Innovate and localize online instruction for innovative learning outcomes

Sal Khan talks to Priyanka Srivastava about expanding free educational videos in native languages, customized to meet individual student demand to bridge learning gaps

Indo-Bangladeshi-American educator Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, sees education as the only tool capable of transforming the landscape of any country. The availability of the internet, a smartphone or a basic laptop can stop the struggle for any child to get a basic education.


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The pandemic has brought to light how much students have lost, and it would have been a lot harder had it not been for online learning resources. “Our assumption before the pandemic was to allow all students to fill in any gaps. But, the pandemic has forced everyone to log on, which has increased the pressure on educational platforms to understand needs. Normally, we had 25-30 million minutes of learning per day, which increased to 85 million minutes of learning per day in the first week of the pandemic,” says Sal (Salman). An alumnus of MIT and Harvard, Sal continues to be passionate about teaching math and physics – the subjects students dread most. “The reason so many students struggle, especially in math and science, is because it’s a cumulative process. In a traditional academic model, students in Class V take a test and score 80%. Even if 20% of the course and concepts are unclear to the student, the class will move on to the next concept. The student may struggle with fractions or decimals, but will now face advanced problems. The gap increases and the fight continues, which becomes a bigger problem,” says Sal.

In 2004, Sal began teaching math lessons to his cousins, which grew into the non-profit Academy that provides free instructional videos to millions of registered users in 190 countries offering instructional videos in 51 languages.

Talk to
education time on the sidelines of the 10th South Summit held recently in Madrid, Sal explained how the struggle with mathematics is due to students forgetting what was taught in previous classes. “Students struggle not because they’re wrong or the teachers aren’t good, but because most of them forget the basics they learned in fourth or fifth grade.”

Online learning is a safety net, not only for the pandemic, but also for young refugees who miss school or those forced to relocate due to natural disaster. Children suffering from the war in Ukraine, living in camps do not have access to education. “We have teams working to localize the content and make it suitable for Ukrainian students. Syrian refugees have used our conferences to learn and complete their studies, as they have been provided with an internet connection. A student from the Syrian camps has been admitted to Georgetown University, Washington, ”adds Sal, telling the inspiring story of a young boy in the American prison, who spent time studying from the videos of the Khan. Academy and ended up enrolling in an Ivy League college.

Even in wealthy countries like the US and UK, students are suffering due to learning gaps. “Many Hispanic and African-American students don’t have access to world standard courses in calculus or advanced physics. Online courses help resolve doubts and practice,” Sal says.

Supported by philanthropists and corporations, the largest funding is offered by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk recently donated $5 million, while Netflix’s Reed Hastings is one of their contributors.

In India, Tata Trust has been a founding partner, while several state governments have collaborated with them to develop localized learning content. Aware of the massive competition from private players offering online coaching material paying a staggering sum, the Academy hopes to help students in interiors. “Indian students are preparing for the SAT with the help of lessons from Khan Academy. But, for K-12 exams, they are willing to spend $300 each quarter to get online coaching, although we offer it for free. In the United States, students refuse to spend this kind of money because they prefer to use the free option,” adds Khan, pointing out that the Indian middle class is ready to pour money into tutoring, but 80% of underfunded students living in villages still need free assistance.

“Our budget is around $60 million a year and our mission is huge. Globally, around $5 trillion is needed for the education sector and good Samaritan donations are the only solution. In India, Vietnam, Brazil and Turkey, we have philanthropists supporting us to develop personalized local content to help students,” adds Khan.

In partnership with College Board, the Academy has created free practice lessons for SAT, which is extremely popular around the world. “We have partnered with the AAMC for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and offer free tuition to help aspirants who plan to study medicine in the United States,” says Sal.

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