The start-up using tech to foster students’ connections across the globe

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May 16, 2019

As students of Disruptive Innovation we’re often looking to new models emerging at the edges of traditional school and after-school systems. Of late, I’m particularly interested in models that not only unlock new flexibility in learning, but also connecting, by putting new relationships within reach for students.

That’s what got me interested in Outschool, a marketplace of online learning experiences where vetted teachers offer thousands of out-of-school, small-group, virtual courses and even brief lessons for K-12 students’ enrichment. The model bucks the MOOC-like image some people conjure when they think of learning online as distinctly antisocial. Instead, with small class sizes (capped by the educators on the platform themselves) and a live video chat format, Outschool students are building relationships with one another and with educators from around the world. The small-group approach also creates lower price points for families compared to expensive one-on-one tutoring, not to mention often cost-intensive face-to-face extracurriculars. I sat down with Outschool founder Amir Nathoo to learn more.

Julia: What prompted you to start Outschool?

Amir: Inspired by my own experiences, I started Outschool in 2015 because I want to create more learning experiences for kids. I’d been thinking about applying technology in education for a long time. I had a fantastic education in the UK, including studying engineering at the University of Cambridge, which opened many doors for me. However, some of my most impactful learning experiences happened outside of school.

When I was 5 my parents, both teachers, bought me a computer—a BBC Micro. They didn’t limit my screen time, I played computer games, and became inspired to try to create games myself. So I taught myself to program, and, seeing my interest, my parents found me a retired economics professor who was starting to teach computer science on the side. That out-of-school learning experience based on my interests led to my career in technology.

Julia:  What constitutes a “course” in your model? Are you trying to get formal education systems to recognize Outschool credits?

Amir: Our goal is to inspire kids to love learning. We’re focused on learner engagement and helping kids pursue interests as a supplement to formal schooling. In the future, we will seek to offer credit and interface with formal education systems.

Classes on Outschool range from one-time enrichment lessons to semester-long core courses. We offer classes across all subjects, and our learners range from age 3 to 18. We encourage teachers to get creative and link learners’ interests to academic subjects. Along with courses you might expect, like algebra and U.S. History, teachers respond to learners’ requests to help them learn architecture through Minecraft, Spanish by singing Taylor Swift songs in Spanish, biology through Pokemon, and How to Become a Ninja.

So much of K-12 education is focused on the end result: the test score, college acceptance, or getting a job. Of course, mastering a subject and seeing a concrete benefit is important. But fostering a love of learning is the key building block on the path to mastery and lifelong learning, and one that is under-recognized. We aim to fill that gap and use video chat to enable interest-based learning.

Julia: What’s the profile of an Outschool student and family?

Amir: Outschool classes meet in small groups over video chat, so families join from different locations across the US and the world. Over 30,000 families have enrolled in classes. Many comment that they enjoy the geographic diversity. As one parent wrote: “It’s a great opportunity for her to try new things and meet kids safely all over the world in a supervised and fun creative learning environment.”  Half of Outschool learners take a class with learners from two or more countries. We surveyed our families and found that 85% of them use Outschool to help their kids explore their interests.

Today, parents who enroll their kids in Outschool classes are overwhelmingly women aged 35-55 with advanced degrees. We think of them as “learning geeks”—they love learning, and they actively seek new opportunities for their kids. For example, one of our parents, Cyndi Burnett, is a creativity researcher and uses Outschool to help her kids plan an online summer camp.

We see video chat as a disruptive format for learning that will become a standard part of kids’ education. Millennial parents, who have grown up with the internet, have new expectations about what their kids need to learn and how. They will help their kids use video chat for learning as well as to talk to their grandparents. Going forward, we see the opportunity to support millions of families across the world, with a wide variety of different learning needs.  

Julia: What’s the profile of an Outschool educator?

Amir: Teachers join Outschool so they can be creative and earn money doing what they love—inspiring learners. They value the flexibility of our marketplace and the ability to work from home on their own schedule.

We see three main profiles of teachers joining Outschool. Current classroom teachers use Outschool to supplement their income by teaching after school, weekend, and holiday classes. Former classroom teachers, many of whom left the classroom after having kids, teach on Outschool part-time around their family commitments. Other teachers have become so successful that they have become full-time online entrepreneurs.

There is an application process to teach on Outschool, which includes a background check, but we don’t require a formal teaching credential. Although many teachers on our site are certified, others are able to contribute amazing classes such as a vet technician who teaches cat anatomy, and a human rights lawyer who teaches history and social issues.

Julia: We’ve studied the power of technology to diversify networks. How do you think about new relationships, not just new learning experiences, as an outcome of your model? Does any aspect of the platform really double down on opportunities to forge and maintain connections?

Amir: Our product is built on the idea that human interactions—both learner to learner and teacher to learner around a common interest—are key to learning. Every day we see the fun and sparks of inspiration that happen when learners and a teacher meet over live video. Interactions build into relationships over time, especially in our longer and ongoing courses, which meet weekly over months. As educator Megan Hardy said, “I have these learners that have bonded over six weeks, wanting to exchange emails and information. They’ve made friends across the globe that they want to keep in touch with.” Parents agree. As one put it, “My son just wrapped a Minecraft class and the kids have bonded so beautifully. I see lasting friendships. It is a beautiful thing to be able to find other kids who are into the same things as you and be able to connect with them despite the many miles in between you.”

Promoting relationships is a strategy to achieve both learning outcomes and business success. We design our product with this in mind with features including community groups, messaging, classroom posts and comments, and profiles for parents and teachers. A really exciting aspect for us is the diverse and international nature of the families who enroll. Our classes can increase empathy by connecting kids beyond their local community or typical social groups. For example, in the course “Life Along the Nile: Mythology, Mummies, & the History of Ancient Egypt” students hail from five countries: United States, Brazil, United Kingdom, Argentina, and Canada.

We think the power of relationships is enduring and can’t be replaced by self-study content, games, or AI.

Julia: Enrichment spending gaps between rich and poor families have grown exponentially over the past decades. How do you think about Outschool as expanding access to enrichment to students who find themselves on the wrong side of those spending gaps? What’s the current price point for your courses?

Amir: Online, small-group classes are beneficial for access because of the price and the diversity of classes and teachers. In addition, we’re working on ways to enable participation in Outschool classes with zero out-of-pocket expense for some families. Outschool classes start from $5 and go for an average of $18. Teachers set the price per learner according to the expected class size, the time and materials required to deliver the class, and the teacher’s level of experience and qualification in the subject.

Small-group classes are less expensive for parents and more lucrative for teachers than one-on-one tutoring because costs are split between participants. Our live online format also removes the need for facilities and the time and costs associated with travel to an in-person activity. This lets us offer violin classes, for example, starting at just over $10/hour compared to the typical $50/hour cost of local classes.

We’ve also started to partner with a number of public schools that provide funding for their families to take Outschool classes at zero out-of-pocket expense. We hope to expand these partnerships in the future, as well as offer scholarship programs and subsidized classes in partnership with foundations.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Her work aims to educate policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her new book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks" https://amzn.to/2RIqwOk.