Salman Khan to MIT grads: Innovators will foster societal change

Khan said MIT's online education efforts influenced the Web learning organization he created, Khan Academy

Future scientists and technology professionals, not governments, will develop the innovations that most benefit society, online educator entrepreneur Sal Khan told MIT's 2012 graduates during his commencement speech Friday.

"The positive revolutions will not be started by generals and politicians. They'll be started by innovators like you," said Khan, a 1998 graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Some would place Khan and the nonprofit online education venture he founded, Khan Academy, into this category. The organization offers, for free and to anyone with a Web connection, approximately 3,000 videos Khan created and narrates off camera explaining a range of topics mostly in the science and math fields. In the videos he writes on a virtual blackboard, drawing notes and diagrams to accompany the lessons, and uses Web services, like Google Maps, to help teach. Some of the many lessons on Khan Academy's YouTube Channel include videos on the big bang theory, chemistry and home buying in addition to topics on U.S. history and civics.

In 2006 Khan began making the videos and posting them to YouTube as a way to tutor his cousin in New Orleans in math. The videos proved popular with people outside of his family and in 2009 he quit his analyst job at a Silicon Valley hedge fund to make the videos and the software to support them full-time.

During his speech, which was also webcast, Khan said that the spirit of MIT OpenCourseWare, an online education effort the school launched in 2001 that offers material from many of its classes for free, influenced the principles of Khan Academy.

With OpenCourseWare, MIT asked how it could empower people instead of how much it could charge them, Khan said. This gave him the belief that Khan Academy "should transcend the idea of profits" when others were discussing turning the venture into a for-profit business.

This outlook also applies to the school's newest Web learning effort, edX, he said. This nonprofit organization, announced in May and set up by MIT and Harvard University, will offer free classes from both universities over the Internet. The organization hopes to add other school's content as the program expands.

Online learning is becoming an area of focus for higher education institutions and the tech community. Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, recently announced that it is adding five courses to its free, Web-based curriculum after the successful results of an online learning pilot project it launched in 2011. Khan Academy's major donors include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Google.

Khan also offered the inspirational prose typical of commencement speakers, advising MIT's 2,400 graduates that "When you're stressed, look up at the night sky and think of the scale of the universe and think of the shared experiences of civilizations that have come by."

They should also contemplate their problems by taking a walk in the woods and realizing that they are "another mammal not sure why it is here."

Graduates need to stay centered to reach their true potential, Kahn said, and to combat a cynical world by being "as incredibly, delusionally positive as possible."

"Smile with your mouth, eyes, your body, at every living and nonliving thing you see," he said. "Recognize that the grass is greener on your side of the fence."

Material loss and gain should be kept in perspective and is "all silly relative to things that matter: your health and your relationships," Khan said.

Kahn's speech did include some references to the supernatural world when he spoke about his alma mater's scientific research efforts. He joked that "MIT is the closest thing on the planet Earth to Hogwarts," referencing the school where students learn magic in the fictional Harry Potter book series.

"These are the leading wizards of our time" he said, referring to MIT's faculty.

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Fred O'Connor

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