Sal Khan speaks to Priyanka Srivastava about the expansion of free educational videos in native languages, customised to suit the demand of each student to bridge the learning gaps

American educator of Indian-Bangladeshi descent Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, calls education the only tool that can transform the landscape of any country. 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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Pandemic put the spotlight on how much the students have lost, and it would have been a lot more difficult if there were no online learning resources. “Our hypothesis before the pandemic was to allow all the students to fill any gaps. But, the pandemic compelled everyone to move online, which increased the pressure on educational platforms to understand the needs. In normal times, we had 25-30 million learning minutes every day, which went up to 85 million learning minutes 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 Mathematics and Physics – the subjects that students dread the most. “Why so many students struggle, especially in Mathematics and Science is because it is a cumulative process. In a traditional academic model, students in class V, take a test and score 80%. Even though 20% of the course and concepts are not clear to the student, the class will move on to the next concept. The student may be struggling with fractions or decimals, but now they will have to deal with advanced problems. The gap increases and struggle continues, which becomes a stronger problem,” says Sal.

In 2004, Sal started tutoring his cousins through Math video lessons, which grew and took the shape of the non-profit Academy that offers free instructional videos to millions of users registered across 190 countries offering instructional videos in 51 languages.

Speaking to
Education Times on the sidelines of the 10th South Summit held in Madrid recently, Sal explained how the struggle with Math is because the students forget what was taught in the previous classes. “Students struggle not because they are not right, or the teachers are not good, but because most of them forget the basics that they learnt in the fourth or fifth grade.”

Online learning is a safety net, not just for the pandemic, but also for young refugees who are missing the schools or those who are forced to relocate due to a natural disaster. The children suffering due to the Ukraine war, living in the camps have no access to education. “We have teams working to localise the content and to make it suitable for the Ukrainian students. Syrian refugees used our lectures to learn and complete their studies, as they were given an internet connection. One student from the Syrian camps got admission to Georgetown University, Washington,” adds Sal, narrating an inspiring story of a young boy in the American prison, who spent time studying from the Khan Academy videos and ended up enrolling in an Ivy League college.

Even in wealthy countries such as the US and UK, students suffer due to learning gaps. “Several Hispanic and African American students do not have access to global standard lessons on Calculus or Advanced Physics. The online lessons help in solving the doubts and practice,” says Sal.

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

In India, Tata Trust has been a funding partner, while several state governments have collaborated with them to develop localised learning content. Aware of the massive competition from the private players offering online coaching material charging a huge sum, the Academy hopes to help the students in the interiors. “Indian students prepare for SAT with the help of Khan Academy lessons. But, for the K-12 exams, they are ready to spend $300 every quarter to get online coaching, although we offer it for free. In the US, students refuse to spend that kind of money since they prefer to use the free option,” adds Khan, underlining how the Indian middle class is willing to pump money on tutoring, but 80% of under-resourced students living in villages still need free support.

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

? Partnering with College Board, the Academy created free practice lessons for SAT, which is extremely popular across the world. “We partnered with AAMC for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and provide free lessons to help aspirants planning to study medicine in the US,” says Sal.

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