Q&A with Sal Khan, Founder and CEO of Khan Academy

Workday was thrilled to host Sal Khan as its guest keynote speaker at Workday Rising 2015. Khan shared with attendees his inspiring story about how his experience tutoring a cousin through YouTube videos led him to quit his job as a hedge-fund analyst and pursue a dream to offer “free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.” The result was Khan Academy, a non-profit organization founded in 2006 that has more than 26 million registered students, and has delivered more than 580 million lessons and 4 billion exercise problems. Last year, Forbes named Khan “The Most Influential Person in Education Technology.”

We had the opportunity to meet with Khan before he took the stage at Workday Rising. Khan, who is the organization’s founder and CEO, shared with us his thoughts on the challenges of lifelong learning, the role of mobility in education, and why social concepts work so well in online learning.

Khan Academy’s goal is to offer a “free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.” Do you think those principles apply to lifelong learning, too?

A lot of ideas I talk about in context of a traditional education—giving people access to knowledge at their own time and pace, and being able to master concepts without any judgment—are even more relevant in the context of lifelong learning. If you’re a student in algebra class, it’s embarrassing to say you forgot how to add fractions. But when you’re a middle-aged employee it’s even more embarrassing to admit that, or worse yet that you don’t know that unfamiliar term people keep using in meetings. That’s where there’s a lot of value in on-demand learning—there’s no judgment, and it’s at your own time and pace.

What do you think is most challenging about workplace learning?

I think the main issues are time and insecurity. We all have a million things to do and it’s very hard to plan for time to learn; to block off two hours every Tuesday and Thursday for a traditional course. It’s much easier if you can jump in to a lesson for 10 minutes if you’re free, or jump in for an hour if you’re waiting at the airport.

The other thing goes back to the notion of no judgment. It’s helpful to have quick, online access to resources. If someone asks, “What’s an XYZ report?,” it would be ideal if you could quickly look on your phone and find the answer.

Sal Khan signs copies of his book.
Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, autographs copies of his book, “The One World Schoolhouse,” for Workday Rising 2015 attendees.

How does mobility change how people learn and will continue to learn in less developed parts of the world?

For us in the U.S., a phone or tablet is our 2nd or 3rd device; for those in less-developed countries it will be their only device. That’s why Khan Academy invests so much in mobile. If you fast forward five years practically everyone in Africa and India will have a phone, and they’ll be better than the phones you and I use today. And whether you’re a 9th grader or 60 years old, you need to find pockets of time for learning, and that’s where mobile is really relevant.

As we’re building Workday Learning, we’re hearing from customers about the importance of social mechanisms—letting peers know a course is good by giving it a “thumbs up,” and being able to comment and generate your own content. Why are these things so powerful in an online environment?

It’s really just about getting good quality feedback. Think about the world before online: If you were a book author, before Amazon came along you didn’t really know what people thought of your book other than what a handful of book critics had to say. Now you get a really good read on what people think because of online feedback from those who’ve read the book.

The other thing is we all tend to trust user-generated content more—users aren’t necessarily trying to sell you something. For the most part it’s an honest expression of what they think. There are many people who get satisfaction from having contributed to the knowledge of other people.

There’s been a lot of talk about whether kids are really prepared for the workforce, and whether they have the right skills. How do we instill not just knowledge, but the ability to learn?

I think that goes straight to this whole idea of push versus pull. In a traditional model of education we push knowledge: “This is today’s lesson, go do your homework.” We should be saying, “Here’s what you can go after—here are the resources, books, Khan Academy, Google, Wikipedia, your peers, your teacher—figure it out.” That’s the single best muscle you can help people build.

At Workday, our company and employees give back through the Workday Foundation. How can a corporation play a productive role in giving back to education?

I was on a panel last night, and someone said, “Rather than ‘Take Your Child to Work Day,’ why not have a ‘Take Someone Else’s Child to Work Day?’” I think that’s an interesting idea—go to an inner city school, partner with the school, and bring kids to work so they can see the possibilities. You can’t be what you can’t see.

Also, a lot of corporate volunteer work is traditional work, such as serving in a soup kitchen. That’s great and people should continue to do that. But we should also look at different kinds of volunteer work, including work you could do from your desk. What if you could tutor a child someplace else on the planet, or even across town? It’d feel great, and there’s zero overhead involved. And those 30 minutes you take out of your day to provide free tutoring? That would be energizing for people, engage them more, and maybe even make them more productive for the rest of the day.