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The yin to Levar Burton's lofty, anthemic yang, Sal Khan approached his keynote address with a feet-on-the-ground, matter-of-fact look at the state of edtech in the world today, beginning with his own story: the founding of Khan Academy. Sal was interviewed by consultant, analyst, and Phil on Edtech blogger Phil Hill, whose questions reflected the current curiosities and concerns of educators and edtech users. 

On Khan Academy

Phil kicked off the discussion by asking Sal for a brief overview of his nonprofit Khan Academy. Its mission, Sal responded, is to offer a free world-class education for anyone anywhere. This means making core academic content, materials, and practice available to everyone on the planet, from pre-K through elementary school, middle school, high school, and college, in a way that's engaging and useful. Khan Academy focuses heavily on personalisation, mastery learning, and meeting students where they are, and it's recently started to focus on connecting learning to outcomes in the real world, such as getting into college or getting a job. 

Since its humble beginnings, Khan Academy has grown remarkably, just passing 110 million users. Sal attributes much of his success to pairing bite-sized video lessons with practice software, but he also believes that because his first videos were made for his family, people could sense the pure intent and passion in them. CanvasCon attendees heard that passion in Sal's voice as he excitedly talked about "connecting the dots" and "being inspired by people who dedicated their lives to discovery."

“I was the kid that wasn’t satisfied memorizing a formula. I always wanted to ponder why that formula worked or didn’t work, how it connected to what was happening in other classes, and what it can tell us about the universe.”

When asked whether he had any sense of the scope to which Khan Academy would grow, Sal described feeling like his initial hopes were delusional, telling himself: “If you can just help the people in front of you, that’s worth doing.” Now that he's proven his vision can be efficacious and can scale, he says, he just realizes how much more can be done to help people around the world reach their potential.

Read Sal's "Letter to My Past Self: Reflections on the Personal Journey of Starting Khan Academy." 

Sal noted that his bias toward action and dreaming big has served him well, but that he hasn't always communicated or managed his processes as well as possible. "You can't over-communicate as an organization," he said. When it comes to process management "you have to refine and refocus and prune a lot," which he finds painful and frustrating, but necessary. 

On the Current State and Role of Edtech

Phil asked Sal where Khan Academy ends and other edtech systems begin, in terms of both technology and pedagogy. Sal sees Khan Academy as a strategic supplement for personalised practice. "Most learning happens through practice and feedback, in pretty much any domain," he said. “The notion of kids needing functionally unlimited, personalised practice and feedback and teachers needing to know where they are, that’s a universal problem/opportunity. Traditional curricula are pretty light on practice, and it's hard to implement differentiation, mastery learning, and personalisation and get useful data without some type of technology in the classroom." 

But he also feels that edtech is currently too fragmented—there's the SIS, rostering solutions, assessment providers, learning management systems, and more, and the fragmentation widens across regions. The dream is to integrate more with these parties for a more coherent experience for teachers and students. 

“As a technologist, you often have a bias to saying ‘I have something cool, let me figure out how to make people use it.’ But the real solutions happen the other way around, you identify a real issue, you have a thesis on how to fix it, and then you say ‘What are the tools I need to execute on that thesis?’” 

Sal believes that if we can clarify the outcomes and focus on those, it levels the playing field in terms of credentialing, cadence, and diversity of approaches. Blending edtech with human interaction is key, and how that happens should be based on the pedagogical goal. Can kids get a lot of practice and feedback in their own time and place? Are there ways teachers can know in real time where kids are and then use that information to provide more focused interventions and help students help each other? The tech tools should help accomplish this; it should feel like a cohesive, integrated experience; and it should be as engaging and useful as possible. 

"It isn't about the success of any one organization, if someone out-innovates us, that's good. We should cheer that on, we should learn from that, or complement that, or integrate with that. It's going to create much better experiences for students and teachers." 

To learn about the COVID-19 impact on and response from Khan Academy, Sal's views on the problem/opportunity of addressing learning gaps, and his strategy for reaching the most vulnerable kids, watch the full keynote session here.


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