A Q&A with Sal Khan: "The world needs an idea like Hello World"

For over a decade, Salman Khan has pioneered a new future of education.

He founded Khan Academy in 2008, a non-profit that provides online education tools to help teach students around the world. In 2012, he appeared on Time’s 100 Most Influential People list and published his book, One World Schoolhouse, that describes a radical vision of where education is heading.

Sal’s vision chimes with Hello World’s mission, which is why we’re lucky to have him chair our board. Like Khan Academy, Hello World aims to capitalize on the potential of online tools to provide new opportunities for learning and development, especially for teens who are historically left out of those opportunities. So, we developed an app to give teens new ways to express their passions, develop their talent, and connect with scholarships, university programs, coaching, and more.

A few days before Hello World’s global launch, I (Chalon Bridges, CEO of Hello World) sat down with Sal to discuss Hello World. I wanted to share that conversation to help shed light on our mission of discovering and developing the talent in everyone.

[Interview has been edited for clarity]

Q: Can you talk about some of the backstory of Hello World?

Sal Khan: The origin of Hello World ties back to an idea I discussed in One World Schoolhouse, one I still strongly believe in: traditional measurements like standardized tests and GPAs are important, but they don’t measure your whole being.

In the past, we’ve been good at measuring certain qualities of young people but not the entirety of their being. And naturally, since certain qualities are easier to measure, they become the basis of how we evaluate kids. Have you mastered your algebra yet? Is your reading comprehension at a certain level? Those are easier questions to answer.

But these days, we’re on the cusp of being able to quantify, in a standardized way, what used to be subjective: your ability to communicate, your sense of humor, and your creativity. And if we can do that, employers and admissions offices will start evaluating kids based on a more complete picture of who they are.

So, in 2019, when the team at Schmidt Futures approached me about the Rise scholarship, we started dreaming about how we could choose candidates for the scholarship in a new way. Instead of just selecting applicants based on academic or intellectual horsepower (which again, are important), what if we focus on developing a concrete way to gauge the “subjective” stuff?

We were all pretty captivated by that possibility, so we pushed it forward. Before long, we built the team that would go on to create Hello World.

Bridges:  And once we got the ball rolling, we knew it had to be a scalable, global platform that all sorts of kids could access.

Khan: Exactly, that's the other thing. Not only do we want to uncover those subjective traits in a fair and equitable way, but we want to make that solution low cost and available to everyone. Twenty years ago, we might have hired a panel of experts to gauge these qualities, but now we’re talking about a platform that is virtually free.

What used to be expensive and restricted is now as simple as downloading an app.

Q: What is the single biggest impact you believe Hello World could have on the world?

Khan: I think Hello World will broaden the aperture of how we evaluate millions or tens of millions of people around the world. That’s a big deal.

At first, you’ll help connect kids to scholarships like the Rise scholarship, apprenticeships, internships, college admissions, and graduate school admissions. And then, I can imagine a future where employers take advantage of these video artifacts and learn who someone is by looking at their Hello World profile. That would wind up giving many, many, many more people opportunities.

“I think Hello World will broaden the aperture of how we evaluate millions or tens of millions of people around the world. That’s a big deal.”

Right now, we have a system where a few people are able to go to the right schools and have the right access or the right institutional knowledge to be able to show the artifacts people index on. But most people don’t have that.

If everyone has access to a standardized way of showing where they have skills, passion, and potential, then we’ll create a much larger pool of folks for employers and universities. That will start to level the playing field in a truly meaningful way.

Q: You’ve spoken about teaching for mastery rather than test scores, which really resonates with the Hello World team. How do we make sure our impact on kids who use Hello World is meaningful, sustainable, and functional?

Khan: Well, first, I want to say, I’m not anti-test scores. But test scores are only useful if they measure where you are, not if they judge you.

Say you get an 80% on a math test. I think it’s important that you took the test: it tells you, as long as the test is reasonably accurate, that you understand about 80% of the material. But where that goes wrong is when getting an 80% also means having a permanent B- on your transcript. You perceive yourself as a B- and other people do, too.

If a student isn’t off the charts in some dimension, that shouldn’t be a permanent judgment. It shouldn’t follow them around for the rest of their life or even their academic career. But unfortunately, it does.

“...test scores are only useful if they measure where you are, not if they judge you.”

Ideally, tests should tell students, “Hey, you got an 80%. Keep working on it! Oh, and focus on the 20% that you missed.”

And I think that’s exactly what Hello World does right. It offers a standardized way of measuring and discovering talent, but it’s productive, not reductive. On the platform, you get feedback from the community, actionable steps to take, and the opportunity to try again. That difference is key.

Q: One of Hello World’s most important features is its use of video. It lets us see things we couldn’t see before. Why do you think video is such a valuable tool?

Khan: You know, it’s interesting because video obviously isn’t bleeding-edge technology. We’ve had video for a century now, and even online video for some 20-plus years. But it constantly surprises me how little we leverage video.

For most of human history, we didn’t have writing. We had an oral tradition where we would tell each other stories around the campfire with emotion, with tone.

“All of these writing frameworks and tools actually stop kids from properly expressing themselves.”

The advent of writing helped us scale information but at the expense of that emotion and tone. A great writer can capture some of it, but at the end of the day, it’s hard to compete with storytelling that uses voice, facial expressions, and hand movements.

Video is really the best of both worlds. These days, when I make a recommendation for someone or want to thank a donor, I’ll write the letter or the card, but I’ll add a video every time. It’s much more meaningful. You can’t fake video; it really shows who you are and how you feel. And it takes less time than writing!

Bridges: Completely. Plus, the barrier to entry is so much lower.

Sal: Yes, as soon as you tell most kids to write something, they become paralyzed. “I have to write five paragraphs. The first one has to be an introduction. Every paragraph has to have a thesis statement.” All of these writing frameworks and tools actually stop kids from properly expressing themselves.

Written skills are important, but we’ve overweighted them. Face-to-face communication skills have always been important. People respond to an engaging speaker, a sense of humor, an X-factor, and video helps make those skills visible.

Q: What makes Hello World so urgent today? Why 2020?

Khan: In almost anything, the first uses of a new media tend to be for fun. But the Snapchats, TikToks, and Instagrams of the world have taught us a lot.

They are, for the most part, frivolous, but they show that you can actually communicate a lot. They prove people have the technology and skills to record themselves. And they prove that basically every high school student — especially in America, but probably the world — is very familiar with these types of modalities.

So all of that makes Hello World very ripe for right now. I think it’s the right time to leverage those same modalities for something a little bit deeper and more productive.

Bridges: Absolutely. And even though the platforms might be focused on fun, kids show so much creativity on Snapchat, TikTok, and Instagram, especially among Gen Z. Their creativity consistently amazes me.

Khan: Absolutely. Even on the teaching side, those platforms offer a lot of potential.

Q: Do you have any wisdom for me and the rest of the Hello World team as we get the program off the ground?

You know, sometimes you have an idea that needs to exist in the world, and I think Hello World is one of them. If Hello World didn’t exist, some version of it would, eventually. The world needs an idea like Hello World. It’s only a matter of timing, which can be a little harder to predict.

It's about building awareness on both sides. First, you have to let students know that it’s for them. That it's safe, fun, and engaging, and that it’s going to open up new opportunities.

On the other side, it’s about connecting with the people looking for talent: the scholarship providers, the universities, the employers. Let them know they can find a really extraordinary talent pool by leveraging Hello World. Already, it's really powerful that Hello World is getting off the ground with the Rise scholarship. Now, it's just about connecting with more organizations that are interested in finding and developing overlooked talent.

One of the things that I told myself in the early days of Khan Academy, when it was just me, was that you just have to keep working on it, keep making progress, and make it unkillable. That way, no matter what happens, it’ll always keep moving forward. It might take two years or 10 years, but as long as it keeps moving forward and doesn’t die, eventually, it will hit an inflection point.

That’s what happened with Khan Academy. And frankly, Hello World has a lot more going for it than Khan Academy did in the early days. I was just some crazy guy with little to no legitimacy in the space, but Hello World has a lot of interesting parties around it that will accelerate its success.

Our vision depends, like Sal said, on partner programs to share scholarships and other development opportunities on Hello World.

If our mission to reimagine how we discover and develop talent resonates with you, we want to talk. Please, say hello! I look forward to connecting.