When Salman Khan first started posting YouTube videos teaching math, he did so to tutor his cousin in Louisiana. He never knew these clips would gain a cult following, and that he would become an Internet sensation as a result.
After gaining hundreds of thousands of viewers, he founded the Khan Academy, a not-for-profit educational organization offering a wide variety of free video tutorials on subjects such as math, computer science, physics and art history. When Khan spoke at a recent TED Global conference, he confessed to his audience: “I was an analyst at a hedge fund. It was strange for me to do something of social value.” But Khan Academy has done exactly that in the world of online education, particularly for the K-12 student.
Part of the Khan Academy’s mission is to make its content available to students all over the world; one-third of Khan Academy users are from outside the United States. In order to do that, many of the videos have been translated into multiple languages, overseen by the Khan Academy’s dean of translations, Bilal Musharraf.
Prior to joining Khan Academy in 2010, Musharraf was vice-president for Development for Global Education Management Systems (GEMS), an international network of private schools based out of Dubai. He received his MBA and an MA in education from Stanford, and completed a bachelor’s in actuarial science from Urbana-Champaign. In his previous career, he was a venture capitalist.
Musharraf spoke with Arabic Knowledge at Wharton about the plans for Arabic learning, and further offerings online. “Wherever you are, whatever information you know right now, you can start learning, and you can become the master of a domain,” he says.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows:
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What is the mission of Khan Academy in terms of global education, particularly for the Middle East?
Bilal Musharraf: Our long-term goal is to make world-class education available to anyone anywhere. Our beginnings, as you probably know, were in mathematics with a focus around high-school developed content but we pretty much cover K-14. We have pure science content, but we’ve diversified into art history and then some discovery things like science, math and a crossroads of both. We’ll continue to add new content and add platforms to enable personalized and interactive learning. In the Arabic-speaking world, we would like the platform to be available in a manner that is interactive and engaging as it currently is in English.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: So you would have the videos in Arabic with the interactive quizzes in Arabic?
Musharraf: That’s right but that’s a long-term goal. Right now, we have our hands full. We want to make sure all our platforms are [robust]. We’ve established insights and best practices around personalized learning. So we feel the platform has reached a steady state when it comes to addressing personalized interactive learning. So while that is happening, the platform has been rapidly evolving so that every month this year, we’ve been bringing about radical changes with features and tools and how the content is getting utilized.
My primary goal has been to translate videos. We have text translations happening and voice translations happening. The text translations are completely crowd sourced. Anybody can click on any video in the library and add subtitles in any language. Right now, we have upwards of 14,000 subtitled videos. We’re hoping all our videos will be subtitled in Chinese. A third of our titles are subtitled in Chinese now.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Is Chinese the most popular language?
Musharraf: In terms of subtitles, yes. In terms of foreign language, Chinese has the most subtitles. Arabic has a pretty decent number as well. I think we have about 500 to 600 videos subtitled in Arabic. Around 20% of the library is subtitled in Arabic.
As far as voice translations, that’s a much more challenging task. We’re on the lookout for people who not only have a voice talent and commitment level to dub or redo videos, showing a certain degree of quality across the subject.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: These are volunteer translators, is that right?
Musharraf: Yes. Every now and then, we’ve had an organization step forward and take ownership to do bulk translation in a language. That’s happened in Arabic by the way. That’s happened in Spanish. That’s happened in Portuguese.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Some of it has been with a company and some of it has been through crowd-sourced volunteers?
Musharraf: I would say it has mostly been foundations or nonprofit organizations that have taken ownership of this. They’ve structured a project and they have enlisted volunteers to do that. They have a much more established network of volunteers domestically where they’re based. So they’re able to do that.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Google gave US$2 million to the Khan Foundation for translations of some of the library tutorials.
Musharraf: It was for a bunch of different things, and translation was one of them. If you go to the marketplace and hire an agency to translate the videos, the entire budget would probably not enough to do one language. The idea is to really structure a volunteer-driven effort. We’re really looking for individuals who are passionate about making world-class education available in their language and their geography.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You said it’s a long-term goal to make Arabic-language tutorials and Arabic interactive software. Do you think this will be five years or 10 years? How long term do you think this will be?
Musharraf: One goal we’ve accomplished ahead of time is we already have a page in Arabic. If you go to the main webpage and you go all the way to the bottom, there’s a drop-down menu and you can select Arabic and it features all our videos that have been translated into Arabic so far. There are a significant number. This is what the Khan Academy was a few years ago.
Two or three years ago, KhanAcademy.org was [just] a link farm. It was a web site with links to videos. That’s where many of our languages are right now and I think we’re in very good shape. We have a long way to go. We have those language pages so if somebody wants to learn in their own language, they can start learning in their own language. There’s a significant amount of content. We’ll continue to add to our library.
Probably next year, we’ll begin to work on how to internationalize the user interface of the web site. That’s going to be a project of significant undertaking because that requires us to reorient our picture of the platform. Right now, the language is embedded into the code. We have to separate that and create functions so you can replace [things like] grammar. We’ll begin to think about that starting next year and work on that for however long it takes.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: So in the idea of the global, one-world classroom as one of the missions Khan talked about in the TED talk, how would you adjust culturally between American classrooms and Middle Eastern classrooms?
Musharraf: This is a platform that’s a tool that enables individualized, self-based, mostly math-based learning. It strengthens the relationship between teacher and student. One of the metrics that have been traditionally talked about is the teacher-to-student ratio. What we try to think about and talk about is the meaningful time that a teacher spends with a student. That’s what we hope the platform will enhance. So that’s pretty agnostic to geography.
Wherever people are, the platform will be freely available. We hope that other parts of the world will recognize the great opportunity to make quality education universally accessible by just allocating the resources differently. [We should make] Internet ubiquitous but not just make the Internet ubiquitous. You create a disruptive [change to traditional] teaching and [adjust to the] demands of students because today’s student will very quickly become a teacher and today’s teacher will become a lifelong learner. Those are the sort of changes that happen very quickly as the Internet becomes much more ubiquitous.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: One-third of the users are already outside the U.S. Do you know how many users are there in total and in how many countries?
Musharraf: Right now, our traffic is 6 million unique visitors per month from all over the word, literally from every country in the world.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Have you had to do any advertising in other countries? The popularity of Khan Academy has almost spread by word-of-mouth in the U.S.
Musharraf: From the get-go, our ethos to provide a good service and build a good product. Our tutorials speak for themselves. It’s been completely word of mouth and demand driven. We absolutely do not subscribe to a push strategy.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How many languages is Khan Academy translated into?
Musharraf: We are featuring voice translations on the web site so it’s dubbed content on redone videos in 23 languages. We have subtitles in 50-plus languages. If you go to the webpage (www.khanacademy.org/contribute), there are graphs that show you the videos that are subtitled and what the breakdown is like.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: While other online educational software companies are coming into the market like Coursera to make a profit, why is it important to stay nonprofit?
Musharraf: It’s just the way the offline educational aspect industry is delineated. It will get delineated online as well. Every institutional form gets delineated as nonprofit, for profit or public [and it] just means it brings a different value to the user base at large. Because the mission is different, the intentions are different. In for profit, its incentive base and its accountability and its mission are different from a nonprofit.
Personally speaking, the way it’s gets delineated is that for-profit is much more responsive to market needs and may gravitate more towards vocational training and vocational knowledge, whereas foundation knowledge or pure knowledge or disruptive knowledge would fall into the domain of nonprofit.
Our founders, our partners, our donors and our supporters are interested in a long-term vision of making education universal. It’s a travesty that certain fundamental knowledge that has been around for centuries and the majority of the world is unaware of it.
Why do those problems exist? Similarly to microfinance and the financial world, in terms of giving access to capital to entrepreneurs who just want to incrementally get out of the path they were stuck in just because they couldn’t get into the bank. They weren’t even allowed in the bank just to get the collateral.
This started happening in knowledge as well. Wherever you are, whatever information you know right now, you can start learning, and you can become the master of a domain.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: In a BBC program, it was mentioned that a cell phone could be a vehicle for Khan Academy. This is particularly interesting for those in Africa who have heavy cell phone penetration but not everyone has a computer. How does that work?
Musharraf: The videos are freely available for downloading. Khan videos are open and freely distributed as part of our creed. You can download the videos on your laptop and then stick it on a microchip and stick it on a smartphone. A typical microchip on a smartphone has typically 2 GB these days.
I heard somebody did a study where they put our translated arithmetic and algebra content in Urdu, which is spoken in Pakistan, on a smartphone and gave it out to village teachers and carried out a survey. They came back and said it was very positive. The teachers were using the content to prepare for classes the next day. They came across much more self-assured. So overall, it was a very positive experience.
You have to keep in mind that in most of the developing world, unfortunately, teaching is a profession of last resort. Many of the teachers don’t know the content themselves. The first audience is the teachers themselves.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Since teaching isn’t always a respected profession in parts of the developing world, they might not know some of the material they’re teaching.
Musharraf: If you do well academically, you either become a doctor or engineer. The second-tier goal is government jobs that have power, like management roles. The public sector is very strong in these countries with administratively strong powerful positions. That’s what people go for. People take the government entrance exams and they get into those positions. If you’re not able to do that, you go for other things. Teaching is one of those particular things you might do. So it’s not really a sought-after profession.
And people who go into that profession may not know the content that well to begin with. Over there, public sector education dominates and private sector is what it is. It’s filling the void but there’s a huge demand. The demographic in the developing world is predominantly young and predominantly illiterate so there’s a very huge need in the developing world.
There is no way we’re meeting the Millennium Goals with where we are right now without causing a disruptive change [in looking at] who’s going to teach and who gets to learn and how they get to learn.
I’m not saying that Khan Academy is going to do all that, but I’m saying the dynamics have to change. We have to remove these bottlenecks so that more and more people are able to learn, and more and more people are able to teach.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You can store Khan Academy info on a USB stick. How does that get shared? Do you send those out? Does someone with access to the Khan videos copy them to a USB stick and share it with others?
Musharraf: Right now, our focus is online and connectivity and making sure we’ve fine-tuned what the personalized, interactive, online experience is all about. But in time, we’ve certainly talked about and we’re very cognizant of the need of making this experience offline. If we can create a way to make our online content available while a user is off-line and able to talk to the online server, but that’s in the future. Right now, the team has its hands full.
It would help our long-term financial stability to work with donors to make these things possible.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: In a CBS Sixty Minutes news segment about Khan Academy, there were 1.8 million problems done in a 24-hour period all over the world. That’s amazing. Did Khan Academy expect those kinds of stats?
Musharraf: I don’t keep track of the exercise but they’ve been going up pretty high. The metrics we’re concerned about is when a person comes on the web site, how quickly they find what they’re looking for. To reduce the time they have to spend looking for what they’re looking for. That iteration is what we’re thinking about.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How did you get interested in education as a global classroom initiative?
Musharraf: I was born and raised in Pakistan and I’ve been in the U.S. for 20-plus years. My first career was in the actuarial profession. I had an applied math degree for my undergraduate degree and I worked in that profession. In the back of my mind, I was always interested in developmental economics. How do you apply it to make the world a better place to live in? I was in an applied math profession. It was very sophisticated but I felt it was too esoteric for what would give me intrinsic satisfaction.
So that’s one primary reason I did a MBA. I applied for a MBA and I wanted to jump to the front lines of where economics is being applied. My initial intention was to go to venture capital or entrepreneurship.
When I was doing my MBA, I had no intention of doing an education degree. But while I was doing a MBA, I was automatically gravitating to electives that had to do with the economics of education in order to understand how venture capital works, particularly how venture capital will work in developing countries. You have to crack the nut of how to commercialize applied research.
So I automatically started taking those classes. Stanford has a program that you enroll in a dual-degree program in business and education. They also have an option in law and public policy but I did the education one. I ended up doing that. Initially, I went into venture capital but eventually ended up in education. I feel much happier.