One of the world’s largest schools started with just one student.

Today, the nonprofit Khan Academy teaches millions of people every month via free online courses. But back in 2004, Salman Khan was only trying to teach his 12-year-old cousin some math. At the time, Khan was a hedge fund analyst with degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard. After his cousin did poorly on a test, Khan stepped in to offer guidance. They talked by phone, with Khan using an interactive digital notepad to show his cousin what he was writing. After the long-distance lessons, the kid’s comprehension took off.

Word spread around Khan’s family that he was available for tutoring. With about 15 cousins seeking help, he cobbled together a website where he posted his educational videos. Later, when a friend also inquired, he began putting them up on YouTube.

>1 billion

Views on Khan Academy

98

Languages into which Khan Academy courses have been at least partially translated

Education, like much else in the 21st century, was due for an upgrade. Many of the main models rely on a one-size-fits-all approach that dates back to the 1800s. Khan’s project took advantage of tech innovations—including widespread internet connectivity, low-cost content creation and distribution, and the emergence of mobile devices—to make free online education a reality. It was representative of a wave of new, tech-fueled platforms, often described under the acronym MOOC (for “massive open online courses”). Some, like Coursera and edX, were related to or relying on traditional learning institutions, while others like Khan Academy began independently.

Though hundreds of other teaching videos existed when Khan started on YouTube, he set his apart by making the lessons engaging and conversational without losing technical details. A grateful email from a student, who said the online videos cleared his path to college, supercharged Khan’s focus. In 2009, he quit his day job to devote himself full time to building up the academy. Khan Academy now has more than 70 million registered users, spanning more than 190 countries. As Khan told The Telegraph: “We aim to give kids in poor villages around the world virtually the same experience as kids in Silicon Valley.”