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?

College, Part II

I was at a networking event the other day, mostly for the tasty hors d’oeurves and the opportunity to imbibe free drinks, but figured I’d entertain some awkward conversation so my freeloading wouldn’t be so conspicuous. When someone approached me, I’d hurriedly finish my chewing (lest the silence be deafening) and begin talking mouth full with a load of quiche crumbs tumbling out. I’d chirpily extend my hand, “Hi my name is Lynne! Nice to meet you. What’s yours?!”

Nothing like an overly enthusiastic greeting that labels the “new girl on the block!” title square in the face.

So be it. I’m a Florida girl at heart and if my sunny disposition makes people squint, get some Ray Bans.  Being from Florida in a cold city actually works to my advantage because it immediately creates an easy topic for conversation: weather. Inevitably, weather talk leads to the ultimate ‘elephant in the room’ question “What do you do?” which subsequently triggers an incessant chatter up in my prefrontal cortex on how to explain who I am, what I studied, and what on earth I think I’m doing here in the city.  I panic, realizing I have no lucid way to introduce myself. So I usually start with, “Well, I drink a lot of wine…” (true story)

I’m not in any position to bestow wisdom on how to create your perfect elevator pitch and I’m not writing this post to pretend like I’m close to figuring it out.  I probably won’t ever know how to describe myself in a witty one or two-liner and the day I can, my life will be officially pathetic.  We are more complex (and interesting) than titles allow us to be.

That said, all this weather talk reminds me of another time not so long ago when I partook in a lot of chatty mingling, albeit in a less classy environment. Memories of a frenzied freshman year of college when I rushed to sign up for every organization offering community, value, and free food flood my guilty psyche. “You’ll find your best friends here!” “Make an impact!”  Back then social situations were more beer pong and club meetings offering free pizza, less wine and cheese with keynote speakers from [insert reputable global organization].

I’m about 9 months out of the old stomping yard (college) and while it’s fair to say I’m no longer a college student, I still feel endowed with a somewhat privileged collegiate mindset. Perhaps even more than I did during my four lecture-sitting years.

I don’t roll out of bed and spring to class anymore, and I don’t bump into people I try to avoid every five minutes.  Instead, I dress up, hopstop to work among suited up strangers, and carry a brown tote that looks slightly like an old man’s briefcase (it was the only one at the thrift store that could fit my dang laptop!).  During my subway ride, I whip out my cranny nook and read up on design. Trust agents. The digital sphere. Or “how to get rid of that gut!”, which just conveniently happened to be on the latest cover of Shape.

After graduation, the learning doesn’t stop.  My current line of work forces me to think digital, social media, and e-commerce while tasting new products and writing about them (which involves wine…what a bummer).  It keeps me busy, but the knowledge appetite is still not satisfied. Curiosity widens like the mouth of a hungry child with a bottomless stomach. Now that I don’t have professors to direct my questions to (ironically whom, I barely spoke to when I was actually in college), I am more curious than ever.

As a newcomer to the city, I am still trying to determine the activities and people that are worth my limited time and energy.  Of course, in order to play the game, you have to put up with some ‘small talk’. Slowly but surely, in this so very refined adult life, you whittle down the prospects to your truest, deepest interests, one glass – escargot – smooth talking schmooze-at a time.

Tomorrow I begin a wine tasting class called ‘Raise Your Wine IQ’.  (Shameless plug- my boss is teaching and you can register here!) I’m also enrolled in a month-long online course called “How to launch your startup idea for less than $5000” which sounds gimmicky, but I’m getting information far more valuable than what I sat through in college without spending a penny.  The class is being offered through the education startup Skillshare, a cool company that is trying to revolutionize education. I’m very interested to see how I can apply what I learn to a possible venture.  Throw in my dance class and bible study, compounded with the professional life, and I have my own class schedule!  I’ve never been more excited to learn in my life!

The Florida sunshine is probably blinding you but before you put on your blockers, keep this in mind:

“Your 20’s are your ‘selfish’ years. It’s a decade to immerse yourself in every single thing possible. Be selfish with your time, and all the aspects of you. Tinker with shit, travel, explore, love a lot, love a little, and never touch the ground.”

Kyoko Escamilla (a.k.a Brain-Food)

Even without a bell tower or quad, the collegiate mindset stays for however long you allow it. I am experimenting and exploring more now than the past four years.  Do I regret not doing more of this when I was actually in college? Yes and no, but it’s never too late.