In Search of 100,000 Salman Khans

Khan Academy

One of the sentences in education that keeps being restated like a mantra is “We need more people like Salman Khan.” I just recently read a quote by John Katzman, CEO of Noodle Education, on Twitter:

“There shouldn’t be one Sal Khan – there should be 100,000 of them.” – John Katzman

And while this is generally true and even desirable, I don’t think that it is going to happen any time soon. Why, after all these years, haven’t we heard of a second Salman Khan?

Behind the Scenes

There are simply too many facets to “being a second Khan,” and I find people tend to think it only takes a talented nice guy with some video editing software and a YouTube account to make it happen.

First of all, who would spend years in a closet-turned-office recording multiple video lessons per day without a fixed income? Sure, Salman Khan was a recovering banker at that time, with time to spend and money in the bank, but it was not clear at all for him how this would play out — meaning one day he might have had to get a “real job.” In early interviews, before he attracted Bill Gates’ attention, Khan said his goal was to earn as much as a normal teacher based on the donations he received.

No one could have predicted that the three years of work he put into recording all those videos would lead to multi-million dollar grants and donations to support him (and his now growing team). I also think that we cannot take his “business model” as a blueprint for Khan clones. There is a limited number of funds and foundations operating in the field that could support other ventures at the same or similar scale, hence Khan Academy might simply be the exception to the rule.

Tools of the Trade

Also, people often forget how complex the process behind creating content for the Internet actually is. Yes, it’s gotten easier over the years, but only for those who either already have a decent background in working with content management systems, video editing software and other needed skills, or those who have learned a lot of new skills in the past years.

I won’t add to all the articles written about the failed Coursera course on how to create a MOOC, but it shows that being a very good lecturer with experience in online education is not enough to deal with the developing part of the education universe. It gets especially tricky when the learners are more familiar with the tools than the teacher, and as many early adopters of MOOCs and alternative credentials actually come from the tech, developer and startup scene, chances are very high that they know a lot more about all the different tools and systems that power the actual course.

No Hope at All?

Yes, there are some examples that could indicate that similar models are a possibility, but those are often advertisement based, like the great channels of MinutePhysics, Veritasium and Sci-Show on YouTube.

After all, maybe we only need one Khan Academy. As we saw, Salman Khan could easily take the role of an “acquirer,” attracting more and more YouTube talent by offering a safe and paid haven like he did with SmartHistory and Vi Hart.

Last but not least, there is the factor of time. Every one of us has just a limited amount of time to spend on watching educational videos during the day. Therefore, it will get harder and harder for newcomers to get the five minutes they need to get their message / lecture on the screens of potential students, which eventually results in a more difficult position to generate some kind of revenue from their work.

People tend to trust brands. Salman Khan managed to create a strong one over the past years, but even he has to face the big names that want the lion’s share of the market for their MOOCs.


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