While the internet has fundamentally changed many different parts of our lives—from how we shop to how we communicate—the education system has not been impacted too much by these changes. Indeed, many classrooms rely on old technological infrastructure, and teach largely in the same way today as they did decades ago. Educational outcomes remain stagnant, even though there is a wide range of new technologies which could help us improve our learning.
We have seen a number of technology companies enter into the K-12 space, and later fail to disrupt education. Platforms offering Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have gained traction, but there have been questions raised about the efficacy of this method of teaching: there is no accreditation, completion rates are low, and there is a lack of one-on-one interaction between students and teachers. But one company is looking to tackle the massive K-12 space with a new, marketplace-based approach: Outschool.
Outschool, founded in 2015, has been described as the “Netflix of learning.” Instead of offering online courses consisting of lectures and quizzes, Outschool gives students an immersive learning experience where they’ll work with an expert teacher to learn a new subject.
Since launching their platform, Outschool now offers over 10,000 live classes for young people between the ages of three and 18. The marketplace offers courses in everything from chemistry to architecture, and combines learning with a playful tone—architecture classes are taught with Minecraft.
Building a Marketplace for Learning
Whereas many existing education providers offer courses developed in-house—such as Udacity’s “nanodegree” programs—Outschool is doing something different. The company is building a marketplace for learning where teachers with an idea for a course have the ability to teach that course to passionate learners from around the world. Teachers can apply to Outschool, then submit a lesson plan which will be reviewed by the company to determine whether the course is valuable to the platform.
As a result of this marketplace model, there are a wide-range of courses offered on Outschool. Over 1,000 teachers are registered on the platform, who each have their own structure for their courses. Some classes are one-off to help students get a taste of a specific subject; other classes last a few weeks. Some classes even last as long as a typical semester, which gives students the ability to go deeper into the platform. And this model appears to be working: sixty percent of Outschool’s customers are returning students.
Outschool gives teachers a large amount of discretion when planning their courses. Traditionally teachers in K-12 schools– especially those who teach younger grades—have control over how they administer content, but there are a set of topics each student must master. In Outschool, teachers can decide what students should learn on their own, and craft an immersive course based on how they believe students would best be able to master the course. This has resulted in students learning architecture through Minecraft, and Spanish through listening to Taylor Swift lyrics.
Teachers—who are based in the US or Canada, so the company can run background checks—are given 70 percent of students’ tuition, which means teachers have the ability to make a good living on the platform. Outschool’s online-only and marketplace format reduces many of the fixed costs associated with running a school, so the 30 percent of tuition Outschool receives from students can be invested directly into marketing and student success.
According to a recent article on Outschool in The 74, some teachers earn up to $7,000 per month and have turned their work on Outschool into a full-time job. The earning opportunities on Outschool will not only help encourage teachers to keep teaching classes, but it will also help attract the best talent: teachers with unique ideas can earn good money by turning those ideas into a course on Outschool.
Outschool classes start at $5 and are sold for an average of $18. The exact price students are charged is based on the expected class size, the teacher’s level of experience, and the time the teacher will spend developing the material.
Most students have at least one subject in school with which they do not engage, and other students may have more than one. This is as a result of the one-size-fits-all curriculum in traditional schools: there is a set of facts and skills students must master. Outschool, on the other hand, has adopted a passion-based learning approach. The platform is looking to engage students in new learning material, and create a learning environment supportive of their unique characteristics.
The playful classes offered on Outschool can help engage learners who may otherwise not be interested in what they learn in school. A student who can learn about chemistry through Harry Potter may be far more likely to engage in the material than one who is learning through a textbook. And if Outschool can help students realize how interesting some topics are, then they may be more likely to engage in traditional schooling material, or learn in their spare time.
Outschool is focused on learner-directed education: students learn on their own terms. If they have a subject in which they are particularly interested, they can use Outschool to go deeper into that subject. Or if a parent is concerned about a student not engaging with an important subject at school, they can sign their kids up on Outschool, where they’ll learn about the subject from a different perspective.
Some parents go as far as to homeschool their children, which gives them more control over their learning, but this is impractical for most parents at the moment. Thus, Outschool acts as a compromise: students can learn about their passions in their spare time, while still going through the traditional school system.
Learners from all around the world are coming together to join classes on Outschool. Students from countries such as the UK, New Zealand, and Canada are signed up on the platform and actively learning through Outschool courses. But despite the quick growth of this platform, class sizes stay small: no more than 18 kids can participate in a class, and the average class has between three and eight students.
Interaction with Teachers
One of the biggest criticisms of MOOCs is the lack of human interaction between students and learners. And it is not just MOOCs that suffer from this problem: many ed-tech companies are focused on automation or using AI, rather than providing a personalized learning experience based on students. These solutions ignore the fact that students often learn best when they have constant interaction with a teacher or lecturer.
On Outschool, students take classes through Zoom, a teleconferencing tool, and other online technologies. This allows students to engage directly with teachers and share their passion with the teacher and the rest of the class. Outschool is striving to create a social classroom online: students may be auditing classes remotely, but they can still interact through video.
Outschool has thus far found great success in building a platform focused on human interaction. Thousands of people are learning on the platform, and these students are able to develop relationships with kids who they may otherwise not have met. Perhaps the main concern parents have about online learning—aside from quality control, which Outschool manages through a strict vetting process—is the fact that most classes are impersonal and focused solely on watching videos. Outschool has a different approach where students are encouraged to interact with other people.
The Future of Online Schooling
Outschool appears to have found a model that works. Instead of offering generic online courses, Outschool wants teachers to create immersive learning experiences where students will be able to interact with the teacher and their fellow students. And the marketplace-based model allows Outschool to offer a wide range of courses to students, which increases the chance a student will be able to find something they like on the platform.
One potential side effect of Outschool is that it may help level the playing field. Students with wealthy parents can afford to send students to tutors and pay for other extra-curricular learning support to help students thrive. But these solutions are inaccessible to most students; often those who come from lower-income backgrounds and struggle in school. Outschool allows students to pay an average of $18 to participate in a course, which is significantly cheaper than tutoring.
Parents are not the only people who have become interested in Outschool: the company raised $8.5 million in a Series A financing round from Reach Capital and Union Square Ventures earlier this year. This capital will help the school expand their online offerings, and explore other education models such as co-learning communities and micro-schools.
The ultimate goal of Outschool is to provide a learner-directed solution for young people. Outschool can help young people who are disengaged from school explore subjects they find interesting. The platform can also allow students who need help in a subject supplement their traditional education. The school wants more children to be able to pursue their passions outside of the traditional classroom, where what students learn is dictated by a standardized curriculum.