HRH Leaders in Action Interview: Dr. Rishi Desai


An interview series with HRH leaders and champions produced by the HRH Global Resource Center.

Dr. Rishi Desai
Dr. Rishi Desai

Dr. Rishi Desai, a trained pediatric infectious disease physician, is the Medical Partnerships Lead at Khan Academy and works towards the Academy's goal of offering an open source, high-quality education to anyone, anywhere.

What is the Khan Academy?

It is a nonprofit organization that puts together free, online, educational material for all audiences. We take content from any domain where we think we can be useful. It started with math education, and we try to make a math learning experience as fun, engaging and as effective as possible. We measure that in a lot of different ways, and then take all the lessons learned and apply them to other fields. It is very applicable to other sciences. We have courses in chemistry, physics and biology, and now we're going into medicine and health as well.

How did Khan Academy start?

The first leap was from Sal Khan back in 2008 with the idea that you can put together a short video lesson on math concepts within the span of 10 minutes that is informal, friendly, engaging and deep. It tries to get to the “why things are” rather than simply listing facts. That is probably the [Khan courses'] biggest strength is the combination of clarity with depth of learning.

What is the most important thing to know about Khan Academy?

One of the things that I think people get caught up in is the digital aspect of it because that's all very exciting, but the core of our work is good teaching. If a student enjoys learning, it is very empowering because they will want to keep learning.

How did you come to work there?

I was working at the Centers for Disease Control, and I came across the Khan Academy because my fiancée was using it for calculus help while she was in school. She found the videos very helpful, which I thought was ironic because she was paying high tuition to her institution yet going online and for the free tutorials that are what helped her learn. I think that that happens for a lot of people, and as the online space gets richer with resources, more people will realize that you can go to other places besides academic centers to get real learning. I wanted to contribute to this rich online community that would help medical students like me, so I started making some videos and eventually started working full-time at Khan Academy.

Could you describe a typical Khan Academy course in terms of its benefits and features?

The beginning of a course or beginning of a set of video tutorials would assume that you're a smart, curious person and that you may not know the content at all. The first tutorial introduces you to an idea that is new, breaks down all the jargon, and explains the idea in a very clear way. As you go to the next tutorials in the series, you slowly build up your knowledge, and at the end of the day you have presumably what you would need to enter the [hospital] wards.

If you are suffering from chest pain and you just want to learn more about it, you can watch the first few videos until they have answered your questions. A nursing student can keep going until s/he could read an EKG, so [the courses] appeal to everyone. There is no real beginning or end of the course per se. It is like shopping in unlimited grocery store where you can pick out whatever you want.

What makes a Khan course different from other online learning like massive open online courses (MOOCs)?

Our tutorials are videos under 10 minutes. They are focused on the content, not the speaker or the speaker's institution. Let's say I'm working at university and decide to videotape my lectures and give them to my students. Once I put the lectures onto a free, open platform where many people can view it, then you have a MOOC. It it was a good lecture then it is a great MOOC. If it was a bad lecture, then it is a lousy MOOC. A MOOC is just the in-person experience put online, so it doesn't address a lot of core issues around teaching. It makes it free and accessible, but it doesn't guarantee quality teaching. One of the things that Khan Academy strives to do is focus on how we make high quality teaching, including peer review for factual information. That's one of the core differences - the quality is high on one side and variable on the other.

Another difference is the approach. With a typical course or MOOC, a course starts and ends with the specific topic. Let's say it's a genetics course and a student doesn’t do well. Is it because he didn't understand the genetics material, or is it because he didn’t understand the basic math? You don't really understand why people aren't doing well or see the gaps in their knowledge. When you teach to the average, which is what most courses do, you are not helping people that are behind or those who are more advanced. If you make learning content granular and let people choose, then you can help both groups because you can offer basic training on math and more advanced topics beyond Mendelian genetics. That's why Khan Academy is different. It's geared towards the user, not what's easy for a faculty member to teach.

Can you tell me about the users of the Khan Academy?

We have over six million unique users per month. Over 30,000 classrooms are using it, which is probably the most exciting use of the courses because it is integrating into education orthodoxy. Right now, we are trying to get the entire site translated into different languages so that if you check-in from Venezuela, it'll direct you to the Spanish version of the site. The power of that is you would have the analytics and the feedback as well as the videos translated, so would create a better user experience.

How can Khan Academy courses benefit health workers or those who wish to train to become health workers?

We put together content that is granular, so you can get information on the way that the kidneys work and then another tutorial on understanding exactly how acid based physiology works, etc. These tutorials get deeper and deeper, so if you're a healthcare worker you can pick and choose the videos that address the things that you have been encountering.

If you're running an organization where you're training healthcare workers you can give recommendations of which videos would be helpful for the people in your programs and make a set of resources students need before day one. Then, students can skip it if they know it already or go over it as many times as they need if they don't, so a course can be more interactive rather than lectures of didactic material.

What's next for the Khan Academy?

The most exciting thing is creating a learning tool that can generate a list of learning recommendations based a user’s answers to a set of knowledge questions. We are essentially trying to take them to their "learning edge" instead of wasting time on topics they already know or floundering on topics that are too advanced. We want to find that sweet spot where they're confidently learning and give them suggestions for videos, articles and games that would address some of what we perceive to be their gaps.

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