Talking with Sal Khan about YouTube tutoring as guerilla public service

My guest for this week’s Innovators show is Sal Khan. He’s the creator of, a catalog of more than 1000 YouTube video lessons in math, physics, biology, chemistry, and economics. All of these videos are made by Sal himself, in an engagingly personal style, using simple screencasting tools.

When I first got interested in screencasting, I envisioned the medium not only as a way to demonstrate software, but also as a way to share knowledge at Internet scale. Sal’s work fulfills that vision, and points the way toward a profound and much-needed disruption of our educational system.

At its core, Sal’s project isn’t about YouTube screencasts. It’s about intuition.

I always got frustrated by what went on in the classroom. You see otherwise intelligent peers memorizing facts and not really caring about the actual intuition. And because they didn’t care about the intution in their junior year, when that same idea pops up in senior year, it’s like they’ve never seen it before. It boggled my mind. You’re just relabeling the same concept over and over.

Sal cares about the intuition, and he wants others to care about the intution too. The first beneficiary of that desire was his cousin Nadia, whom he tutored remotely. Then followed other cousins and family friends. Then it dawned on him that there were no limits. The project could scale out. He could become a superempowered individual, reaching anyone who finds value in his method.

One of the key ingredients of that method is improvisation. These videos aren’t carefully planned, and they aren’t edited. As a viewer, you find yourself looking over the shoulder of a smart and broadly knowledgeable person who is solving problems by thinking on his feet. You watch a practitioner at work: engaged with his medium, wrestling with his tools, correcting false starts.

It was Chris Gemignani who first showed me the value of this approach, in a screencast that teaches how to do unexpectedly powerful and elegant Excel charting. He did it in one take. I’d have been tempted to edit out the false starts. But Chris knew better. Learning how a practitioner really thinks about solving a problem is even more valuable than learning the solution to the problem.

One thing that Sal’s lessons can’t be, of course, is interactive. Nor does he pretend that these videos will make teachers obsolete. But he does suggest, and I violently agree, that teachers can and should become curators of online assets like the ones Sal is creating, and should know when and how to weave those assets into their classes.

Teachers should also become connectors. Sal won’t be the only game in town. Other superempowered tutors will emerge. Each will have a unique style. For a given student, a given subject, and a given problem, one or another of those styles may be right. The best teachers will know their own strengths and limitations, will know which online tutors complement their strengths in a variety of ways, and will connect their students with those tutors.

Sal Khan is on fire. He burns with a passion to share his intuitions with anyone and everyone. It is a beautiful thing to see. He has abandoned a lucrative career in finance to do this fulltime, and I am quite sure he will find a way to keep doing it.

PS: The title of this piece refers to Richard Ankrom’s Los Angeles freeway project. At a busy intersection, millions of motorists have been directed to North 5 by a sign that Caltrans omitted. Ankrom created and installed that missing sign.

PPS: I wrote to my son’s math teacher about Sal Khan. She replied: “Thanks for that link to the Khan Academy. I was overwhelmed by how many video lessons he has! He does seem like an inspiring man. Unfortunately, You Tube is blocked here at the high school.”