The Not-Normals Break Through: Update on the RWJF/Khan Academy Project

Sep 5, 2013, 8:00 AM, Posted by

Sal Khan speaking at TED 2011

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).

This week 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 has 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.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.