Reboot the School

Salman Khan's YouTube Lessons Have Already Made Him A Geek Celebrity. Now He Wants To Reinvent Homework, Banish Classroom Lectures--And Maybe Save Education

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Jamie Chung for TIME

Salman Khan

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Eventually he decided his hobby was more than just a side project. In the fall of 2009, he quit his job and devoted his full attention to Khan Academy from a makeshift office in a converted closet in his home. The real breakthrough came in May 2010, when Ann Doerr, wife of Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr, dropped $10,000 into his PayPal account. He was overjoyed at the donation--his largest to that point--and immediately wrote to thank her. When Doerr found out it was his largest donation, she insisted that they meet. Khan spent an hour with Doerr over coffee, explaining his vision of how the way we think about learning could be fundamentally altered. On his drive home, his phone beeped with an incoming text message: Doerr said she planned to deposit an additional $100,000 into his account. "I almost crashed the car," Khan says.

Word spread quickly. A month and a half later, Khan's phone lit up with text messages and e-mails informing him that Bill Gates had just mentioned Khan Academy in a speech at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Then Gates flew Khan to Seattle for a meeting and gave him a $1.5 million grant. (He would eventually throw in $4 million more.) "I'd been, frankly, frustrated at how little creative work was being done to use the Web as a core component of instruction," Gates wrote in an e-mail to TIME. "And when I saw this, I thought--yes, he's got it." Soon Khan had a $2 million donation from Google, followed by grants of $3 million from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and $5 million from Irish entrepreneur Sean O'Sullivan.

Khan is using the money to transform the academy from his own personal YouTube channel into an educational nonprofit with Silicon Valley start-up DNA. The goal: to create a complete educational approach--with video lectures, online exercises, badges to reward student progress, an analytics dashboard for teachers to track that progress and more--that can be integrated into existing classrooms or serve as a stand-alone virtual school for anyone wanting to learn something new.

Now Khan Academy has 32 employees and is being used in nine schools in the Los Altos school district and 16 other schools in California. The organization estimates that Khan lessons are also used unofficially at nearly 2,000 schools around the U.S., effectively making Khan Academy the largest blended-learning experiment in the nation.

Winning Teachers Over

While it seems like an inherently good thing to allow every student to work at his or her own pace, educators are far from unanimous regarding the benefits of it. Some see a risk that two students will reach graduation with very different skill sets. One may have mastered everything from calculus on down while the other made it only as far as algebra. In the worst-case scenario, high-achieving students race ahead while low performers languish. It's a particular concern in low-income districts where students may not have access to a computer at home.

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