Khan Academy

Image from Confluence.

Khan Academy is often credited by students around the world as saving their lives. More likely, it saved them from failing an exam, or it helped them understand subjects that were confusing, or not well-taught at their schools. Khan Academy does what no other website has succeeded in doing: it has a stock of short, interesting videos on most parts of all core subjects, all of which contain very clear visual and auditory explanations. As the website grows, its content is growing with it, and its user aid also becomes more advanced.

In order to see what Khan Academy is like from the inside, I had the pleasure of interviewing David Bieber, who worked as an intern at Khan Academy in 2013. Here’s what he said:

David Bieber

David Bieber. Image from Khan Academy.

What did you do as an intern at Khan Academy?

Well, I worked on two different things, mainly. I worked some on coach recommendations, which is a tool for teachers who are using Khan Academy. It helps them suggest what his or her student might want to work on. I also worked on analytics, like internal tools to make videos and Khan Academy better for users. It was data-focused, and we would collect information on things like where people would mostly stop watching videos, and use that to make future videos better.

What is the work environment like at Khan Academy?

It’s wonderful. The workplace is one giant room in which all of the employees, from Sal Khan to all the interns, sit down and do their work. It just helps fosters that open work environment, this one giant room. Communication is very important at Khan Academy, and because it is so small–about 40 people, maybe–everyone knows what’s going on with everyone else. It’s generally really fun, and you’re surrounded by really smart people who are pretty quirky. Some people bake cookies.

What is Sal Khan like?

I talked with him a few times, and I worked with him a little bit when I worked on analytics. I specifically remember this one conversation I had with him… We were talking about philosophy. Basically, we had a discussion about whether it’s possible or not to have a soul when we live in a world of matter.

Did he ever tell you how Khan Academy got started?

Yes! Basically, sometime around 2004, he was helping his cousin, tutoring her. They both had really busy schedules, I mean Sal was a hedge fund analyst, so sometimes he tutored her over the phone, finding time whenever he can. Then, he had an idea. He tried making a video to tutor her, almost similar to the ones you see now, and put it up on YouTube for her. She watched it. Then some of her friends watched it. Then some others watched it. Then it got popular, and everyone watched it. So he made more. He made a bunch of YouTube videos before making Khan Academy, the non-profit.

Sal Khan

Sal Khan. Image from Padham.

How is Khan Academy funded?

It’s entirely through donations. We don’t charge users at all. That’s been Sal’s philosophy from the beginning. I think our biggest donations come from Google and the Gates Foundation.

If you could only use one word, how would you describe the people at Khan Academy?

Uh… Um… That’s really hard. Productive? No… Communicative? I don’t know, this is really hard. I don’t know if it’s possible to put it in one word. Lively? Perhaps. Probably “lively” is the closest.

How’s the future of Khan Academy looking?

We’re beginning to be implemented more in schools. Khan Academy is a very effective, and increasingly popular tool. I think the important thing to figure out is how to implement it well, how to transition well into this awesome technology. We don’t want to be like that “Smartboard” that gets put in every classroom, and no teacher uses it because they don’t know how. We want to make sure everyone will be able to use Khan Academy to its full potential.

David Bieber, Class of 2014, is pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Engineering degree in computer science at Princeton University. He, in addition to working at Khan Academy, has interned at Twitter, Facebook, and will be at Google this summer.

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