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Simi Singh Juneja

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Why Would Some of the Brightest Minds at Facebook and Google Leave to Work For This Not-for-Profit?

Posted: 08/15/2012 10:18 am

In 2004, Salman Khan began tutoring his seventh grader cousin in math over the internet. The former hedge fund manager, MIT graduate, and Harvard MBA, then began recording lessons and uploading them onto the newly created YouTube from his Palo Alto closet. Along with dancing babies and cute kittens, Khan's tutorials gained a substantial following and grew into the highly regarded not-for-profit Khan Academy "with the goal of providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere." Khan has been called Bill Gates' favorite teacher and was voted one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people in the world for 2012. My 12 year-old son Armaan was fortunate enough to attend a session of Khan Academy's first "official" Discovery Lab Summer Camp in Palo Alto where the online was brought to life.

I sat down with the wonderfully gregarious and gentle Shantanu Sinha, President and Chief Operating Officer of the Khan Academy while Armaan and his new friends proudly explained their slow-dancing robots, reverse engineered iphones, and popsicle stick Sierpinski triangle constructions.

Is this the second camp?

This is the first one we've run since we've had funding and became a major organization. The two camps we ran before this -- literally when Sal wasn't in his closet making videos, he would run a camp with kids, which is even more impressive that he would be able to pull that off. The idea has been a very old one for Khan Academy. The idea of really hands-on project-based learning, things that inspire kids to their potential has been a part of the vision for a long time.

When did you jump on board, Shantanu?

I joined the Khan Academy literally when we were getting off of the ground as an organization. It was at the end of September, October of 2010. Around the time we got funding from Google and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and I joined as the president to help build up the team, build up the organization.

Where were you before this?

I spent seven years at McKinsey and Company, working in high tech and large-scale operational transformations. Before that, I was a software engineer, tech background working start-ups in the late '90s time frame. I've known Sal for a long time, 20 plus years. We were high school math competitors in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Why did you jump from McKinsey to the Khan Academy?

Salman is a friend. I've obviously talked to him about Khan Academy before he made his first video. It was pretty obvious that this is a really important thing for the world, for society. When I was at McKinsey we used to talk about impact a lot. You talk about it from a management consulting perspective; we think about the client impact. I did a lot of pro bono work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina through McKinsey. I looked at myself and said you know I'm having some real impact here.

I liked McKinsey. However, when I looked at what Khan Academy offered or what Khan Academy can become, even though at that point it was Sal in a closet, but what his vision is, that was so much greater. You get those opportunities once in a lifetime if you're lucky. If you're lucky and when it comes, you better know when to jump.

I read in Wired that in Silicon Valley, Khan Academy is the place to be. People are migrating from Facebook and Google.

The team that we have at the Khan Academy is one of the best teams I have ever worked with.

That's exciting.

It's really exciting. That's comparing it to MIT, McKinsey, some really elite organizations, across the board. We've got really great talent that came in very early.

Like John Resig who built our computer science interface -- he is the one that led the whole computer science lab that your son was working on. He built that. He wrote Jquery, which is really the most used javascript library on the planet. He is a programming celebrity in his own right. And then Craig Silverstein was the first guy at Google after Larry and Sergey. He joined our team. He helped build the first search engine. We have another person who was early at Facebook who helped build the advertising platform.

What are your team meetings like?

They're surreal. We have a lot of talented people.

It's like the Superfriends of Silicon Valley.

(He laughs) I don't know about the superhero thing.

It's an incredibly noble cause.

Yes, it is a noble cause. I think that's exactly it.

Ideally what do you think the perfect education is? Are you trying to translate that into the Khan Academy? What's your dream?

My dream is every human on the planet with technology has access to the best educational materials possible. That material is personalized. It will be exactly what you need. The computer can almost be the perfect one-on-one tutor. You want to have that personalization -- a person that understands what you are struggling with and recommends the next thing.

Do you think that can happen in our lifetime?

I think so. I think the ability to make all of that information available in a scalable way at a low cost is trivial. That can happen in a few years. Wikipedia has shown that for the encyclopedia world. That can happen. All of the important educational content is going online. MIT is doing it. Harvard is doing it.

Is college going to become obsolete?

The physical and the shared experiences are always going to be really important. That is what the Discovery Lab is all about. What we are doing here at the Discovery Lab is an experience you would never see online. It moved us up the value chain. It moved us up to the kids are here now. The kids are problem-solving bigger problems.

I think through the K-12 space that's what school becomes. it's going to look a lot like this summer camp. With kids spending maybe one or two hours a day learning online.

Rote?

I wouldn't say it's rote. I think it is personalized learning. A lot of people think computer learning is only rote learning. The computer science stuff that Armaan did, was that rote? That's not rote to me. That was creative. That was him having a personal experience. He learned how to code his own video game. That was dynamic. Right now we are in the early stages. It can be very creative, very conceptual, very interactive.

What do you think college will be like moving forward?

I want to separate the K-12 discussion from the college discussion. In the K-12 space you will always need the mentorship. People guiding the students in something like our Discovery Lab. When you get to the college level, it will force colleges to ask themselves, "what are we really about?" They are charging a lot of money for whatever they are doing.

I loved college. I met my wife in college. Sal met his wife in college. How do you grasp the value of that? I would never tell my kid, "don't do that." That's unbelievably valuable. You have to realize what you are doing. A lot of people think it is about the education. We say this a lot. There is the learning part and a lot of that can be done online. There is the other part of it which is the social aspect. You can't underestimate that.

It is the reason you go to business school. College will be a lot more like business school which is you are going for the network. You are going for the experiences, the discussion and dialogue. I think the lecture in college should go away very quickly. That model -- the lecture based of 500 people taking notes -- because I hope I won't miss a word is useless.

You can see it in a video.

It will all be online and better. Sal and I joke that the reason we did so well at MIT is because we skipped all the classes. We didn't waste our time on that. We focused on our personal learning with our own friends and textbooks. That's why we could take so many classes. We took classes that were overlapping. We couldn't physically go to both lectures. We quickly realized that lectures weren't all that valuable. The lecture will go away. I think there will be this great interactive online learning that will be fantastic.

I would spend hours, just like what your son is doing in the labs. It is going to be much more hands on, much more project oriented, much more research oriented. That was where the deep learning happened for me. That was the core of my MIT experience.

Is there a certain body of knowledge that every human being should have?

That every human being should have in their mind or have access to?

Have access to. Schools debate about curriculum all the time.

I am more on the line of empowering people to make the right decisions themselves. I wouldn't say most of the people in the world should learn differential equations. It's a silly statement. How often do you solve differential equations in your job? I don't think it is even that helpful to force anybody to do these things.

There is a core set of learning how to think analytically which you get a lot in math class.

A lot of what we are doing with the computer science stuff that your son was doing is missing in the education system today. Teach the creative process of building things. Computer Science is a great language/place for that. Making sure everybody has at least the access to do that. And we get better at redirecting people so they have those opportunities.

You hear about kids who first try to program in high school ... Why did it take that long? They're going into a career in programming and they were probably capable of it earlier. Look at your son. He's capable of it at 12.

And he loves it.

He loved it, and he should know that early on.

The brand-new Computer Science platform that John Resig taught Armaan on was launched yesterday.

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