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A World-Class Education, Free and Online

Khan Academy has achieved stratospheric success, boasting more than 150 million “lessons delivered.” 

When Salman Khan began creating educational videos for his cousins in 2004, little did he know that, less than a decade later, a nonprofit organization bearing his name would help tens of millions of people worldwide learn subjects ranging from math and finance to biology and chemistry. 

“When I set up the Khan Academy as a not-for-profit organization in 2008, I had to write a mission statement for the IRS,” says Khan, who was working in finance at the time and creating Web-based educational content as a hobby. “I thought, ‘okay, how about to provide a free, world-class education for anyone anywhere?’ Back then, it was a bit of a delusional statement to make,” he says, laughing. “But given what we’ve grown into, it’s become surprisingly fitting.”

Khan Academy has achieved stratospheric success, boasting more than 150 million “lessons delivered.” The site’s popularity is not only due to its preponderance of accessible and intelligent instructional videos, most shorter than 10 minutes, but also its variety of self-quizzing tools; the Web site even provides functionality for teachers or coaches to assign exercises and track student progress as they proceed from lesson to lesson.

Since he began, Khan has personally created roughly 3,000 of the academy’s 3,300 videos. Each video can take him between a few minutes and several hours to produce. “I want the videos to be organic and conversational,” he says. “I normally have a framework in my head of what I want to go over, but working without a script makes the content sound more natural. That humanity makes it feel like I’m talking to my cousin, or to each watcher individually, and not like 20 people on a committee wrote a script and hired an actor to recite it.”

Khan has big plans for the Web site’s future. “We’re already translating videos into Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and Tamil,” he says. “We’re also planning to start localizing the actual platform into different languages, so the whole experience can be had anywhere.” Khan also plans to expand the Web site’s content with more videos and exercises. “We want to touch high-need subjects like accounting, law and medicine,” he says. “We want to make it even more interactive and engaging and want to find ways for users of the site to help each other better. We want to build a community of learners where peers tutor each other.”

Khan, who grew up in New Orleans with an Indian mother and a Bangladeshi father, sees the success of his academy as part of a larger trend toward Web-based education resources. “Universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT] have had video lectures available for decades, but for me, it’s our exercises, quizzing resources, and data and analytics that make us unique,” he says. “Harvard and MIT recently announced a Web-based education project called edX, and they’ve cited Khan Academy as inspiration, which is very flattering for us.” (See box.) Khan also points to the academy’s tremendous user base, and a continuing wave of business investment in similar online resources, as further evidence of the migration toward Web-based learning. “There’s very clearly a trend going on,” he says.

Though some fear otherwise, Khan affirms that his goal for Khan Academy is not to replace teachers, but to make classroom experiences more vibrant, efficient and interactive for students and teachers alike. “Right now, a lot of teaching is done through lectures, which is a very passive way for students to learn,” he says. “If lectures were all automated, classroom time could instead be all about peer tutoring, mentoring from faculty members, and more open-ended exploration and creativity.” If students are gathered in a room, Khan asserts, they should be interacting, “not sitting there passively receiving information.”

Khan has been happily surprised by how quickly the academy has been adopted not just by individuals around the world, but by schools as well. “I originally imagined Khan Academy to be something entirely outside of the normal schooling system,” he says. “The fact that schools everywhere are adopting it is great. It’s making people ask questions about how classroom learning should work. Not only are we helping people around the world learn, but we’ve also been inserted into the public dialog about education—and that’s a great thing.”


Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.