Conversations for Change: NCWIT Summit: Educational Disruptions by Ben Eater

[upbeat music]

VALERIE TAYLOR: So now I’ll take the opportunity to introduce Ben Eater. Ben is the Lead Exercise Developer at Khan Academy, which is a non-profit education platform dedicated to providing a free world-class education for anyone, anywhere. He leads a team of several developers who together are responsible for creating all of the interactive exercises and assessment content for Kahn Academy. Ben joined the Khan Academy as a volunteer, but after six months he joined the team as a full-time employee. So with that I welcome Ben Eater. [audience applauds]

BEN EATER: All right, very exciting to be here. Just to give you a quick introduction what Khan Academy is. Khan Academy was started by Sal Khan who was a hedge fund analyst in Boston who had a cousin in New Orleans who was having difficulty in math. She was in middle school, had been placed into a slow math program and he offered to tutor her remotely over the internet. And had started tutoring her and was actually able to get her to a point where she was ahead of her class. And he did this by creating some interactive software for her to use and working with her over the phone. And once word got around in the family that free tutoring was going on, he started tutoring a number of his relatives. Basically it got to the point where he was working with 20 or so different relatives all over the country tutoring them in math and having some difficulty getting this to scale. And so [chuckles] a friend of his suggested well why don’t you put some videos on YouTube? He’s like no, no, no YouTube is for cats playing the piano, [audience laughs] it’s not for serious mathematics. But eventually he kind of got over the idea, it wasn’t his idea, put some videos up on YouTube and the feedback he got from his family members was actually that they preferred him on YouTube than in person. [laughing] Which sounds a little backhanded, but it actually makes a lot of sense. On YouTube they could pause the video, they could rewind it, if they were stuck they could go back and watch previous videos. And they didn’t have to feel embarrassed that they were asking for him to explain something over and over again, they could do this in the privacy of their own home. And something interesting happened, the videos ended up taking off. And they were getting thousands and tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube and people started commenting on YouTube thanking him for these videos. And they just sort of took on a life of their own and he became just more and more obsessed with creating these videos. And eventually convinced his wife to quit the hedge fund and do this full-time not really having a plan for where it would go. And spent about nine months doing this, kind of funding it himself just out of his own savings. And thankfully about nine months into this a number of people started noticing this, most key among those is Bill Gates who apparently discovered Khan Academy and was using it with his kids and was starting to talk about it publicly. And so meeting was setup with the Gates Foundation and the Gates funded the Khan Academy, turned it into a real organization and started hiring a team to build out that initial software platform. But just to give you kind of a flavor of what these videos look like I’m just gonna show a quick montage showing some of the videos that Sal made as well as we have some more video content creators that have created videos as well.

SAL KAHN: We could integrate over the surface and the notation usually is a capital Sigma. All these interactions are just through the gravity over interstellar, almost you could call it intergalactic. This animal’s fossils are only found in this area of South America, a nice, clean band here. Notice this is an aldehyde and it’s an alcohol. Is their 30 million plus the $20 million from the American manufacturer. They create the Committee of Public Safety, which sounds like a very nice committee.

DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: This is not Eve.

DR. BETH HARRIS: No, Bottiecelli’s portrait, the ancient goddess of love.

BRIT CRUISE: This is six times six, times six, or 216.

LEBRON JAMES: I’m told the humidity makes it feel hotter, why is this?

SAL KAHN: Excellent question Lebron. [audience laughs]

JESSICA LIU: Let’s just like make it 11.

SAL KAHN: Play with the pendulum and get a feel for how it moves.

KARL WENDT: Function as a bridge rectifier.

VI HART: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

SAL KHAN: If this does not blow your mind, then you have no emotion. [audience laughs]

BEN EATER: Can always judge the intelligence of a crowd by how much they appreciate Euler’s identity. You guys passed that I guess. So where we are today Khan Academy now has scaled, we’ve had over 85 million users visit the website to date. Over 260 million videos viewed. That interactive software that I just talked about that Sal started using with his cousins, we’ve now had over 1.1 billion problems solved with that software. And we’re continuing to grow. There’s over 29,000 classrooms that are using us either formally or informally as part of their curriculum around the world. So very exciting where this is going, but I just wanna step back for a moment and just give a little bit of a backstory about how I came to Khan Academy. Because it was sort of an interesting start. I actually never did particularly well in school. I was kind of a C Student most of the way through high school and always particularly struggled with mathematics. Which was always sort of frustrating to me, because I was always very interested in figuring things out and I was interested in programming and all of these things that sort of use math. But the content in classes just never appealed to me, I never got it or understood it. And this got even worse when I got to college when I got into a computer science program and the first class I had to take I college was calculus. And I’d never seen calculus in high school, because back in middle school I was tracked into a remedial math program and so never made it to that point. And so when I got to college I took calculus and I ended up getting a D in the class. And again didn’t quite understand, I actually felt like I understood calculus. I mean it’s one of the science fair projects I did in high school, I was interested in computer speech recognition. And so I was doing some signal processing where I was taking wave forms in and doing Fourier transforms and then trying to do pattern matching with markup models and all of the rest. And so I felt like I had some kind of understanding of the concept of calculus. I was able to actually apply them to do things I wanted to do that were interesting to me, but I got to the class and it just didn’t make sense to me, very confusing. So I got a D in calculus, which is a passing grade so I moved on to calculus two the next semester. [audience laughs] Of course. And predictably failed that. So at this point I thought well, maybe I oughta go back and take calculus one again and see if I can try this again. So my third semester I took calculus one and actually failed it that time as well. [audience chuckles] And at this point the university and I came to a mutual decision to part ways, which is to say they kicked me out [audience chuckles] and I was kind of okay with that at this point. And I guess I was actually very fortunate in a sense that the timing worked out very well for me. This was kind of at the peak of the dot com bubble and so it was actually very easy for someone without much in the way of a credential to get a tech job, which is what I enjoy doing. And so that’s what I did and I started learning a ton in the real world and actually really thrived there. And was able to build a very successful career as a result in the networking industry and went on to work as an engineer as an ISP and then at a large equipment manufacturer and so on. And finally got to the point in my career where I was like okay the next step is for me to start a business. And so that’s what I did. I started a business building some network analysis equipment. And I ran into a problem which was that in selling my stuff to my customers, my customers didn’t quite understand the benefits of my product and I was trying to explain it to them. And it turned out these were all engineers that I’m selling to, but I guess it had been awhile since they’d taken their statistics classes. And so I found myself trying to explain Poisson processes to them and having some difficulty ’cause I wasn’t explaining it very well. So I went online and said are there some resources that might help me explain this better to my customers so that they understand what it is my product does? And I stumbled on some YouTube videos from Khan Academy. I’m like these are amazing, this explains stuff very, very clearly. And I found the website and I found thousands and thousands of these videos. And I got to thinking, I was like I’ve always been frustrated that school never made sense to me, I feel like in some sense the system failed me. I felt like I was a smart person, but somehow the material didn’t connect with me. Here I am 20 years later, let me go back and see where I went wrong. Maybe I can reengage with this calculus content on Khan Academy, this guy seems to speak to me. Let me see how this works out. And so I started watching calculus content and I found the same things. There were things I didn’t quite understand. So well you know they have trigonometry content, let me go check that out. And there were some things I got stuck there too. And so well let me try the algebra stuff [chuckles] and I went back and when you get on Khan Academy we have this what we call knowledge map. And each of these nodes is a concept and it starts at the top with basic addition, one plus one, and you can move your way down. And it works just like a video game. You master one concept, you move on to the next. And this is the way video games work, this is the way you learn a martial art, this is the way you’d learn a musical instrument. You master one concept before moving on to the next. And so what I did was I started at the top and I said okay give me basic addition, one plus one. And I moved very quickly through some of these things, but then I found that there were these concepts really from middle school that somehow I missed. And I realized that I had these gaps in my knowledge and when I went back and went through this, I ended up completing all of these skills. And I finally realized why I kind of hit a wall in calculus, which was there were all these little gaps in my knowledge that has compounded over time. And the way that the system worked, there was no way to go back and fill in those gaps. The analogy we use is imagine you’re building a house and you hire a contractor and you say okay, the state has given us two weeks to build the foundation. Do whatever you can in two weeks. Contractor builds a foundation and the inspector comes in in two weeks. Inspector says well you know, it’s not quite dry over here, there’s some cracks over here. This is maybe an 85% foundation. Well that’s a B, great. Build the first floor. So you hire another contractor, you say don’t worry about the foundation. Need you to build the first floor, spend two weeks on it, doesn’t matter if the supplies are late, doesn’t matter if it rains, just do what you can in two weeks. Contractor goes builds the first floor. Two weeks later the inspector comes in. The inspector says well this isn’t quite up to code, you forgot to build one of the walls. We’ll call this a 65% first floor. Great, that’s a passing grade. Build the second floor. [audience laughs] And this is exactly what was happening to me in my education. And I built floor after, [clears throat] excuse me, floor after floor. You get to the fourth or fifth floor, the whole building collapses and everyone wants to blame the contractor. Or they say oh we need more inspections, we need better inspection. But no, the inspections were fine. The inspections were identifying these gaps and just the system, the process, didn’t allow us to go back and fix those gaps. And so basically in my experience I was going through a lot of these exercises on Khan Academy and these are some examples of what those exercises look like. This one kind of sort of a Montessori for calculus, allows you to kind of get the intuition for a derivative. So I went through all of these things and I felt very passionate about what Khan Academy was doing. And I discovered that actually this exercise platform for creating these things was opensource. And so in my spare time I started building some and actually all the ones I’m showing you are things that I built as part of that opensource project. And I started sending these things in and I got positive feedback from Khan Academy. I got an email that says would you like a job? [audience laughs] And I was like no, I have my own business, but I really love what you guys are doing, keep it up. A couple weeks later I got another email with like here’s a bunch of statistics on how many people have been using your exercise and thousands of people, do you want a job? I was like no, I’ve got my own business. I’m happy, things are going well. And then Sal called me a couple weeks later and was like do you want a job? I was like no. [chuckles] At that point they’re very clever, they said well we feel like we should be paying you for your work. So why don’t we set you up with a contract, we realize you’re busy, you have this business. We’ll set you up with a contract, you don’t have to work at all or you can work as much or as little as you want. Do whatever you want and just bill us. I’m like well okay, I can’t turn that down. [audience laughs] Turned down the job a few times, but I can’t turn that down. So I went ahead and started doing contract work and just over the course of a few months I just became more and more obsessed. I just found I couldn’t help but spend more and more time creating these exercises for Khan Academy. And I had a bit of a decision to make. I had this business that was reasonably successful and everyone was telling me it would be ridiculous for me to just leave my business and go work for a non-profit. I’ve been sort of a capitalist my whole life. [chuckles] So everyone’s telling me this and I guess I had to make this decision. And then eventually I ended up at a party with some friends that I hadn’t seen in awhile that knew me in college and kind of knew what I went through. And they were like oh of course you should do this. I guess that was kinda the validation I needed and so I picked up, moved across the country and joined Khan Academy. So that’s kind of what got me to Khan Academy. As I was showing you these exercises, once I got to Khan Academy one of the, this thing keeps going forward too many things, once I got to Khan Academy one of the things that really was kind of mind blowing for me was not just so much I had my own personal experience of going through it and realizing that I had all these gaps in my knowledge and if I went kind of at my own pace, I could fill in these gaps and the videos were there to help me. But what was really mind blowing is how Khan Academy’s being used in classrooms. And one of the things that we’re doing is we go into a classroom where we start to give teachers these analytics. And so basically what this chart is showing is this is a graph we give to teachers, the rows are students, the columns are each of those concepts that we saw on the knowledge map earlier. Green means a student’s proficient. Blue means the student’s still working on it and red means the student is stuck. And so what the teacher can do is the teacher can walk around the classroom, this thing updates in real time, students are all working at their own pace at their computers and the teacher sees someone who turns red, maybe this student is struggling in exponents three. There’s another student there who’s proficient in exponents three and the teacher can start to setup a peer tutor kind of an arrangement there. Or if that doesn’t work out, the teacher can intervene one on one. Or maybe the teacher can see that hey, a bunch of students have mastered this concept so now we can actually do a project together as a class that involves that and knowing that all the students are gonna get something out of that. One of the other dashboards that we give teachers, we have a bunch of different dashboards that teachers have access to if their students are using Khan Academy in the classroom, is this. And what this is showing is along the bottom is the number of days that a student has been working on the site and then the Y-axis is the number of skills that that student has completed. And each of these lines is a different student. And so what you see when you start off is that some students race ahead, they get in, they really engage, they get a bunch of skills. Some students are kind of in the middle and then some students, the flatter lines there, are a little slower. And those are the students that you might say oh these are the remedial students, these are students we’re gonna pull outta class. We’re gonna put them into these remedial and track them separately. But what we find time and time again, and you can never identify these students ahead of time, is that if you let everyone work at their own pace, some of the students that you thought were remedial, they might struggle on a concept for a little while, but once they get unstuck on that concept, if you let them work at their own pace, they race ahead. And that highlighted example of a student there is an example of one of those. And it turns out she ended up as the first in her class. And we see this time and time again. So this is great for kind of the math concepts. One of the other things that we wanted to kind of push is how can we express creativity or how can we use creativity? And basically the way that we do this is we came up with this computer science platform. And a lot of people say well you know I was asking about creativity and like creative writing, that sort of thing, how does computer science relate to that? Well of course you guys know computer science is fundamentally creative, computer programming. And so we created this platform that was designed to inspire creativity. And this is just an example. You see the code on the left is creating this animation that you see on the right. And you can update the code in real time. So if I change that number, you see like the little rainbow thing changes shape, you can change it to a different number, now they get bigger. You can even drag the number around and kinda change the size. And you see what you’re doing in real time so you get real sort of sense of what the code is doing. And so we have a bunch of these different examples that people can work through. And then what you can do is if you make changes to this, you can save your copy as a spinoff and it shows up underneath the program. And so you can see these are all just different things that different users have created and sort of gone in their own direction. And they’ve just gone and explored the code, explored hey what does this variable do if I change this? What does this do? And they’ve come up with all these different things and they can create a spinoff. And then that shows up on their profile then. This is just what someone made of that. And of course you can make your own things from scratch as well. And then if you get stuck we have a series of videos that work within this platform and I’ll just show you an example of one of them just to kind of give you a sense of what that looks like.

JESSICA LIU: And here’s where the magic comes in. Somewhere in the draw loop we’re gonna change the value of X to be a little more than it used to be, like this. X gets the old value of X plus let’s say one. Yay, it works. Except, aha it’s so smeary. If you’re wondering why it looks that way, it’s because we forgot to draw this background inside the draw loop. So it’s drawing the car over and over again, but you can see all the old cars underneath the new one. So if I just pull this line into the top of the draw loop like that, and then press restart so I can see my car again. Yay, it’s so perfect. And if we wanna make the car go faster, we can just change how much we increase X by every time. So if we make it 10, [cheers] it’s off the screen.

BEN EATER: So this is just one example, we have a whole bunch. This talk is obviously about animation. We have a bunch of these videos that were all made by Jessica Liu who is a phenomenal intern that was with us last summer. We hope we will see her again. But just gives you an example of some of the things you can do. All of the code, everything runs within a browser. So that’s the other great thing in terms of accessibility to this. You don’t have to setup a whole dev environment to get started. You just point your browser to Khan Academy and you can just start writing code or you can start pulling one of the examples that we have and start making your own spinoff from that. So it really inspires creativity. There’s questions, comments, tips, feedback, and everything that goes underneath there so you can collaborate with other people, you can have comments, people can tell you hey did you try this or think of this? So very exciting. So just kind of to wrap up, one of the things that you may have noticed is everything I have been talking about so far has been in the English language or focused on the US. And one of the really exciting things that’s been happening is there have been a number of different groups, non-profits mostly, some governments, that have been taking Khan Academy and taking it around the world. And these pictures are just some examples of Khan Academy being used around the world. And one that really excites us is in the top left corner there. We used to kinda joke like hey, maybe someday Khan Academy will be used in Mongolia. Well, [chuckles] not too long later we got an email from Mongolia. [audience laughs] And it was from this girl Zaya, she sent in a little YouTube video thanking us for Khan Academy. We assumed you know she has access to YouTube, the internet, Khan Academy, she’s probably a middle-class girl and all that. But we read the email a little bit more and it turns out that actually there’s this group of engineers in Silicon Valley that on their vacation they go out to Mongolia and they’re setting up computer labs in orphanages. And that picture in the top right is our Mongolian girls in a Mongolian orphanage using Khan Academy. And Zaya was one of those orphans. And if that’s not cool enough, Zaya got really into it and she started translating some of the videos into the Mongolian language. And she’s 17 years old now, so this 17-year-old Mongolian girl is now the prime producer of Khan Academy content in the Mongolian language. She’s become the teacher for her country. So just to give you kind of a flavor of what these videos look like, I’ll show you another quick montage and it ends with a piece of that original video that we got from Zaya.

ZAYA: [speaking foreign language] [speaking foreign language] [speaking foreign language] [speaking foreign language] [speaking foreign language] [speaking foreign language] [speaking foreign language] [speaking foreign language] [speaking foreign language] [speaking foreign language]

ZAYA: I am Zaya from Mongolia. Your regents are so interesting and funny. Make more lessons.

BEN EATER: We watch that whenever we’re feeling a little lazy around the office. [audience laughs] One of the amazing things is our team right now we have 40 people, but over the last year we average about 34 people and with the scale of the internet we were able to reach over 50 million unique students in 216 different countries. And I really think we’re kind of at this Guttenberg moment, not even a once in a lifetime moment, really one in a millennium moment almost to kind of push the scale of this forward. The original tagline on this was just the necessities. [audience chuckles] I guess just to kinda wrap up, education has always been kind of seen as this scare resource and this thing that was very expensive, this thing that sort of separated the haves from the have nots. And even when people are doing philanthropy they would say well what do the rich have? Well that’s expensive, let’s create a cheap approximation of that and we’ll give that to the poor. The poor had nothing before, so a cheap approximation is better than nothing. But now education is sort of becoming no longer a scarce resource. And so we’re almost getting to the point where I honestly believe education is really going to become a fundamental right. In 20, 30 years people are gonna view education as a fundamental right just like clean drinking water, or shelter, or electricity, something like that. So that’s all I have. I thank you all. [audience applauds]

Scroll to Top