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Sal Khan, Narrowing the Innovation Gap, and SAP’s Month of Service

I had the privilege of hearing Sal Khan speak last week at SAP’s Palo Alto office for the Hillview Speaker Series.  The talk coupled with the Khan Academy’s impact on education inspired me to write the blog below.

Innovation.   It’s a word which drives businesses.  In Silicon Valley, every third conversation seems to be about innovating whether it’s a strategy, business model, or product.  Companies see the value of investing in innovation and as a result, we are blessed with the resources to drive change in our industry.  But for a field like non-profit education, where the social reward from innovative ideas significantly outweighs the financial one, resources for such projects are often scarce.  However the limited investment in education over the years has made that area ripe with opportunity for even seemingly outdated technological and process advancements to have a major impact.  Yet despite this, game changers are slow to arise. 

Enter Sal Khan and the Khan Academy.

The Khan Academy, for those who don’t know, is a non-profit educational organization which provides over 2,600, ten minute educational videos on a variety of subjects ranging from history, to science, to math.  Each video is lectured by Sal, and they’ve gotten over 50 million views since 2006.  The Khan Academy also offers software to track the progress of students and performs some analytics as well.

Early on, Sal abandoned the idea of making the Academy a for profit business (something which a number of startups with similar products have done).  Sal, a hedge fund manager and on paper an unlikely candidate to make the decision, chose reaching students over amassing wealth.  As a result, the impact he’s had on the education landscape dwarves that of his for-profit counterparts.      

Sal has become a celebrity of sorts and a revolutionary to many in the education space.  But in many aspects, the Academy’s tools are anything from ground breaking.  An article from Wired Magazine discusses teacher’s responses to performance based applications designed by two Khan Academy employees Ben Kamens and Jason Rosoff:

 “These sorts of performance-measuring apps have become increasingly common in the business world, so the [employees] didn’t think teachers would be terribly impressed by their software. Wrong: They were astounded. ‘We’d go collect some data and make a chart, and the teachers were blown away—every time,’ Kamens said. ‘This isn’t taxing the edge of technology. But they were completely shocked, as if this had never existed before.’”

In an area often left behind by innovation, simple social media tools and basic analytics have caused radical change.

At SAP, we spend most of the week surrounded by the brightest minds with access to the best resources in an effort to drive innovation in one of the most competitive industries.  Yet how often do we take a step back and think about how we can apply industry concepts both new and old to neglected areas like education?  In the spirit of the Khan Academy and in honor of SAP’s month of service, I encourage people to spend some time thinking about education and other areas where this innovation gap is greatest and consider ways to apply even some of the most basic tools to narrow that divide.    

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