Traveling West to Meet Sal Khan’s Team
Reflections by Tyler Lian ‘16 and Samantha Lin ‘16
Day 1: Arriving
Sunday August 16, 2015
Providence to San Francisco to Mountain View, CA
My plane from Providence taxied as the sun slowly edged over the horizon. After some bad airport sandwiches and a series of “Where are you?” phone calls, I finally united with Samantha Lin, friend and classmate, and Mr. Lisa, friend and Statistics teacher, at around 3 p.m. From San Francisco to sunny Mountain View, we got a first taste of California public transport: crowded. We Google-mapped our way to the city’s Hampton Inn, where some of Google’s employees were rumored to stay for a Taylor Swift concert. But frankly employees from Google—and Facebook and a handful of other smaller tech companies—were everywhere. After indecisively walking up and down Castro Street, we finally selected a nice Italian restaurant for dinner, where we watched scores of young twenty-somethings in company-branded T-shirts walk by.
Day 2: Khan Academy
Monday August 17, 2015
Mountain View, CA
I woke up unusually early and unusually motivated for a balmy summer day. After a 7:30 a.m. wake-up, I rushed to prepare myself for a potential photo-op with the Sal Khan of Khan Academy (read: today’s biggest trend in education. Google it!). I made my down to the hotel lobby, where Samantha and I were introduced to Ms. Knudson—recent PhD grad, new math teacher, and the fourth and final member of our Andover team—and Mr. Starnes— Lawrenceville Teaching Chair and also the first name on our statistics textbooks. It was about a ten to twenty minute walk to Khan Academy’s unassuming headquarters. Along the way, we bumped into math teacher Mr. Schiel, the other representative of the New Jersey school. At the door, Khan Academy Content Specialist Justin Helps led the six of us up the stairs and into the main office.
It was almost exactly how I had imagined a techie Californian workplace would look. The open, computer-filled floor plan lent a creative and casual vibe. Free drinks and snacks lined the kitchen area. Scribbled notes and project outlines covered various whiteboards and even the walls themselves. When we arrived, the place was mostly empty. Justin explained that most people didn’t come in until around 10 a.m.
We spent most of the morning in a conference room, where Justin described the goals and current state of Khan Academy (free, high-quality education to the world and rapidly growing), as well as the specific details of our project: We were to write Statistics problems for a new online module that they called “skill checks,” brief six to eight question quizzes that would diagnose a student’s weaknesses and direct them to the appropriate videos. In the example Justin showed us, not knowing the difference between a haploid and a diploid in the Cell Division skill check would prompt the user to watch the corresponding Fertilization Terminology video for review. In addition to the skill checks, we were also tasked with writing articles, another new feature on the website, that would supplement the current videos. In addition to the six of us, there would be other teachers and students from Phillips Academy and Lawrenceville helping.
At around 12:30 p.m., we broke for lunch, which was—of course—free for employees. After loading our plates with pork tamales and black beans, we sat down just in time for the company-wide Monday meeting. Sal Khan (!!!) emerged to kick off the presentation. Charismatic and clearly in-touch with his one hundred member staff, he introduced Director of Content Elizabeth, who reported very positive growth during the last three months and encouraged her coworkers to pat themselves on the back. Next up was one of their international marketers, who announced the beginning of the math campaign in Mexico. Finally, Sal Khan took the stage again to host what was apparently a tradition at Khan Academy: Two Truths and a Lie with the new employees. (Truths included being declared homeless for spending too much time in the lab, doing research on an island inhabited by only monkeys, and owning a llama.)
Finally, the crowd dispersed as everyone meandered back to their desks. At this point, Samantha and I debated whether or not we should approach Mr. Khan, who was chatting with some of his employees. My only regret on this trip was that we chose not to approach him, afraid to disrupt him. Little did we know that this would be the last we saw of him. Justin later told us that Sal Khan, who still makes a majority of the videos, devotes about six hours a day to recording himself, before returning home to tend to his kids.
The rest of the afternoon was spent dividing the statistics curriculum into nearly thirty skill checks, working out the intricacies of Khan Academy’s online platform and actually beginning to write problems. That last part was unexpectedly difficult and time-consuming. I spent much of my time writing and promptly crossing out potential problems, drawing and redrawing different histograms, and periodically grabbing chocolate and candy off the snack shelf for an added energy boost.
We left Khan Academy at around 6 p.m., after a full day of work. Justin and his friend, a Math Content Fellow, took us out to dinner at a local restaurant where they served great burgers and fries. Then, we returned to the hotel, turning in early that night.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would one day step foot into the non-profit that taught me middle-school math, much less work with them on their Statistics course. Spending the day at Khan Academy was an amazing experience, and I can say that I am more than excited to be helping them and the millions of students that they reach when school begins in the fall.
Day 3: Quizlet
Tuesday August 18, 2015
San Francisco, CA
After a morning of strolling around scenic San Francisco, we (Instructors of Math Matthew Lisa and Karin Knudson, student Tyler Lian ‘16, and myself) arrived at Quizlet, where we met up with Arun Saigal ‘09 who now works at Quizlet and had originally sent us the invitation to visit. We began with a quick tour of the open, doorless facilities, which include dozens of Mac computers, a fully-stocked fridge with drinks, and two rustic wooden swings, one of which can be used to kick a Justin Bieber pinata hanging from the ceiling. The tour was followed by a sushi lunch with all 30 of Quizlet’s employees, including CEO Dave Margulius, who each introduced themselves. Lunch discussion was a company-wide chat in which we talked about our personal Quizlet usage, discussed the future of Quizlet and EdTech, and laughed at jokes about Exeter. Behind us, a large screen displayed all the real-time Quizlet activity, such as a spelling game being completed or a new user signing up. It scrolled endlessly as students and educators began their preparations for the new school year. A set titled “Italian Verbs” flashed by almost too quickly to read. So did “Literary Terms Poetry” and “Biotechnology Healthcare.” The list maintained its rapid pace even as the tables cleared and everyone returned to work until only Arun and us PA ambassadors remained. Our visit ended shortly after that, and we spent the rest of the day exploring San Francisco on foot and wandering through various classic attractions, such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Ghirardelli Square, and Pier 39. We settled for dinner at last in a marketplace where stalls selling candied cockroaches stood next to ones selling blood orange flavored olive oil and white balsamic vinaigrette. As tired as we were, we couldn’t help feeling more and more excited about this project kickoff and ready for the upcoming year.