The New Face of Online Education

College theoretically ends after graduation. Between job rejections, an anemic bank account, and weekly ‘what am I doing with my life’ meltdowns, there are plenty of reminders signifying that the idyllic days of college are gone.

But from a learning standpoint (because that’s what college is really about), our education is far from over.  The World Wide Web is a modern-day encyclopedia, filled with lectures, podcasts, videos, and hybrid tools combining all of the above, which enliven our traditionally static ways of learning.  With the surge in online education, we have all become lifelong learners.

Skillshare is one of a growing number of education startups transforming the way we think about learning. A community marketplace, Skillshare lists classes on its website, ranging from business development to culinary arts, that are offered in your area. Class prices are the teacher’s call.  But the real selling point is that anyone can teach a class. Skillshare’s basic belief is that everyone has something they want to learn and something they can teach to others, no formal degree required. It seems utterly anti-college, but the broader goal is to push learning beyond the classroom and effectively make every city a college campus.

One of Skillshare’s most popular classes, How to Launch Your Startup for Less Than 5K, is taught by Skillshare co-founder Michael Karjanaprakorn. Since November 2010, he has shared startup lessons about his journey as an entrepreneur with over 250 students in New York City . In February, Skillshare decided to open it to others for free as their first online collaborative class.

“Michael’s class was super popular, so we wanted a way for him to reach more than 20 students at a time,” says Stephen Yang, Community Developer at Skillshare and Teaching Assistant for the course. “It was all about finding a more scalable way to teach the class.”

This type of virtual education for the masses is not new. Last fall, when Stanford offered its three most popular computer science classes to the public for free, 200,000 people from around the world signed up. One class, ‘Introduction to Artificial Intelligence‘, attracted 160,000 students. In January, Stanford began offering Technology Entrepreneurship, a class similar to Skillshare’s, about how to launch a successful startup.

Approximately 300 students signed up for Skillshare’s online course, including myself. Karjanaprakorn’s assigned readings, or ‘curated content’ as he calls it, proceeded chronologically based on each stage of the startup creation process.  The first week started with setting the vision of your startup, while the last week culminated in Karjanaprakorn and Yang providing feedback on actual startup ideas.

Skillshare’s democratic philosophy is reflected throughout the course. In the syllabus, Karjanaprakorn tells students to imagine him as a curator, not a higher-up.

“The purpose of a teacher is to guide you through curated resources so you don’t have to go through the steps of reading the wrong things,” explains Yang.

Another characteristic of this new breed of online learning is an emphasis on collaboration. Classes operate very much like the networked world of today. Skillshare students interacted with Karjanaprakorn and each other through the course’s Facebook group. Local workshops were also organized so students in the same city could meet in-person to provide feedback on one another’s startup ideas.  Similarly, Stanford professors in their online classes provide feedback through live office hours via Google Hangouts. It is no longer about simply posting a syllabus.

Since no grades are given, students in these online courses can only depend on innate curiosity to motivate diligence.  Naturally, most students enrolled in Skillshare’s start-up course held an interest in start-ups, like Sharath Chandra whose startup idea My Memory Lane (a platform for storytelling) received live feedback from Karjanaprakorn in the final week.

“This class certainly helps aspiring entrepreneurs or just anyone that wants to learn and understand the startup process,” says Chandra.

Of course, there are still many unanswered questions about the online education model. Generally, only about five to ten percent of registered students on online learning platforms actively participate.  So, how do you engage all students virtually? How do you accredit students? Would that make college irrelevant? Better yet, does college provide anything that the Internet doesn’t?

Until these questions can be resolved, those who are able to sift through the virtual sea of information will gain the most value.  The Internet has turned our consumption of knowledge into a massive intake of links that is difficult to gulp down. As companies like Skillshare experiment with new forms of learning both in-person and virtually, the face of education is sure to evolve quickly. Who said college can’t have an addendum?

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