You might not think to look in the online education community for America’s most popular teacher; but that’s exactly where you will find Salman Khan. His popularity comes from the over 56 million views of the video lessons he compiled and used as the foundation for Khan Academy.

How it all began

Khan, a hedge fund manager, was looking for a way to tutor his younger cousin in math. Since he was working in New York City at the time, he began using Yahoo messenger, but eventually found that YouTube allowed him more flexibility. His cousin, and other family members, could view the videos allowing them to incorporate them into their own schedules. Eventually other YouTube viewers discovered them and his positive user feedback encouraged him to found the not-for-profit Khan Academy. With donors like Bill Gates and others, Khan has been able to translate the videos into 10 languages.

Gates describes him as a pioneer

Bill Gates recently spoke about Mr. Khan at Ted 2011 explaining the benefit of this method of teaching, describing the young man as “a pioneer in an overall movement to use technology to let more and more people learn things: the start of a revolution”. The founder and visionary outlines his vision as a “stand alone virtual school trying to deliver a world class education to the world”. His short videos tutor students in math, science, history, astronomy, SAT prep, current economics and even finance; the best part–they are absolutely free.

What’s different about his online teaching?

The videos don’t look like your average college lecture videos or even like the videos colleges put on their sites or YouTube channels. They are low-tech and short, with Mr. Khan scrawling equations and simple drawings on a digital software while he narrates the explanation. He is the founder and the faculty, teaching the lectures himself. He records one to five lectures a day and has been doing this since 2006.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, if he is unfamiliar with a particular subject, he bones up on the information before tackling the video:

In a recent talk he explained how he prepared for his lecture on entropy: “I took two weeks off and I just pondered it, and I called every professor and everyone I could talk to and I said, Let’s go have a glass of wine about entropy. After about two weeks it clicked in my brain, and I said, now I’m willing to make a video about entropy.”

Challenging higher education

Critics of the Khan Academy are concerned that this approach to education is flawed, concerned that the videos could contain errors and lead students in the wrong direction. But Mr. Khan believes that discovering errors is part of the learning process, being corrected and challenged many times by his viewers, allowing them to become engaged in the learning process.

Watching his videos point out how much the Web has changed higher education. Many online courses simply replicate the in-person model of traditional colleges. The Khan Academy has shown that an informal style with bite-sized units can be a simple and effective teaching tool, perhaps forcing colleges to retool and redevelop their online learning with this visionary method in mind.

What can we learn from the Khan Academy model?

Khan sums it up simply in a recent article on Yahoo News, “America’s Most Popular Online Teacher“:

“Students were telling me they got better feedback on YouTube than in person with their teachers,” he says. “The topics kept growing, [and] the feedback from users kept growing.”

It’s apparent that online learning is a viable tool to be used in education. How we use it determines the impact it has on the students and on education itself. Khan himself states that viewer feedback is key to improving his lessons and video content. The popularity of his videos can be used to evaluate his method of teaching, asking the questions that might help improve online education in the future. This makes Mr. Khan not only a visionary, but as Gates says, a pioneer and revolutionary in the field of education.


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