In 2012, Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, wrote about his vision of a globally accessible classroom in his book, The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined. I remember reading this book in awe at the possibility of teaching becoming a core part of the learning experience, and students helping each other as a standard part of their path towards academic success. Little did I know that I would soon get to work with Sal to build towards this reality, along with an incredible group of volunteers from around the world.
The need for personal connection
In March 2020, Sal realized that there was an urgent need in the face of school closures—not only were many students quickly falling behind and lacked supplemental help, but they also lacked meaningful social connection. The time was right to take the next step towards his vision of a global schoolhouse, where students around the world could interact to help each other learn.
Sal reached out to his college friend, Shishir Mehrotra, cofounder and CEO of Coda, to see if they could prototype a scrappy solution to connect volunteer tutors with students who need help for small group Zoom sessions. They roped in me and few other volunteers on a Friday afternoon, and we had a working prototype built out on Coda by Monday. Learners could request help in specific Khan Academy topics, and tutors could view that demand and create small group sessions for these learners in response. Calendar invites were created and sent out automatically, along with reminder emails. Upon realizing that the domain name was still available,
It was “just” a doc, but a doc that brought together a group of people who were determined to try something outside the box.
Within a week, we were deep into organizing a pilot with Long Beach Unified School District to see if we could use this new Coda-based scheduling platform to increase the reach of their high-performing math teachers.
By moving the lessons that teachers had planned for their own students onto the Coda platform, teachers could expand their reach from just their own students to students across the district who needed to review the material. If a student didn’t feel like they grasped a topic the first time, they could hop onto the platform to find a live session with another teacher to hear it explained in a different way and ask their questions.
After launching the pilot and getting some indication that this idea had legs, we created a new copy of the doc that Long Beach was using—this one to share publicly with the world. Sal reached out to his social media followers for volunteer math tutors, and was met with an amazing response from hundreds of people across the world; from a math professor in the UK to a high school sophomore from Oklahoma.
Exploring the problem space
Of course, there were a thousand open questions about how we could build our platform to bring people together for small group tutoring sessions effectively.
How do we make sure tutors have the subject mastery they need to tutor?
How do we train tutors from so many different backgrounds to run sessions?
How do we let learners give feedback? How do we have volunteers give each other feedback?
How do we monitor session recordings? What sessions should we prioritize watching?
We didn’t have a product team, a design team, or an engineering team. It was just Sal, Shishir, myself and a wonderfully creative, committed group of volunteers (one of whom would later become
Fortunately, Coda allowed us to rapidly experiment with potential solutions in a way that would never have been possible if we were building things from scratch. For example, we knew we wanted to be able to monitor the Zoom session recordings, but there were too many to watch all of them. In a day, we were able to build an auditing dashboard on Coda which allowed volunteers to see which session recordings were most important to audit, based on a variety of risk factors (e.g., 1:1 sessions, sessions with low ratings from learners, or sessions from new tutors).
After 6 months of our experimentation on Coda, we started hearing from folks who wanted to financially back the project. We decided to register as an official 501(c)3 and hire a small full-time team. Building on the learnings from the Coda platform, we engineered the first version of our custom web platform, which went live in January 2021.
The spirit of experimentation which we were able to foster through building on Coda has resonated long past the switch to the new platform. Nine months and thousands of sessions later, we’re continuing to test ideas and understand what it can look like to create a global classroom for the world; from single small group sessions, to sequences of related sessions, to our latest experiment—study spaces for learners to keep themselves accountable.
In the midst of all the experimentation, what keeps me going is stories, like one student who joined Schoolhouse more than a year ago out of desperation for help with her AP Calc exam, and then eventually become one of the most highly rated Calculus tutors on our platform. She shared that after passively watching Zoom classes from bed during her school’s lockdown became the new normal, she was able to “take refuge” in Schoolhouse, where learning became active and human again.
Looking back on this year, I still find it surreal how Coda made it possible for us to go from having an idea to helping real students at Long Beach in a matter of weeks, and how it then empowered our team to rapidly iterate on our solution to an incredibly ambitious problem. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the midst oflast year’s many challenges, it’s that incredible things happen when you give well-meaning people the power to create and to share what they’re passionate about. I’m excited to see how that will manifest itself through both Schoolhouse and Coda in the coming years.