It was one of the rare times when the Khan Academy was teaching a live, in-person class, rather than through a video feed. But the students who gathered in the nonprofit's downtown Mountain View campus on Tuesday afternoon were nothing if not special.
Among those in the crowd were His Excellency Olexander Motsyk of Ukraine, the Honorable Pavel Shidlovsky of Belarus and His Excellency Cui Tainkai of China. In total, 35 well-coiffed foreign ambassadors on formal state business in the United States were sitting in the Khan Academy kitchen to learn about the educational nonprofit that has become a global name. Standing amid a crowd of laid-back software engineers and employees in casual garb, the foreign visitors were immersed in a different culture in more ways than one.
The crowd of dignitaries, representing nations both big and small, were at Khan Academy March 31 as part of a whistle-stop tour through some of the leading tech companies and organizations in Silicon Valley. The visit was organized by the U.S. State Department as part of "Experience America," an annual program that brings an entourage of top diplomats on a rare trip beyond the Washington, D.C. beltway.
It's simple and effective cultural diplomacy, explained Peter Selfridge, the U.S. State Department's Chief of Protocol. Stepping away from the tour for a moment, he explained that his team sought to lead the ambassador corps to sites that highlighted the economic, educational and historic novelty of a region and the country as a whole. The San Francisco Bay Area tends to be a repeat destination, he admitted.
The itinerary was tightly packed with events. Later that day they were scheduled to discuss clean energy at the Tesla headquarters in Palo Alto. On Wednesday, the group would visit the Airbnb offices in San Francisco to learn about the online lodging market. Khan Academy was a good fit to round out the tour as a cutting-edge educational program that was growing worldwide.
"Part of the draw for us is this is a good example of the sharing economy, and that's a new concept for some of these countries," Selfridge explained.
In a show of hands, fewer than 10 of the ambassadors at the session indicated they had heard of the Khan Academy. Yin Lu, the academy's head of international development, was eager to enlighten her international guests on her organization's growing library of free instructional videos. That inventory now includes more than 10,000 videos in 30 languages on everything from "art history to trigonometry," she said. More than 93 million people worldwide had received instruction through their resources, she said, pointing to a map showing huge growth in the U.S., Europe and Southeast Asia.
There were plenty of questions. How did Khan Academy go about teaching controversial subjects, like religion, political science or history, asked Ambassador Geir Haarde of Iceland. Did the academy have solid funding going to continue into the future, asked Ambassador Elin Suleymanov of Azerbaijan. Ambassador Pisan Manawapat asked about countries that don't have widespread Internet access were they being left behind?
Academy founder Salman Khan, wearing a suit and slacks with his sneakers, took the microphone to provide answers. The academy didn't want to shy away from controversial subjects, but it tried to represent all sides of an issue in a respectful way, he said. As far as funding, the nonprofit relied primarily on philanthropists, and Khan said he hoped it could stay that way. He wanted students to never have to see advertisements as they were trying to learn.
Khan admitted he didn't have a great answer as far as global access to the Internet. Computer and smart phone ownership was rapidly expanding across the world, and he said he confident that trend would continue.
"Our goal is nothing short of having all the courses someone needs to be self empowered in society," Khan said, pointing to his nonprofit's mission statement: "A free world-class education for anyone, anywhere."
As the crowd of ambassadors filed downstairs for a tour of the campus, Ambassador Ashok Mirpuri of Singapore stuck around and chatted amiably for a moment. Some of his family had perused the Khan Academy videos and he knew the courses were very popular in his home country.
The other day, the group toured the University of California at San Francisco, and they met some of the world's top scientists and researchers. He was struck by their casual attire, but said he respected their knowledge.
"We haven't seen anyone wearing a necktie since I've been here," he laughed. "But certainly the casual concept is not a sign of a lack of expertise."