Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, is revolutionizing how kids learn math and science.

The most innovative and practical thinkers of our time.
Aug. 2 2011 6:59 AM

Salman Khan, Founder of Khan Academy

His folksy lectures are revolutionizing how kids learn math and science.

Salman Khan. Click image to expand.
Salman Khan

Before he started the most popular education site on the Web, Salman Khan was neither an educator nor an entrepreneur. His outsider status helps explain why he's been able to solve a problem that schools and other startups never could: how to harness technology to change the way kids learn.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

Back in 2004, Khan was a 28-year-old hedge-fund manager in Silicon Valley looking for a way to help his cousin with her seventh-grade math homework. His solution: use Yahoo Messenger's Doodle feature to illustrate his points as he talked to her on the phone. Thanks to these homespun visual aids, his lectures leapt to life. Soon he began posting videos of his doodles on YouTube to accommodate his other cousins, and their friends, and their friends' friends. In 2009, Khan quit his day job to focus on making the videos full-time.

At last count, Khan Academy offered some 2,400 videos—all available for free on YouTube—covering topics from basic arithmetic to thermodynamics to the Napoleonic Wars.Hundreds of interactive practice exercises let kids put their newly acquired knowledge to work. The service, run as a nonprofit, reaches students across the world and is catching on with adults: Bill Gates and his son both love Khan's work.

Slate's list of the 25 Americans who combine inventive genius and practicality—our best real-world problem solvers. Read more about how we chose them.

There's nothing high-tech about Khan Academy. Nor is the concept entirely novel: Recorded lectures have been around at least as long as VCRs. It's the execution that sets Khan's site apart from the litany of failed ventures in educational technology.

Indeed, Khan Academy's success is unthinkable without Khan himself. Unconstrained by the need for approval from a district office, a teachers' union, or shareholders, he honed his service to meet the needs of the education world's most overlooked constituent: the student. Khan's videos—each shot in a single take—appeal because of, not in spite of, their lack of polish: He comes across as a smart friend whose goal is to help you learn something, not monetize a product.

A counter on the top left of the Khan Academy website testifies, McDonald's-style, to the unprecedented scale of his success—more than 66 million lessons delivered. Khan Academy can't replace a real school, of course. Critics point out—and Khan acknowledges—that school is about more than lectures and drills.

His latest project, though, suggests that Khan Academy could revolutionize how our education system works. Khan has teamed with California's Los Altos School District to develop a hybrid-learning model in which teachers fully integrate the website into their curricula. The goal is to "flip the classroom," so kids watch lectures at home and then bring their homework to school. This model liberates teachers to serve as hands-on mentors, and allows them to track each student's progress through the website's analytics.

Khan has already exploded the notion that educational technology has to be slick to reach a wide audience. If he can relegate the boring classroom lecture to the history books, he'll be a hero to kids everywhere.

Watch Khan's TED talk on "flipping the classroom," as well as Khan Academy videos on calculus and the origins of the Earth.

Check out the rest of our technology Top Right:

Cynthia Breazeal, director of the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Lab.

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com.

David Ferrucci, lead researcher for IBM's Watson project.

Brian Tucker, president of GeoHazards International.

TODAY IN SLATE

Sports Nut

Grandmaster Clash

One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

Do the Celebrities Whose Nude Photos Were Stolen Have a Case Against Apple?

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

Future Tense

Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company

Food

How to Order Chinese Food

First, stop thinking of it as “Chinese food.”

Scotland Is Inspiring Secessionists Across America

The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant

The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 11:40 AM The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant
Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 18 2014 3:19 PM In Defense of Congress Leaving Town Without a New War Vote
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 18 2014 3:31 PM What Europe Would Look Like If All the Separatist Movements Got Their Way
  Life
Outward
Sept. 18 2014 4:15 PM Reactions to a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Reveal Transmisogyny
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 3:30 PM How Crisis Pregnancy Centers Trick Women
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 4:33 PM The Top 5 Dadsplaining Moments From The Cosby Show
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 4:26 PM Global Oceans Break All-Time Heat Record; World on Pace for Warmest Year Ever
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.