Khan Academy Founder Sal Khan Discusses Distance Learning’s Challenges and Potential Amid Pandemic

HOUSTON, October 2, 2020 — Asia Society Texas Center was pleased to present the founder and CEO of Khan Academy, Sal Khan, along with moderator Laura Arnold, co-chair of Arnold Ventures, in a webcast addressing educational equity as part of the COVID-19: New Realities series. The two discussed how the inequities of online learning can be addressed, as well as the future of online education.

Starting Khan Academy

Arnold began by asking Khan to share how he started Khan Academy and how it became what it is today. Khan said the idea came to him during his days of managing a hedge fund, when his younger cousin Nadia asked him for help with school. When he started working with her, he said that he noticed the first task was to de-program the lack of self-esteem she had from struggling with school, and through this was able to not only get her to succeed but overachieve in her studies.

Other family members started to reach out to Khan not long after, and then family friends; before he knew it, Khan said, he was spending all his spare time tutoring, including developing videos and online software to help students with their studies. He said although he did enjoy his hedge fund job, eventually the tutoring and educational services he was providing were taking up more of his time and interest, and over the course of five years, he shifted to fully pursue this passion.

Inequity in Distance Learning

As the conversation continued, Arnold brought up that it is often students who come from wealthier, more successful backgrounds who have easier access to online supplementary tools, allowing them to further themselves ahead of students who come from less privileged backgrounds. Khan agreed the numbers show that upper-middle-class students are overwhelmingly the ones who use free online resources, such as Khan Academy. However, he pointed out it is important to understand what would happen if the resources were taken away, saying those with wealth and resources would still be able to find other means to help them get ahead, while others would continue to fall behind. Because of this, Khan shared he felt that free online education tools still help address at least some issues of educational inequity.

Nevertheless, he noted that providing online resources is only one part of the solution, and the other part requires being proactive “to reach students where they are and give them what they need.” To Khan, this means making the online platforms and materials more approachable and engaging for students and teachers, and systemically integrating with high-need school districts. He said the first step is to bridge the infrastructure divide — the lack of basic internet and devices — which he expressed hope in achieving, as the pandemic has raised additional awareness about the need to address the gap.

Online Education during the Pandemic and in the Future

Diving into the effect COVID-19 has had on education, Arnold asked how Khan Academy is accommodating distance learning needs during the global pandemic and how education might look different as many schools transition to being fully virtual for the foreseeable future. Khan replied that Khan Academy has revamped its learning materials by creating more tools to help families and parents with distance learning. He noted that in mid-March, Khan Academy saw 250–300 percent more traffic than normal, signaling the need to stress-test servers, host webinars to coach teachers and parents on remote learning, and create additional lesson plans.

Khan emphasized the fact that this shift to being fully online is suboptimal and said that even though distance learning has its value, this year will hurt student progress in many ways. He acknowledged there has been an incredible effort to ensure that students receive the tools they need to learn from home, but ultimately the divergence between student achievement will increase. He underlined the importance of in-person learning, saying there are certain parts of education that need a very literal hands-on approach, such as work in a lab, and expressed his concerns regarding the increased time spent in front of a screen for students.

“If I had to pick between an incredible teacher and incredible technology, I would pick the incredible teacher every time,” said Khan.

Nevertheless, Khan said he believes in the benefits of online learning that can be more personalized and more competency-based. Although he shared his concerns around the current state of schooling in the pandemic, he indicated that some good has come out of it, such as teachers and school districts evolving for the future and learning more about the online tools available to them. He said he hopes these can be instituted into lessons even when in-person learning resumes once again.

Business and Policy programs are endowed by Huffington Foundation. We give special thanks to Bank of America, Muffet Blake, Anne and Albert Chao, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Nancy Pollok Guinee, and United Airlines, Presenting Sponsors of Business and Policy programs; Nancy C. Allen, Chinhui Juhn and Eddie Allen, and Leslie and Brad Bucher, Presenting Sponsors of Exhibitions; Dr. Ellen R. Gritz and Milton D. Rosenau, Presenting Sponsors of Performing Arts and Culture; Wells Fargo, Presenting Sponsor of Education & Outreach; and Mitsubishi Corporation (Americas), Presenting Sponsor of the Japan Series. General support of programs and exhibitions is provided by The Brown Foundation, Inc., The Hearst Foundation, Inc., Houston Endowment, Inc., the City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance, McKinsey & Company, Inc., National Endowment for the Arts, Texas Commission on the Arts, Vinson & Elkins LLP, and Mary Lawrence Porter, as well as Friends of Asia Society.

About Asia Society at Home

We are dedicated to continuing our mission of building cross-cultural understanding and uplifting human connectivity. Using digital tools, we bring you content for all ages and conversations that matter, in order to spark curiosity about Asia and to foster empathy.

About Asia Society Texas Center

With 13 locations throughout the world, Asia Society is the leading educational organization promoting mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships among the peoples, leaders, and institutions of Asia and West. Asia Society Texas Center executes the global mission with a local focus, enriching and engaging the vast diversity of Houston through innovative, relevant programs in arts and culture, business and policy, education, and community outreach.

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