Making The Best Of Virtual Learning: Some Advice From The Founder Of Khan Academy

Aug 22, 2020

Sal Khan, the founder and CEO of Khan Academy, built an education enterprise on virtual learning. But as many communities across the country prepare to start the fall with online-only instruction, even he admits that distance learning is a less than perfect substitute for in-person schooling.

The former hedge fund analyst first hatched the idea for Khan Academy as a way to tutor his younger cousins in math. Since its launch in 2008, the site has been providing free video tutorials and lectures. Today, it serves more than 100 million users worldwide.

"I'll be the first to say that for most students, distance learning can't replace a great in-person experience," wrote Khan in a New York Times op-ed earlier this month. "Pure distance-learning is suboptimal, but we have to do it out of necessity because of the pandemic."

The problem, Khan says, is that with virtual learning, students are missing out on the vital social and emotional benefits that come from in-person classes.

For that reason, Khan presses the importance of placing one-on-one interaction at the center of virtual lessons.

"Everything should be about pulling kids out of the screen," Khan says in an interview with NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday.

To him, that means sending students into breakout rooms on Zoom to help foster collaboration, or calling on students who don't have their hands raised.

"For a lot of kids, this might actually be the main way they get connected to their friends because everything in their life is distanced," he says.

Some teachers have opted to record YouTube-style tutorials to share with their students. Khan wants educators to steer away from these rigid lesson plan formats.

A teacher leading a class of 30 students "isn't the most engaging way to run a physical classroom," he says. That can ring especially true in a virtual environment.

Instead of leading dozens of students for an hour, for example, he suggests teaching three groups of 10 students for 20 minutes each. "It's that more human, more intimate interaction that's going to make all the difference this coming year," says Khan.

The idea is one that Khan has tried to integrate into his own platform.

"Over the last decade or so, most of our resources have actually been around practice and feedback and tools for teachers and ways for kids to progress at their own time and pace and get as much as they need," Khan says.

One of the best things a teacher can do, he says, is to make themselves available to students. That might look like smaller, more informal sessions through Google Meet or Zoom.

In a moment full of imperfect conditions, Khan warns teachers against striving toward perfection.

"There's plenty of opportunities to try new things, and if you fail, fail forward," he says. "Learn from it, tell your friends what worked and what didn't work, and then try a new iteration."

NPR's Hiba Ahmad and Martha Ann Overland produced and edited this interview for broadcast.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit


You may be familiar with video tutorials from the Khan Academy. More than 100 million people around the world are. The videos started with a hedge fund analyst to help tutor his younger cousins in math. They took off to now become an online nonprofit education enterprise to help millions of children and their beleaguered parents learn skills. Sal Khan also has three school-age children of his own and they are stuck at home in these times. Sal Khan joins us.

Thanks very much for being with us, sir.

SAL KHAN: Great to be here, Scott.

SIMON: You've been forthright in saying that however helpful your videos or anybody's videos can be, online schooling is not ideal, is it?

KHAN: Pure online schooling, I'll be the first to say - and I'm - as you just referred to, I'm a bit of a poster child for online learning. But over the last decade or so, we've been - most of our resources have actually been around practice and feedback and tools for teachers and ways for kids to progress at their own time and pace. That by itself is for sure going to be suboptimal. Or if you have that plus video conference, that's still not the same thing as being in a physically present classroom, being able to get all of the social interaction, build all of the friendships. And so this world that we have fallen into because of the pandemic - we just have to hold hands and get through it given the constraints we're dealt.

SIMON: Any advice that you could offer - practical advice - teachers and, for that matter, parents to try and make the online world better?

KHAN: The first is the realization that distance learning, even though we've just said it's suboptimal, for a lot of kids, this actually might be the main way that they get connected to their friends because everything in their life is distanced. And so when we think about distance learning - and there's really two modalities that we have at our disposal. We could call, you know, the asynchronous modalities - that's the Khan Academy. Kids can learn at their own time and pace, get as much practice as they need. The other is to get on video conference, to get on Google Meet or get on Zoom and for students to actually be able to be live, present with their peers and with their teachers.

It's key that they emphasize the social. They emphasize the human interaction. A one person to 30 student lecture, frankly, isn't the most engaging way to run a physical classroom. And it's super not engaging when you think about a video conference session. So everything should be about pulling kids out of the screen, asking them questions, cold calling, asking them to do things, say, hey, here's a problem. Take the next five minutes to try to solve it. Put your answer on the message board.

SIMON: What's cold calling? I mean, I understand it for a real estate salesman. What is it for a teacher?

KHAN: So cold calling is this notion of calling on a student even if they're not raising their hand and asking them a question, maybe a provocative question, something that makes them think a little bit about things. You know, in this time, that's the only way to really pull kids out 'cause some kids might be willing to engage and jump in on video conference. But a lot of kids are going to need the teachers to constantly pull them out.

SIMON: I have an impression that this is a particularly difficult period for youngsters who have learning challenges.

KHAN: Yeah. And it's across the spectrum. And unfortunately, it's learning challenges are going to be an issue. And then I think that's going to be compounded with, you know, socioeconomic stresses. I think in certain cases, kids might actually get more personalized attention in this world. But for a lot of kids, whether they have special learning needs or not - and we're talking at least 10 to 30% of the population - even if we're able to overcome digital divide issues, they might not have the right supports at home. Their parents might be essential workers. They're not even in the house to support their kids. They might only have one device or one cell phone that's the entire family's lifeline to the outside world. So this is going to be a really tough year for those kids.

SIMON: Mr. Khan, a lot of teachers aren't particularly comfortable with the technology. What do you do about that?

KHAN: The biggest source of discomfort is just how foreign it is sometimes and a fear of doing something the wrong way. I think, you know, traditionally in education, there's so many stressors on the teacher. They're being evaluated in, you know, this way and that way that now that you're going to new modality, there's a little bit of fear of like, what if I don't do it right? I spoke to a local school district out here in California. What I said is, look. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Just get started. And so there's plenty of opportunities to try new things. And if you fail, fail forward. Learn from it. Tell your friends what worked and what didn't work. And then try a new iteration.

SIMON: I feel the need to leave our conversation by asking you, if there is one thing that you could tell teachers who are challenged now to communicate with their students, what would it be?

KHAN: I would say optimize for as many human touch points as possible. I think this is a time where kids are so in need of human interaction that, as much as possible, if a teacher can spend more time doing even very informal, you know, Google Meet or Zoom sessions, just being available for students and not putting too much burden on the teachers to have everything fully baked, fully planned. That human interaction is what's going to make all the difference. Instead of 30 kids for an hour, it could be three groups of 10 for 20 minutes each. But it's that more human, more intimate interaction that's going to make all the difference this coming year.

SIMON: Sal Khan, founder and CEO of the Khan Academy. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

KHAN: Thanks for having me.

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