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Anyone Can Be a Teacher in This Online School

New York Times


The Skillshare staff at work at the company’s offices in New York. The company allows users to determine the courses they want to teach and take. A thousand courses are available for $10 a month.

The Staff at work in New York

The Staff at work in New York

Susan Orlean was considering giving up teaching. She had taught courses at New York University and at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College but was finding it difficult to maintain a consistent class schedule while fulfilling her obligations as a staff writer for The New Yorker.

“I just started thinking, well, maybe there’s a different way to do this that doesn’t tie me to a physical location,” she said. “And right around that time, Skillshare contacted me.”

Skillshare is an online video platform that allows anyone to sign up and teach a class. The company has proved adept at recruiting experts to teach on its website. Aside from Ms. Orlean’s class on creative nonfiction, the website has a class on visual storytelling from the design maven Debbie Millman and a marketing course taught by the entrepreneur Seth Godin. At one point, it even offered screenwriting instruction from James Franco.

The company’s business model does not depend solely on experts. Instead, those behind the service are banking on the idea that amateurs will be inspired to share their knowledge online. They envision the website as a kind of educational YouTube: If you want to teach anyone anything – how to use Photoshop, or even how to chug a beer more efficiently – Skillshare wants to host your classes. Many users find that appealing. Since the platform was opened last September, the number of courses offered has nearly doubled to about 1,000. Skillshare has raised more than $10 million in venture capital.

Sudents pay $10 a month for unlimited access to Skillshare courses, and 850,000 are signed up, the company says. Frequently, thousands will sign up for a single course. Jake Bartlett, a freelance motion-graphics artist who teaches digital visual effects, says about 1,200 students signed up for his latest course. Nearly 2,000 students are enrolled in Ms. Millman’s visual storytelling class, her first on the site.

Teachers with at least 25 students can enter a “partner program” in which they are paid based on the number of subscribing students in their classes, and for projects those students submit. Skillshare says that on average, teachers in the program are paid $3,500 annually. Those with fewer than 25 students are not paid.

Skillshare, which is based in New York, was developed in 2011 as an offline enterprise, a form of alternative education that would teach practical skills to students in local communities. But the legwork involved was taxing, so in the summer of 2012 the company moved online. Last fall, it opened to anybody who wanted to teach a course.

The company’s chief executive, Michael Karnjanaprakorn, said that opening the platform was essential in addressing how teaching and learning work online.

“The Internet is like this virtual town getting built,” he said. “Let’s say The New York Times is the newspaper, Twitter is a short form of communication, Facebook is a town center and AOL built the roads. What we think is getting built right now is the hospital and the school. And in order for those things to be built, they have to keep in mind how the Internet works.”

He said building the Internet’s school meant letting users determine the courses they want to teach and take without creating many financial obstacles. The way Skillshare accommodates its students academically and financially sets it apart from its online competitors. Companies like Coursera and Udacity prepare students for the work force in a more familiar fashion. For the most part, Coursera hews closely to traditional college courses, and Udacity offers “nanodegrees” for digital skills that will appeal to prospective employers in the technology sector.

Even Udemy, an online education platform that is also open to anyone who wants to teach, allows instructors to set prices, which can make enrollment in multiple courses difficult for students on a budget.

Most of the subjects that Skillshare offers resemble the abilities someone might pick up after spending a couple of semesters in the company of art school students. Colleen Sullivan Leh, 46, a graphic designer in Lake Orion, Mich., has subscribed to Skillshare for about a year and has taken classes on typography and photography. She said she liked being able to set her own pace without being evaluated.

“It works for me because there are no grades involved,” she said.

Because it does not field more traditional classes or award grades or credentials, Skillshare is vulnerable to criticism that it masquerades as a learning platform while it wastes users’ time and money. But those who have taken issue with other forms of “edutainment” are more accepting of a platform that teaches practical skills.

Nathan Jurgenson, a graduate student in sociology at the University of Maryland and a specialist in Internet culture, sees Skillshare as a “stopgap measure,” necessary to an economy in which skills can be more valuable than diplomas. “It’s far more suited to our economy than going to a graduate program,” he said. “What Skillshare is doing is more in line with what our precarious work force needs.”

Many instructors, including Ms. Millman and Ms. Orlean, emphasized that Skillshare was not a replacement for traditional education, but more of a complementary way to learn.

“The in-class dynamic is something that is very important to me, so I’ve been very reluctant to get on the online teaching bandwagon,” Ms. Millman said.

But Ms. Orlean found that in at least one way, teaching at Skillshare was more positive than that in traditional academia.

“I always had good students, but I also think they’re there to fulfill their credit requirements so there’s a little element of obligation,” she said. “Whereas people who are signing on for Skillshare really want to do it. And they don’t get anything for it except learning.”

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