The Not Normals Break Through — An Update From the Khan Academy

If you’re going to get ambitious about your next task, don’t go and talk to normal people about it. You’ll only get normal answers. Get out of your comfortable little world and step into a completely alien one. As we say round here, when worlds collide, transformation happens.

Love that passage from Brian Millar’s 2012 Fast Company piece. (Plus, it gives me the awesome chance to nod to the eccentrics and outliers—like Millar’s dominatrix and tattooed hipster set—and their unlikely importance to pioneering, breakthrough ideas).

Recently RWJF extended another grant to the Khan Academy; this one for $1.25 million.  I say another as we started this health education journey with Sal, Rishi and the Khan team—right after Sal’s outstanding 2011 TED/Long Beach talk. That discussion resulted in a preliminary 2012 $350,000 bet on this great team. We were intrigued by their big idea—and we thought the world might be too.

What’s that big idea again? Just this: an entirely free, utterly fantastic health education for anyone in the world with a computer and an Internet connection.

Potentially crazy? Perhaps. Ambitious? No kidding. But for RWJF’s pioneering work, that’s right where we like to be. We thought there just might be something there. One year later, we are even more convinced. In that time, the Khan team has pushed intensely and hard—creating its new Healthcare and Medicine Initiative basically from scratch.

For instance, with our support, Khan staff have developed about 200 videos now posted on that Healthcare and Medicine Initiative site—as well as their YouTube medical channel. These videos have received about 800,000 views, and the site has over 10,000 new subscribers. Khan continues to work with Stanford Medical School. That collaboration includes developing and posting Stanford Medical School content on the Khan site as well as integrating the online format into traditional medical school courses.

Khan has done some very smart things. For instance, it has been rigorously and enthusiastically collaborative while focused intently on the big idea. That approach led them to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) which resulted in the recent Khan/AAMC/RWJF MCAT video competition and video-making boot camp. Ok, you got me—AAMC is not a group one typically thinks of as eccentric and an outlier. But, to their great credit, the AAMC agreed to take some risks with Khan and RWJF. Together we launched a competition searching the nation for those outliers and eccentrics.  What we found were new types of teachers—essentially recent, passionate students with native ability to create compelling MCAT prep video content and the willingness to join the journey.

It was that collision of groups—energized, technologically savvy students with traditional academics and the Khan team that has accelerated progress. In less than a month, these outliers and visionaries have developed nearly 200 additional videos and related question content to test students’ knowledge of the lessons they take. That accounts for about 15 percent of the content necessary for the new 2015 MCAT.

Over the next two years, with RWJF support, Khan will rapidly build online health education video content. It will also engage places like Stanford Medical School and Summer Medical and Dental Education Program, sites exploring best approaches to integrating online video content into traditional health care classroom settings.

With this project, we at RWJF looked for and found some “not-normal” people doing some incredible things. With those eccentrics we think we’re onto a breakthrough. Time, of course, will tell. But RWJF is making a bet in that direction. In the meantime, we and they will continue to look for powerful opportunities to accelerate the construction of a free, online health care education asset for the world.

Free, ubiquitous and utterly fantastic health care education is coming.

Michael W. Painter, JD, MD is the senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. This post originally appeared in the RWJF Pioneering Ideas Blog.

2 replies »

  1. AnonymousMD-thanks very much for the comment.

    You’re absolutely right to ask where this work might be going. The progress so far has been interesting as we noted–but as you say–it is really just a baby step. The real hope, of course, isn’t just that this work would ultimately impact med ed prep–or for that matter only medical education alone. In fact, the real hope is more ambitious.

    That hope really is to see what happens if and when much of the health education knowledge that is now transmitted by lecture is instead put into online format and spread widely beyond ivy covered walls that way.

    What happens to the classroom then? What happens to medical education then? What happens when anyone from any discipline or even the public can access that knowledge and learn it they’re so motivated and inclined?

    You’re right–let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Lots of work to do before anyone ever gets to those questions. Part of that includes baby-steps like this MCAT prep effort. Part of it includes as you note finding the right set of collaborators who want to plan beyond the current status quo. Moving the status quo is always a challenge–so I get the skepticsm. Still, the folks in this project are making progress–rapidly showing what’s technically possible.

    So, maybe consider thinking of this part as a little test-case–one that might show some that the writing is on the wall.

  2. Is this a fascinating and fabulous idea? Absolutely.

    But MCAT prep is kiddie stuff, there is tons of that free already and almost every entrepreneurially minded medical student I know has taken a swing at it. What is the strategy for digging into the hard part of the problem? MD training and licensure is different than the education required to enter other industries. When I’m hiring software engineers, I couldn’t care less if you are self taught if you are talented. But I cannot hire you to see patients as a physician if you don’t have an official MD degree, license to practice, and board certification.

    Is there any chance that the AAMC and a major medical education center is going to be excited to collaborate on the really exciting part of the idea, making free or at least radically decreasing the cost of a medical education? Unlikely. Are we going to award an MD degree anytime soon without requiring 100K + in tuition and the privilege of paying the AAMC thousands of dollars at each step of the application cycle (medical school, residency) to use barely functioning software that runs on one antiquated web browser that shall go unnamed? Absolutely not. Double absolutely not if the plan is to convince the existing players whose entire existence as an institution depends on this not happening.