Can We Transform Education with Sal Khan’s One World Schoolhouse?

As our world grows smaller and the people in it more inextricably connected, the world itself comes to resemble one vast, inclusive schoolhouse”  Sal Khan.

globe_mouseI am a big fan of Khan Academy. I turned my youngest two teenagers onto Khan’s videos when they were struggling with their Calculus homework, which they shared with their friends, then their classmates and finally their teachers. That is when I knew Khan Academy was going to be big—when an online platform that I thought was useful and ‘cool’, was good enough to be endorsed by my kids.

Which is why I read the book The One World School House: Education Reimagined written by the founder himself, Sal Khan. Khan shares how Khan Academy came to be by tutoring his niece, and how he eventually quit his job as hedge fund analyst to launch Khan Academy and filmed hundreds of videos in his closet. What comes through the pages is the passion Khan has for education, his drive to transform, and provide “a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere” (Khan, p 4).  In this post I’ll provide a brief overview of the book, but I focus on Khan’s vision for classrooms of the future, for an education system that is almost a utopian one, featuring the ‘ideal’ where students learn and grow at their own pace, at no cost, anywhere in the world.

I’ll outline Khan’s vision for K-12 and higher education, which is based on the Khan Academy philosophy, and I’ll examine why it is a worthwhile to consider his vision, even if unrealistic. A utopian view, which assumes that digital technology [in this case the Internet], can provide a near perfect, or ideal education scenario for K-12 and college students, happens to be this week’s topic in, e-Learning and Digital Cultures, at Coursera’s #edcmooc. In the course we are examining technology and its impact on cultures, societies and communities, and specifically what education looks like from a utopian (creating highly desirable social, educational, or cultural effects) and dystopian (creating extremely negative effects for society, education or culture) viewpoint. Khan does present a utopian vision which has come under criticism, (Coulson, 2012), (Wan, 2012), and though I agree that Khan’s strategy is far-fetched, there is value in considering what ‘perfect’ conditions look like in a classroom.

Screen Shot 2013-02-09 at 4.23.40 PMSnapshot of the One World Schoolhouse
Before I analyze Khan’s vision of the one world schoolhouse, I’ll review Khan’s journey to the Academy. What Sal Khan is promoting is more than a library of videos, which at this point holds 3,900 lessons on subjects of math, science, economics, computer science and the humanities; Sal is promoting a pedagogy where  the learner is self-directed, in the center of the learning paradigm, and teachers, act as mentors and guides rather than directors of learning (p 242).  Sal also believes that students can be inherently motivated when the conditions of learning are right, where they can work at their own pace, experience success and are not grouped by ability or age.

Classrooms of the Future: Utopia?
One cannot help but get caught up in the enthusiasm of Khan’s vision of education. Students of all ages combined in class, spending only one or two hours on lessons, and spending the rest of the school day with hands-on learning and projects. Standardized tests would be few, and transcripts a thing of the past.

In Khan’s vision of a K-12 classroom, learning is active. Students progress at their own pace, only moving ahead when they have mastered the concepts. In this model, older students assume more responsibility, mentor and help younger students. This idea has considerable merits, as teaching others a concept helps to reinforce one’s own learning. It removes the focus from self to others, in this case older to younger students, which can foster leadership and confidence.

The classes are large, with 100 students, yet there are five teachers that mentor and support, guide and provide feedback to small groups of students. Other characteristics of Khan’s classroom:

  • No transcripts, or letter grades but instead “two things: a running, multi-year narrative not only of what a student has learned by how she learned it, and a portfolio of a student’s work” (p 137).
  • At any given time in the school day: 1/5 of students doing computer-based lessons, 1/5 of students playing games that reinforce concepts, 1/5 students building robots, or constructing structures with Lego, (making something), 1/5 art or creative writing, and 1/5 on music.

Vision for Higher Education
Khan’s vision of higher education is grounded not in grades and transcripts, but in work experience, hands-on experience with lengthy internships of five or six months where students work in meaningful positions where skills are learned and applied alongside experts in the field. These are not summer, make-work projects, but paid positions. Between internships, students don’t attend lectures but study, learn, and collaborate, yet take rigorous assessments to show that they can go deep in certain academic areas (p 152).


“End”, by mrjoro, on Flickr.

Utopia and Dystopia Explored in Education
Are these utopian vision of education? Impossible ideals, where technology is not the focus, but the vehicle for bringing education to everyone, yet still with face-to-face interaction? I refer to utopia here in the context of perfect K-12 and higher education systems, in contrast to dystopia, which some would say is where education systems in the US are heading. Clay Shirky, a writer and journalist who writes frequently about the effects of the Internet on society and culture, calls the current higher education system “broken, expensive, (he calls it a ‘cost disease’), elitist and ineffective in developing an intellectual community” (Shirky, 2012), which does lean towards a dystopian view. Dystopia, according to the definition provided Hand & Sandywell’s paper, is one that includes anti-democratic properties, is corrupt, and would be controlled for purposes other than providing a sound and comprehensive education for students (Hand & Sandywell, 2002). However, it is the concept of utopia that might be exactly what we need when aiming to transform education—what could it be? How can technology enhance education for all? What if there were no constraints, how would we create a new system with the technology we have?

Why we Need a Utopian View
Which is why I support the vision—the ideal, such as the one that Khan proposes, because we need creative solutions and thinkers to construct new models for education–visions that inspire and make us think differently. It is the bold thinkers; the ones with seemingly crazy ideas, that most say will never work, that do create change and provide solutions. I think of William Murdoch and his prototype for a locomotive steam engine in 1784, and the Wright brothers with their flying machines. These visionaries had utopian-like views of people moving around the country in matter of hours rather than weeks or months. Crazy ideas? At the time yes.

Closing Thoughts
While Khan’s views may be considered impossible, radical, or completely unrealistic, I believe we need these visionaries. Though realistically we know utopia is a fictitious concept we create, but it helps build a new and fresh perspective on problems that need solving. It is visionaries like Khan that can help get us there. I’ll leave you with two other visions, the first an advertisement on YouTube video, created by Corning, A Day Made of Glass. This is a must see for the ‘vision’ of education (5 minute video below).

The second is an open, online class called Designing a New Learning Environment, led last year by Stanford professor, Dr. Paul Kim is Chief Technology Officer and Assistant Dean for Stanford University School of Education, “The ultimate goal of this project-based course is to promote systematic design thinking that will cause a paradigm shift in the learning environments of today and tomorrow.”  Click here to go to the web page and view the completed [and inspiring] video projects created by participants.

View Corning’s video for a glimpse of the Future of Education


  • Hand, M. and B. Sandywell. 2002. E-topia as cosmopolis or citadel: On the democratizing and de-democratizing logics of the Internet, or, toward a critique of the new technological fetishism. Theory, Culture & Society 19, no. 1-2: 197-225. (p.205-6)
  • Designing a New Learning Environment 2012, Open, Online Course, Stanford University, Dr. Kim
  • Napster, Udacity, and the Academy, (2012),  Blog post: Clay Shirky

14 thoughts on “Can We Transform Education with Sal Khan’s One World Schoolhouse?

  1. Alimentos

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  2. Kajal Sengupta

    THANK YOU DEBBIE for this wonderful post. I am a fan of Sal Khan for the past few years. I came across his videos for the first time 4/5 years back when I first started to teach Physics online. I was on the lookout for videos which I can show in my virtual classroom ( ) and recommend to my students for reference work. While going through them I was amazed at ease with which he dealt with difficult concepts. The fact that they were of short duration only makes it easy to grasp and the students are not burdened with a lot of content at a time.Over the years I saw how their popularity grew and how learners simply loved them. Along with that there were a lot of critisizm about the videos and on the whole what they can achieve. Now , after going through your post and also a learner who spoke highly about one of the courses, I am peaceful Because I want it to be successful. I want the critics to be proven wrong.


    1. Debbie Morrison Post author

      Hi Kajal, I am so glad you found this post helpful! These videos are such an excellent resource for students and teachers, and have helped literally thousands of students, adult learners and educators with concepts from math to science to art. The backlash from some educators is expected, with any ‘new’ concept and method, however over time hopefully all will see the value. Thanks for sharing the link on the virtual classroom tool, this looks interesting. Thank you! Debbie


  3. Roz Hussin

    I was pleasantly surprised (and honored) to read this post. FYI, I was one of the 18,800+ students who registered for the DNLE course mentioned in this post and team leader for one of the 10 projects featured in the link mentioned ( I wanted to respond to this post because I echo Debbie Morrison’s closing thoughts.

    DNLE was an amazing MOOC, not (just) because of the excellent course materials provided by the Stanford professor, or the user-friendly interface provided by VLab, but also because of the unbelievable synergy that existed among the “students” in the MOOC. The combination of the DNLE course objectives, the DNLE instructor’s personal pedagogical philosophy, and the (unbelievable) demographics of the DNLE students worldwide, in combination, made for an incredible experience. I believe that all three – course objectives, instructor’s pedagogy, and students’ engagement – had one common denominator which played the key role in the DNLE success…

    All three approached “learning” as a “visionary” process.


  4. Randy Ziegenfuss

    I enjoyed reading this post. We need to think and strive for a “utopian” vision for education. That is what keeps us at the edge and not at the core. At the same time, we need to be realistic, knowing we will likely not get to that vision in our lifetime. Imagining the best possible system, however, will move us closer over time. Bit by bit.


  5. Robert Connolly

    Thanks for the book review. I have put it on my list.

    I enjoy and agree with the thrust of your argument. I am having a harder and harder time with the dismissing that which is considered too utopian for mass integration on a couple of levels. First, as you note, a convincing point for you was that the Khan system worked for your teen-age sons who were struggling with calculas. I have held held off on writing an evaluative post of the #edcmooc, but my initial impression is that the method and content of the course is fantastic. I am pleased as well that the instructors blog posts are already addressing how to make the system better the next time for the 40,000 enrolled students. Finally, as exemplified by the contrasting #edcmooc readings on MOOCs by the Shirky and Bady, in the higher education realm the utopians (Shirky) make substantive points on how MOOCS fit an educational need and the dystopians (Bady) dance around the issues, are dismissive of substantive discussions, and pretty transparently operate primarily from a perspective of saving their careers and higher ed academic institutions as is. I realize this appears a highly biased statement, and yes there a plenty of problems with MOOCs, as you note in the Foundations course that was pulled by, but I have grown weary of the knee-jerk naysayers. As other readings and videos in this week’s #edcmooc noted their is plenty to be concerned about with digital technology and dystopian visions, primarily around control, but MOOCs are actually the antithesis of this concern of control in providing a real liberation in educational access.

    Thanks for the discussion.


    1. Debbie Morrison Post author

      Robert, How right you are – when one analyzes carefully the arguments presented by the naysayers of online education, including MOOCs, and the perspective from which they are writing, (what kind of stakeholder they are in the education system) one can often identify the source of their views, [perhaps concerned about the future of their careers or institution’s philosophy] and can discern the validity of the claims. Control is a concern, who is in control of massive education – or for what reasons? Thanks for your insightful comment as always. Debbie


      1. plerudulier

        It just happens that I’m attending a new MOOC and one of the thing we were said to do for this week assignement was to use the Harvard system so when I read your post and the references it made me smile ^_^. – Pascal



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