Sal Khan is a super nerd, and that’s why people love him. In early 2020, to show that Khan Academy, his platform for free online education, was a good cause, he did not produce a brochure with smiling children and glowing testimonials. He did one of his teaching videos, with the usual black screen, colored pens and handwritten equations. The phrase “standard deviation” came up a lot. He multiplied the number of highly active users of his program by their average academic improvement, then tied that to the resulting increase in his projected lifetime earnings, compared it to operating costs, and voila, he showed a cost-benefit ratio of 480 to 1, or about 240 to 1 if only benefits for students in high-need schools are calculated.
Those are incredibly high cost-benefit ratios, considering that many nonprofits would be happy with a 10-to-1 ratio. I’m not endorsing the calculation, although it seems reasonable on the face of it. I quote because Khan has a new plan to make the ratio, whatever it is, even higher. It is about harnessing artificial intelligence. I saw a TED talk gave on April 18 about his AI plans, and I interviewed him last week to find out more.
[W]hen ChatGPT came out, most of the feedback about AI and education was negative. … Khan saw it differently: “We said, ‘There’s a way we can do this right, with the right railings.'”
Khan and his team used GPT-4 as the engine behind software called Khanmigo (“Khan” plus “friend”: a bit silly).
Khanmigo is not supposed to give answers. As a good flesh and blood tutor, he engages students in a Socratic dialogue to guide them. It’s good to find out what you aren’t getting. Plus, Khan said, “it allows students to do things they could never do before, like talk to literary or historical figures.” …
I hope it’s possible to get the good out of the AI while trying to curb the bad. Khan, for his part, has been using Khanmigo as his own intellectual friend. Recently, he told me, he used it to satisfy his curiosity about one aspect of supernovae. He said that she is better at helping his children with his programming homework than he is, even though he has a master’s degree in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s hauntingly good,” he said.