Salman Khan had a secure and prestigious job as a hedge fund analyst at Connective Capital Management when he started to tutor his cousin Nadia in mathematics. This was a subject that Khan had obvious proficiency in having previously completed several graduate degrees in electrical engineering, computer science and business at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard respectively. Using a simple medium, Yahoo’s Doodle notepad, Khan created a series of simple, easy to understand and follow, and instructive videos on the concepts that Nadia needed to learn. The videos were unique. They were on a black background and used simple white or neon colored doodles or diagrams that explain the concepts. Khan wanted to de-emphasize the importance of the classroom in regards to learning. He thought it would be most effective to duplicate a person walking through a problem using a simple piece of paper. He also wanted to create tutorials that could be paused, since a classroom lecture could not be. In an interview with USA Today in 2008 he noted, “If you’re watching a guy do a problem (while) thinking out loud, I think people find that more valuable and not as daunting.”
Clearly a unique value proposition to Nadia, the videos weren’t originally created for mass distribution; however, they were incredibly effective. The pupils who saw the videos found them to be even more effective in many cases than what was being taught by their teachers. So when additional friends and family members came to Khan, asking for similar assistance, he decided that he would upload his videos to YouTube, and make them publically available, so that they could be easily shared with others who would find value in them.
What has transpired since 2004, when Khan first started making his videos, can only be described as remarkable. However, when you understand the power of a unique value proposition, combined with the worldwide connectivity of the Internet, and the predisposition of people to share things that are subjectively worthwhile and valuable to them it is not that surprising. Salman Khan’s simple, instructive videos have generated more than 206 million hits on YouTube, and have attracted almost 437,000 subscribers – making his channel one of the most powerful and influential sources of educational content in the world. All of his content remains free and available in real time. His videos have generated more hits than the open class content of many of the top American Universities combined, including many prestigious Ivy League Institutions, where it would costs thousands of dollars to learn the same lessons.
Salmon Khan quit his hedge fund job in 2009 to focus on creating tutorials full time. Truly he has tapped into his purpose, triggered a unique value proposition and is changing the world in the process. Khan Academy, the name of the non-profit educational website that Khan launched to house his tutorial videos has a stated mission of “changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere”. Also available on the website are practice modules and exercises where problems are generated for students to solve based on certain skill levels and performance. The website also has the ability for tutors to coach students and track their work. It also includes many volunteer opportunities for people wanting to assist in the translation of the lessons or spreading the academy’s message throughout the world.
The tutorials have expanded beyond mathematics to include lessons in history, healthcare, finance, physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, economics, cosmology, organic chemistry, American civics, art history, macroeconomics, microeconomics, and computer science. It is also extending the lessons to be made available in 21 different languages. Multiple educators, engineers, advisors, professionals and instructors have joined the Khan Academy team to change the face of modern day education and as they state on their home page “learn almost anything for free”.
The non-profit has attracted the attention, and funding, of some of the most powerful technology companies and minds in the world. It currently has financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. On September 24, 2010, Google announced on their official blog that they would donate $2,000,000, as part of their Project 10^100 program, to the Khan Academy to “support the creation of more courses and to enable the Khan Academy to translate their core library into the world’s most widely spoken languages”. Further, in 2011 it received a $5 million grant from The O’Sullivan Foundation, founded by cloud computing innovator Sean O’Sullivan, directed at expanding the teaching faculty; extending content through crowd sourced contributions (a la Wickipedia); and developing curricula to help users blend content between virtual and physical learning.
One individual, who was able to tap into his core values (love of learning, desire to teach, ability to create innovative learning methods), to create a unique value proposition (simple instructive videos), started all of this. His unique value proposition went viral. When people experienced value in the tutorials they shared it with the people they cared about. People started to talk, and with the power of connectivity of social networks, combined with the ease of use of YouTube, created tremendous leverage to spread his videos.
Now Salman Khan is seen as a visionary, an innovator, and an educational guru and celebrity. He has been featured on CBS’s 60 Minutes, PBS, National Public Radio, CNN, the BBC, Wired Magazine, multiple newspapers and in numerous national and international publications. He has appeared on Charlie Rose, The Colbert Report, and in 2011 presented at a highly influential TED conference. In April 2012 he was listed among Time Magazines 100 Most Influential People for 2012. There is no question that Khan is a brilliant innovator, but we have to recognize also the power that is unleashed when a unique value proposition is embraced and shared using social media. That is the true story behind Khan Academy.