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CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE:
This article incorrectly stats that the Undergraduate Association vice president, the 2012 Class Council vice president, and the Graduate Student Council vice president participated in the committee’s recommendation for the commencement speaker. Vice presidents do not sit on the subcommittee that offers speaker recommendations to President Susan J. Hockfield, but they do sit on the larger Commencement Committee.

courtesy of salman A. khan
Salman A. Khan ’98 will deliver the keynote address at the 2012 Commencement. Khan is known for founding Khan Academy, a popular online educational resource — more popular, even, than MIT’s OpenCourseWare.
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Salman A. Khan ’98, founder of the popular Khan Academy online educational organization, will deliver the keynote address at MIT’s 146th Commencement on Friday, Jun. 8. Khan, 35, is the youngest Commencement speaker in at least 30 years.

Khan earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Course 6, and another bachelor’s in Course 18, in 1998. He attended Harvard Business School from 2001 to 2003, and later worked as a hedge fund analyst in Boston and Palo Alto. Khan founded Khan Academy in 2006, and the not-for-profit educational website has grown to host over 2700 instructional videos in topics ranging from basic algebra to thermodynamics to art history, in addition to online exercises and drills. Khan Academy, which offers its services for free, is supported by donations; among others, Google has promised to contribute $2 million, while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has committed to $1.5 million.

Bill Gates, in fact, says he uses the 10–15 minute Khan Academy lectures to teach his own kids.

But the vast Khan Academy had humble beginnings. While still working as a hedge fund analyst, Khan began tutoring his seventh-grade cousin in math, using Yahoo Messenger’s Doodle feature to illustrate concepts as he spoke to her over the phone. Later, Khan recorded those tutorials and uploaded them to YouTube so that his other cousins and their friends could partake. More and more videos went up, until in 2009, Khan left his job to run the Academy full-time. Khan’s freshman-year roommate, Shantanu Sinha ’98, left McKinsey & Company in 2010 to serve as Khan Academy’s President.

“The Khan Academy is an organization on a mission,” says the website. “We’re a not-for-profit with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education to anyone anywhere.”

Khan says that it was possible for the Academy to have ended up commercialized, but he chose to keep it free.

“I think the way it had evolved, it kind of dawned on me that a lot of the pleasure I was getting out of Khan Academy, and the impact Khan Academy was having, was by virtue of it being unfettered and uncommercial,” Khan told The Tech yesterday evening. “It’s almost a naive point of view, [but] people were saying how this was changing their lives.”

“The model is that the incremental cost is so much lower than the incremental value,” he added. “The incremental value is almost priceless.”

Khan Academy is now run by a 20-member team and has eclipsed MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW) in terms of videos viewed. Khan Academy’s YouTube channel has over 100 million total upload views, compared to MIT’s 32 million.

Khan says that part of the reason for keeping Khan Academy free was a desire to make it an “institution,” like universities. Though people reached out to him about starting it as a business, Khan thought, “a successful institution, that’s even more exciting — that’s even more epic.”

MIT’s OCW, started in 2002, predates Khan Academy by several years and also offers instructional videos and course materials. Unlike Khan Academy, however, OCW’s videos are recordings of lectures that were not necessarily designed for online education.

Nonetheless, “The spirit of what MIT did back then in no small way shaped my thinking in 2007,” said Khan. “I’m probably one of the biggest viewers of MIT OpenCourseWare.”

Khan said that his videos and those on OCW have fundamentally different approaches, which may explain Khan Academy’s popularity. OCW lectures by MIT professors can be over an hour long and hit on many different topics. Khan’s videos are short — 10 to 15 minutes — and focus on very particular concepts.

“I think having that 10 minute video of someone walking through [a concept] conversationally, and they know you’re viewing this on the internet, I think those things could be pretty powerful,” said Khan.

On top of working towards three degrees, Khan was senior class president as an undergraduate at MIT. He was on the Commencement Committee — which advises the President on picks for keynote speakers — the year that U.S. President William J. Clinton and AIDS researcher David Ho spoke.

“MIT is one of those places that people either love it or hate it. I was firmly in the former,” said Khan.

“I think MIT is the closest thing to Hogwarts on this planet,” said Khan, referencing the famous wizarding school of the Harry Potter series. “You’re taking all of these kids from around the country and the world … they’re all a little bit off-the-charts in one way or another. And you’re bringing them all together and they’re having this tremendous shared experience. It’s a magical shared experience.”

“I had a sense of wonder,” Khan continued. “To be surrounded by people who are acting on that wonder is a pretty heavy experience.”

Khan visited MIT to give a talk — “Rethinking Learning” — to a packed 32-123 on Nov. 17. MIT told Khan about their interest in him as a commencement speaker the day before he left for Cambridge, he says.

This year’s Commencement Committee is comprised of student, faculty, and administration representatives. It is chaired by Chancellor Eric Grimson PhD ’80. Executive Officer for Commencement Gayle M. Gallagher also sits on the committee, in addition to UA President Allan E. Miramonti ’13, UA Vice President TyShaun Wynter ’13, Class of 2012 President Nathaniel S. Fox ’12, and Class of 2012 Vice President Hannah E. Sparkman ’12. The Graduate Student Council President and Vice President, Alex J. Evans G and Ellan F. Spero G, are also ex officio members, according to Grimson.

In early September, Fox distributed a survey to the senior class soliciting ideas for the commencement speaker. Ultimately, the Commencement Committee makes recommendations to President Susan J. Hockfield, who has the final say. Grimson said that the shortlist sent to the president this year had about 10–15 suggestions and that the “bulk” of it came from input from students.

Khan is also the first Commencement speaker to not be a member of the MIT Corporation since 2008, when Nobel Peace laureate Muhammad Yunus spoke. Last year, Xerox CEO Ursula M. Burns spoke, and before her, Raymond S. Stata ’57.

Addressing MIT’s 146th class is “a bit of a surreal honor for me,” said Khan.