideal circumstance is where you're able to leverage tools to liberate or unlock what that amazing teacher can do. Now, what's happened with COVID is we've had a- a strange set of constraints applied to us where you're not able to get the best of both worlds. And it's- and it's all happened super fast. So people didn't have a lot of time to plan. And so you had a kind of wholesale migration and literally in a matter of days or weeks from in-person instruction to essentially video conference instruction. And, you know, the reality is- is in-person instruction. There's ways to do it really well and there's ways to do it not so well. And the not so well has always been kids fingers on lips, you know, passive, just listening to a lecture, that's usually not so engaging in person. And then when you transplant that onto video conference, it becomes that much less engaging--

KHAN: --because obviously kids can look at other windows, they don't have to show up. So, yeah, it's- it's very suboptimal on so many levels, but it doesn't mean that online learning or distance learning is bad. It just means that these constraints that we're having are unfortunate. If we had COVID without the online learning or distance learning, then things would have been that much worse.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What do you think is the hardest thing to teach via remote?

KHAN: Well, I think there's all of these intangibles that happen, and we all remember it from school, you know, all the things you learned from your peers. Some hard- hard lessons in the hallway, collaborating with people sometimes, you know, just a certain look that the teacher gets you. And you might get a little bit of that on a video conference. But it's all of those implicit social, emotional learning things. You know, what's especially been hard right now is this- this lifeline on video conference isn't just about academic learning because kids are also not able to socialize in the ways that they were before. And so that's leading to, I think, tough issues for a lot of kids. You know, I see with my kids on- if two or three days go by where they're not able to, at least, you know, see one friend in a playdate in a COVID safe way at a park. And if they're inside for that day--


KHAN: --they just kind of get a little, you know, batty. And we're lucky. You know, I have a backyard. I live in a neighborhood and we live in Northern California. It's like 75 degrees outside right now. So we can do this. But- you know, I can't imagine so many kids if you're living- frankly, if you grew up the way I grew up, you're growing up in an apartment complex where there's pretty much a lot of concrete outside. You're not in a place where that's easy to go outside. That's really really tough when you have to do everything online. And for a lot of these families, they don't have a great Internet connection, if- if any at all.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Or what about parents who have to become teachers on the fly and turn their kitchen table into a classroom and they don't speak English? How do they teach their kids?

KHAN: Exactly, I mean, and, you know, on top of that, what if they have to work like my mom did at the convenience store and who's watching the kids?


KHAN: You know, I remember when I grew up, you know, me and my sister we were, in the '80s, they called the latchkey kids. You know, we would come home at 2:00 or 3:00 and, you know, kind of watch TV. And my mom would come home at 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. and then we'd all have dinner together. But it's incredibly difficult because in my circumstances, there's myself, my wife's a physician, but she's able- been able to see some of her patients remotely during the pandemic. My mother-in-law lives with us. So between all of us, we have a lot of support. And they go to a school that was really supporting them through this situation and it was still hard. And so if you take all of that away, that's- that's what all of us are afraid of. You know, I talked to- I have a school teacher who lives two doors down from us, and she was saying, and this is in a upper middle class neighborhood, she's saying that here she's lost 10% of her kids, like they just disengaged. They're not showing up for online learning. When they do, she sees that their- their vocabulary has degraded because they just haven't been engaged in school. And this- and the problem is a lot worse if you go to some rural areas or some urban areas where it's 20, 30% of kids really haven't been able to engage. So I think we have to make the best of the constraints that we have now, but as we start to get out of this COVID period, it really does have to be viewed as a disaster recovery project because these gaps that these kids are accumulating and this lack of self-esteem and what's hitting them socially and emotionally, this will have long lasting repercussions for- for decades if we don't- if we don't try to fix it.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Now, the- I saw one figure that put it at an economic cost of between 14 to 28 trillion dollars to the US economy, if schools remain closed for in-person learning. That was according to the OECD. I mean, that's pretty staggering about the long term cost. But I want to talk to you about how to find some solutions because we've been admiring this horrible problem. Let's talk about how to fix it in a moment. So stay with us. We're going to take a quick break.


MARGARET BRENNAN: So I live in Washington, D.C., and they gave out hotspots to kids and tech equipment to students so they can remotely learn, but in a lot of places in the country, you can't even uplink to the Internet. According to the FCC, nearly 30 million Americans can't really benefit from the- from the digital age. And it really hits in rural areas in particular. So it seems to me that's not just an education problem, what you're talking about, in ways to try to fix the education system, it requires infrastructure overhaul in this country too, right? 

KHAN: Absolutely, and what you just pointed to- exactly, it's not just an education issue just to engage in the economy, to look for a job, to stay in touch with friends and family, you need some form of Internet access now. In urban areas it's more of an affordability issue, in rural areas, it's just that the infrastructure oftentimes is not there. Now, the silver lining is I have never seen more energy behind this issue of the digital divide than we are seeing right now. So it's the last eight, nine months have been horrible for these families, these communities, that it's- it's been hard for them to engage. But people are taking this problem seriously. You know, I've talked to groups like SpaceX who have obviously the Starlink where they're going to put a bunch of low earth orbiting satellites and hopefully be able to get Internet access to not just rural America, but rural everywhere. And I'm feeling optimistic that in the next three to five years, this- we- we won't completely solve this, but it will be mitigated to a large degree.

MARGARET BRENNNAN: So your- Khan Academy, you can access these tutorials for free. Some school districts do contract with you I saw, but a lot of your benefactors here include, like the Walton family, they are behind Wal-Mart, Bank of America, Gates Foundation, Google. Do those benefactors influence the content that you post?

KHAN: No, not at all. You know, these- all of these foundations have always just been- I mean, you know, the Gates Foundation, for example, if we go back to that story in 2010 when I was trying to get funding, actually I was applying for a grant with the Gates Foundation for- for I think it was like $30,000. And then it just came out of the woodwork that- that Bill himself was using Khan Academy with his children and he himself was using it to learn some topics and finance and other things.--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Really? What was he trying to learn? 

KHAN: So my understanding- well his kids were using it for math and science. And then I believe he- he really enjoyed it back in 2008 and 2009 actually made a whole explanation of the financial crisis and what was happening. And I did that actually, because my day job, I want- I kept reading the Federal Reserve Act to understand all of the levers. I was like, wow, even the people in the news don't really understand this well. 


KHAN: And so I started making explanations. It actually turned out back in 2009, even some of the news anchors I later found out were watching the Khan Academy videos on credit default swaps and mortgage backed securities before reporting on it. But, you know, that was an example of, you know, once Bill became a fan and they kind of flew me up to Seattle and said, what's the vision here? And I said, look, the vision is let's make all of the core academic content available to anyone in the world, including in all the world's major languages. Let's make it as personalized and engaging as possible. And one day let's see if we can figure out ways that we can connect that to opportunity and completely in line with what they believed. And Bank of America, they cared about financial literacy, frankly, especially coming out of the financial crisis. And, you know, none of them have any editorial say.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you have this argument in Washington over funding that as part of an upcoming bill, President Biden is trying to push through Congress and some of the money in it, about $130 billion is going to go for schools. There's some money in it that's supposed to, or could be used to play catch up over the summer with some kind of perhaps voluntary catch up program. I know the teachers union had- we spoke with recently, Randi Weingarten said that should be voluntary, to go to summer school. What do you see on the horizon that can help fix the problems that you see right now?

KHAN: Yeah, as you mentioned, I believe roughly 20% of that- of those funds are targeted at learning loss, which is a very broad term for and it could be learning loss that happened well before COVID. But the theory is and there's data to back that up, that there's that the learning loss or the unfinished learning has accelerated during COVID. And this is something that Khan Academy has always been focused on. When COVID hit we saw our traffic increased by a factor of three. You know, we normally see about 30 million learning minutes per day. That went to about 85 million learning minutes per day, and we've accelerated a whole series of content and resources to specifically address learning loss. So we've created a new courses called "Get Ready for Grade Level" courses, which cover all of the prerequisites you need to master in order to fully engage at the grade level courses. There's another not for profit that I started in response to COVID that we think could play a huge role in this recovery effort, for lack of a better word, called Schoolhouse dot World, which is about giving free tutoring to people. We have high quality vetted volunteers. Some of these are retired professors, teachers. Some of these are software engineers and lawyers and doctors. And some of them are just really good high school students and college students who are willing to tutor other folks. And that's picking up a lot of steam. We have the state of New Hampshire, state of Rhode Island, states- and state of Mississippi that have already signed on to use it for all the tutoring in their state. So between the software content, personalized learning aspects on Khan Academy and then what we- what we think we're creating is a national free tutoring platform on Schoolhouse.World, which could be used- and both of these things could be used outside of a classroom or as part of a formal school day. We hope to be part of that- that solution to help fill in students' gaps.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And who is that up to you, though? I mean, does that ultimately just come down to a parent saying, my kids gotta play catch up? Or do you think these things need to actually be required by school districts?

KHAN: So I think it's going to be a combination. In the ideal circumstance, I do- I would love both. In the ideal circumstance, every teacher knows about these resources. Every parent knows about these resources and gets their students on it. You know, we see efficacy studies, if kids are even able to put in 40 minutes a week, it can dramatically accelerate them. But the ideal is if kids are able to put in 15, 20 minutes a day above and beyond what they would have normally done in schoo and especially in topics like math, we have a lot of evidence that not only will they fill in the gaps, but they will probably accelerate well ahead of their peers. So every parent should know that because these resources are free and- and- and available to everyone. You know, my understanding of how the money will flow is primarily going to most of that money is going to go to the states and then the state, kind of commissioners of education will distribute most of that money to the districts and then the districts are going to have a lot of leeway in how they use it. My- my hope is that they use that to create in-person settings so that there is that mentorship, that human connection that can then leverage some of these online tools, including online tutoring. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: So, I mean, remote- remote learning is going to stay with us. And in fact, if you look at the CDC guidelines for reopening schools, the majority of schools are in areas with really high COVID rates. So that means under the guidelines that like middle school and high schools, have to stay virtual only unless they can really strictly implement all the mitigation strategies. So for high school and middle grade students, is- is that sort of the area that you think is the greatest focus for you right now since they seem to be kind of stuck online for the near future?

KHAN: I- I think it's all of the above, and I think we're- we're talking about two phases, we're talking about between now and hopefully things normalize by the fall, what we're going to do. And our focus is on everyone from pre-K, we have Khan Academy kids, which is reading, writing, math and social and emotional learning all the way through elementary, middle, high school and early college. You know, we go into some of those, all of those early general ed, especially all of the STEM courses. And I think now it's a lot of what--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Science, technology, math. 

KHAN: Right. And right now it's going to be- you're going to have to leverage the technology while the pandemic is going. But once we get back to school, so to speak, there's going to be all of this gap filling. And that's where the extra tutoring from places like Schoolhouse dot World, you know, leveraging Khan Academy, ideally in a classroom, so that kids can fill in the gaps while the class starts to move ahead to the appropriate grade level. I think that's going to be essential.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Sal Khan, it's been good to talk to you today. Founder and CEO of Khan Academy, thank you for your time. We'll be right back. 

SAL KHAN: Great. Thanks for having me.

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