Paper 2

Khan Academy: An Ethical Example of Online Education

           “We want to change education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere.” This is the ambitious mission of Khan Academy, a not-for-profit organization officially founded in 2008 by Salman Khan. What started as individual tutoring sessions between Khan and his cousin has turned into a worldwide organization focused on improving education. Inspired by his school experience and testimonies he received from people who found his videos online, Khan has overcome many hurdles to expand his dream of “creating something enduring and transformative, an institution for the world that could last hundreds of years and help us fundamentally rethink how schooling might be done (Khan, 6).” While pursuing this goal, Khan has followed utilitarian ethics by considering the consequences that Khan Academy has on many people including students, teachers, parents, and schools in order to create an education program with the most benefit for everyone.

            Salman Khan, a graduate of MIT, volunteered to tutor his younger cousin Nadia in math long distance. They began over the phone, and soon after, Khan made software to generate practice problems for his cousin to use until she mastered a concept (See Appendix A to try a few practice problems)(Khan, 135). He also started making videos and posting them on YouTube so that Nadia could go back to them if she needed a refresher on concepts (Khan, 28). Other family and friends began to use the videos and software as well, and soon Khan’s tutoring group was made of about ten students(See Appendix B to watch a Khan Academy video). Then other people, who Khan did not know, left comments on his videos, expressing how much the videos helped their understanding of math concepts. One mother commented, “My son has autism and has had a terrible time with math, the videos help him to understand it (Let’s Use, 4:50).” Another student commented that, after watching Khan’s videos, he smiled for the first time doing a derivative (Let’s use, 4:00). Khan, who was a hedge fund analyst at the time that he began making the videos, realized that the videos he meant for his cousin were helping other people as well; “It was very strange for me to do something of social value (Let’s Use, 5:15).” Khan may have thought it was strange to be creating social value, but he enjoyed doing it. He saw problems in education and began to wonder what he could do to help. “I was in a bind. I was stuck in a job I really liked—it was challenging and intellectually and financially rewarding. But I had a nagging feeling that I was being held back from a calling I saw as far more worthwhile (Khan, 24).” Soon after, Khan quit his job as a hedge fund analyst to work on building Khan Academy full time.

Some of the problems that Khan saw in education included the lack of connections between the material students learned and how to use it to solve real problems, and an absence of confidence in their own ability due to an inadequate foundation (Khan, 134). This absence of confidence causes students to doubt their own abilities, and Khan attributes this to teachers setting their standards too low, allowing students to move on to new concepts without having mastered the foundation (Khan, 137). “I believe this is a disservice to allow students to advance without this level of proficiency, because they’ll fall on their faces sometime later (Khan, 138).” Khan remarks that students should be required to reach 100% proficiency in a subject before being allowed to move on. These flaws that he saw in education helped Khan in the development of Khan Academy. In order for a student to be considered proficient in a subject, they had to answer ten questions correctly in a row. Since then, Khan has adjusted that number depending on the subject, but he still encourages mastery.

Khan’s education journey did not start out easy. Before he quit his job in 2009, Khan Academy was registered as a non-profit organization, which he ran out of his closet (Khan, 155). He struggled to find funding and was supporting his family from their savings. In April 2010, after a meeting with Ann Doerr, she donated $10,000 to Khan Academy and $100,000 to Khan in order to support his family. That was just the beginning of funding for Khan Academy. Later that year, in June, Bill Gates mentioned Khan Academy in a talk he did at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and two months later, Gates and Khan sat down to talk (Khan, 157). Two days after their meeting, David Kaplan published an article in Fortune Magazine titled “Bill Gates’ Favorite Teacher,”(See Appendix C for link to article) and in September, Gates gave Khan Academy a $1.5 million grant. Today, Khan Academy is funded entirely by donations.

In October 2010, Khan was approached by the Los Altos School District, who decided to run a pilot test of Khan Academy in their classrooms (Khan, 163). Khan had to quickly hire designers and engineers so that Khan Academy would be ready for its first classroom debut in November. The pilot program took place in two fifth grade and two seventh grade classrooms in the Los Altos School District (Khan, 164). Parents and students were given the option to opt out of the program, but none did. With Khan Academy, teachers noticed more energy in the classrooms and students helping one another (Khan, 165). Khan Academy engineers sat in on classes so that they could watch the kids interact with the software and make improvements accordingly. When the kids in these classes took the California Standard Tests, 96% of the fifth graders scored proficient or advanced, and the students in the seventh grade classes, who had been considered below grade level, all improved their scores from the previous year (Khan, 167). Because of these results, other school launched their own pilot programs of Khan Academy in their classrooms.

The evidence discussed above, including comments from students, parents, and teachers, in addition to the improvement of students’ standardized test scores who were part of the pilot classrooms in the Los Altos School District support the idea that what Khan Academy is doing is beneficial for education. Khan Academy is a great example of an organization that runs according to utilitarian ethics. Linda K. Trevino explains that “according to the principle of utility, an ethical decision should maximize benefits to society and minimize harms (Trevino, 89).” Khan has taken society into account in his decision making since he first realized, in 2008, that his job as a hedge-fund analyst was not nearly as fulfilling as helping to shape online education and assisting students would be. When deciding if he should quit his job, it was a balancing act of pros and cons. In the end, Khan decided that the benefits of improving his online videos and software in order to help students learn outweighed the cons of having to figure out how to support his family. It became apparent that others agreed as he received monetary support for his family from Ann Doerr and also for Khan Academy from many others.

In his book, Khan mentions one issue that people may have with Khan Academy and online education in general; “Some people fear that computer-based instruction is all about replacing teachers or lowering the level of skill needed to be a teacher. The exact opposite is true. Teachers become more important once students have the initial exposure to a concept online. Teachers can then carry out face time with individual students who are struggling; they can move away from rote lecturing and into the higher tasks of mentoring, inspiring, and providing perspective (Khan, 36).” His answer to this criticism demonstrates that he has thought about the impact that online learning has on teachers and how it changes their role in students’ learning process. Khan Academy even assists teachers in their classrooms. There are tools built into the software that allows teachers to see the progress of their students and individualize their teaching accordingly(See Appendix D).

Ludwig von Mises explains an aspect of utilitarian ethics; “All moral rules and human laws are means for the realization of definite ends. There is no method available for the appreciation of their goodness or badness other than to scrutinize their usefulness for the attainment of the ends chosen and aimed at (Von Mises).” According to their mission, Khan Academy’s aim is to provide a free, world class-education to anyone anywhere. Tom Vander Ark explains how Khan Academy’s model is suited for doing just that; “When you combine mobile devices, free content and an inexpensive, blended learning model, you can serve kids in the slums of Nairobi for $4 a month and you can start to imagine a $100-a-year high school that is quite high quality (Noer, 2).” He would agree that Khan Academy’s free online learning is useful in attaining the end of providing free world-wide education.

Michael Noer outlines the statistics of Khan Academy in his article in Forbes Magazine; “Over the past two years Khan Academy videos have been viewed more than 200 million times. The site is used by 6 million unique students each month (about 45 million total over the last 12 months), who have collectively solved more than 750 million problems (about 2 million a day), and the material, which is provided at no cost, is (formally or informally) part of the curriculum in 20,000 classrooms around the world. Volunteers have translated Khan’s videos into 24 different languages, including Urdu, Swahili and Chinese (Noer, 1).” These statistics prove that Khan Academy is reaching a large number of people. Khan thinks about the people he is reaching as well, as videos are translated into different languages so that people all around the world can view them and learn from them. There seems to be no downside to Khan Academy and the use of their videos and software around the world, and the few cons that may appear are negligible compared to the benefits that Khan Academy provides.

Salman Khan started making educational videos in order to help his cousin learn math. Nine years later, Khan Academy is providing videos and software to millions of people around the world. This is possible because Khan Academy is run according to utilitarian ethics, where decision makers consider all cons and pros of a decision and make the best one accordingly. Khan Academy has overcome many hurdles, including that of funding, in order to live their mission of providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere. It is an organization that others should strive to model to truly create a change in the world.

Works Cited

Khan, Salman. The One World School Hous: Eduation Reimagined. New York: Twelve, 2012. Print.

Let’s Use Video to Reinvent Education. Perf. Salman Khan. TED, Mar. 2011. Web. 16 Nov. 2013. <http:/>.

Noer, Michael. “One Man, One Computer, 10 Million Students: How Khan Academy Is Reinventing Education.” Forbes. N.p., 2 Nov. 2012. Web. 16 Nov. 2013. <http:/>

Trevino, Linda K., and Katherine A. Nelson. “Deciding What’s Right: A Prescriptive Approach.” Managing Business Ethics: Straight Talk about How to Do It Right. Third ed. New York: Wiley, 2003. 88-90. Print.

Von Mises, Ludwig. “The Government and the Market.” Human Action. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. XXVII. THE GOVERNMENT AND THE MARKET: The Delimitation of Governmental Functions. Ludwig Von Mises Institute, 20 July 2005. Web. 17 Nov. 2013. <>.


Appendix A: Try some practice problems on Khan Academy. Notice how you have to answer five questions correctly in a row to move on, due to Khan’s belief in the importance of mastery.

Appendix B: Adding and Subtracting Fractions, Khan Academy

Appendix C: Bill Gates’ Favorite Teacher, David Kaplan


Appendix D: An example of the dashboard that is available to teachers to track their students’ progress on Khan Academy.

class data

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One thought on “Khan Academy: An Ethical Example of Online Education

  1. Pingback: Darn Right. (we knew it the whole time)

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