virtual education != zoom lectures
Creator-driven, immersive online experiences are changing the way we learn.
School's out for summer, school's out forever. - Alice Cooper
Over the past 2 years, students around the world have been experiencing the absolute horror of online learning. Let’s paint the picture: one insanely boring teacher rambling on (and maybe sharing their screen to show off their riveting PowerPoint) with any number of students sitting on mute desperately trying to stay awake. There’s little to no engagement, the teachers hate it, the students hate it, and all is wrong with the world (don’t even get me started on Blackboard or Canvas). Luckily, I only had to deal with this for 2 months as I “graduated” grad school on Zoom but more and more classes are being taught in a grid from hell.
That’s not to say that all traditional online education is bad. Plenty of folks have figured out ways to take lectures and turn them into quality content. Harvard’s CS50 is the prime example of this, combining world-class curriculum with the production quality of a TV show. It’s not a drastic departure from what you’d get in the physical classroom. In fact, Professor Malan teaches the course live on campus as well as distributing it online. The key here is that Malan and his crew believe that the best way to get through to students is engaging (and dare I say fun) content.
For years, the status quo for many educators has been a focus on the content itself and not on the way they disseminate this information. This was mostly fine in a live, in-person environment because there is a natural engagement from being in the same room as each other. There was always that one teacher (shoutout to Mr. Jahn’s science class) that focused as much on the distribution of their content as they do on the lesson plan. There’s a reason that teacher sticks in memory. When it comes to long-term intellectual growth, the way we are presented content is equally or more important than the information itself. Without an engaging presentation we’re unlikely to retain the information, inherently voiding the value of a good curriculum in the first place.
Luckily, people are beginning to understand this and are building products that help. From platforms that bring the best educators to you to those that immerse you in content, there is technology being built every day to help with the engagement issues in education. We don’t have to resign ourselves to miserable virtual learning experiences. Let’s dive into some products that are making learning fun!
those who can do, teach
Let’s go back to David Malan of CS50 fame for a second. David has a PhD from Harvard in computer science, has been a technical founder and a CIO, and is the leading expert in computer science education. And he teaches the lowest level intro class possible. With the help of the endless reach of the internet, people at the top of their field are now turning to content creation as a way to increase their influence and income. Gone are the days of the reluctant professor teaching because it’s a requirement of tenure track. Now you get a celebrity professor who is equally versed in the content and 100x more engaging.
Maven is one startup that have popped up to capitalize on this trend. By building the platform “where top creators teach cohort-based courses”, they are able to provide access to instructors in their prime. Students get to interact with and learn from the people they see crushing it on Twitter and in industry. While being a next-level content creator online doesn’t always mean you can teach, by curating the supply on their platform Maven is able to keep the bar high for great educators.
The financial incentives from online content for those top in their field makes this idea even more powerful. For example, Sahil Bloom teaches audience building based on his experience growing his Twitter following. With almost half a million followers, Sahil only needs to capture a fraction to add a significant revenue stream to his business. By combining engaging, recorded coursework and live sessions, he is able to monetize his influence in a scaleable way. For the first time, the incentives for teaching have been elevated to a level that makes it appealing for those who would have historically stayed in the “doing” camp.
Some might argue that only social media influencers can make a great living off of teaching a course like this, but Skillshare proves otherwise. Unlike Maven, which has heavily relied on already famous creators, Skillshare gives anyone the ability to bootstrap a course. Justin Bridges, a photographer in NYC, is a great example of someone who has created successful courses on Skillshare with a smaller following on social media. By focusing on intimate, immersive content speaking directly to the viewer, he was able to attract large audiences to his portrait photography classes. He was then able to leverage that into launching a course on money management that grew his influence even greater. By turning educational content into bingeable content, both the student and the teacher are rewarded.
If Maven and Skillshare are the lectures, Superpeer is the office hours. While they compete with Maven in the cohort-based coursework space, they also focus heavily on 1:1 video sessions to connect educators and students directly. This direct line of communication between mentor and mentee is another exciting way to level up the educational process. Instead of having to wait in a dimly lit classroom in some random building on a college campus, learners can now directly book time to get high-value interactions with top-notch mentors. While this is obviously less scaleable than pre-recorded courses, the level of human connection and engagement from one-on-one conversations will continue to draw people to platforms like Superpeer.
If you read my article on short-form content creators, you know I’m very bullish on the impact this kind of content will have on community-based education. Continuum is an awesome company in this space, combining short-form educational content and a crypto-based incentive system to bring more creators and viewers to the app. While most platforms like Maven, Skillshare, Superpeer, and Masterclass still adhere to long-form content, there will continue to be a push towards shorter and shorter educational snippets (called Bits in Continuum). This is especially true with TikTok-watching Millenials and Gen Zs. It’s just much easier to make an engaging 60 second clip than a 10 minute one and literally anyone can do it. As more and more short-form creators are made every day, platforms like Continuum will have to work on curation (like TikTok did with their insanely good algorithm) but this will be a great problem to have. Too much fun, educational content is a world I’m more than happy to live in.
learning by doing
Making online course content more appealing isn’t enough to elevate education to the point of delight. There’s one key thing missing: can I actually do the thing I’m learning? For some skills this is easier than others. If you’re taking Justin’s portrait photography course on Skillshare you can buy a DSLR and try it out. If you’re trying to practice your vocabulary though, it may be harder to find a native speaker to work with IRL.
Apps like Grammarly and Toucan help with this perfectly. Instead of hiring a writing or language coach, they allow you to be immersed in the skillset you’re trying to learn while going about your day as usual. If you’re writing an email or a Substack newsletter, Grammarly will jump in with suggestions on how to make the content better.
If you’re browsing NPR during your morning routine, Toucan will automatically translate a few words for you to practice partial immersion into the language you are learning. Instead of taking a cohort-based course or working 1:1 with someone, these products gamify the learning experience without the need for any external teacher. This is not only extremely powerful with how easily it scales, but it is also much more enjoyable than being lectured at. With more of our lives moving online, more products similar to these will be built to create an educational layer on top of our day-to-day activities.
Labster goes even further, incorporating VR into the immersion experience. By presenting virtual recreations of actual tasks, scientists and engineers can learn and test their abilities on things they might do on the job. Like a Formula 1 simulator (but a lot less exciting), Labster gives as close of a representation as possible for the user to practice for real-world situations. For anyone who has spent any amount of time in a lab, there are dozens of annoying things you have to do to prepare beforehand and cleanup after. If nothing else, this learning environment removes a lot of that friction and lets you experiment without serious consequences (which is a big win for delight in my book).
Software development is an obvious candidate for fully immersive learning experiences since it is all online in the first place. Replit has done an amazing job at turning experimenting with code and app development into something that’s more accessible and fun for beginners and experts alike. While they started out as a way to run snippets of code in the browser in a multitude of languages, they’ve since expanded into teaching people in a hands-on, entertaining way. Simply by opening up the Learn section of the Replit site, you can start playing around with websites and games with detailed instructions on how to recreate or improve the apps.
Similar to Chris Dixon’s “Come for the tool, stay for the network”, Replit is a great example of “Come for the tool, stay for the education”. As an early user of the site, I started out using it to test some Python or Node code. It was just another tool in my developer toolbox. One day, I wanted to learn how to spin up a Discord bot (because it was 2021 and of course I did). After searching around for a while, I found a Discord bot template already started on Replit with instructions for updating it to fit my needs. What used to be a tutorial on some blog is now tightly integrated with the tool I already use, helping me learn in an environment I’ve grown accustomed to.
On the other side of the spectrum, Buildspace starts with the education and sends you on your way with a valuable product: a custom NFT, smart contract, or web3 app. In a market that values project experience over traditional credentials, giving developers the ability to “graduate” with something visible on-chain to show potential employers is a powerful incentive to start learning on the platform. While the output of the program is all well and good, the key differentiator for Buildspace for me are the vibes. It was one of the first online classes I’ve ever taken that had a flourishing community (in a Discord of course) and genuinely fun coursework and instruction. Farza and the team built a product that made something as intimidating as building on the blockchain as relaxing as hanging out with friends. Technical learning lab experiences that feel like chilling with the crew is a future I want!
creator-led content + immersion
High-quality, engaging, and fun content will only get more powerful as our lives continue to be led online. Creators are redefining our status quo in education and will build alluring curricula and present them in an ultra-consumable way. Whether it’s a cohort-based course led by a famous influencer, a 1:1 with your favorite Twitter shitposter, or a quick snippet of insight you watch on the go, the face of learning is changing. For the hands-on part of education, products will allow us to immerse ourselves into experiences that simultaneously give us real-world learning and utility. Combine all this innovation with the fact that there is no geographical limitation on distribution for any of it and it becomes apparent how this is going to change everything. Let’s move on from Zoom lectures…it’s time.
As always, if you’re a founder working on a fun product or know of any awesome companies that fit into this category, send them my way at email@example.com. I’d love to meet and include them in a future post!
John, great summary and factfinding and review! You only missed one company :) www.VirtualFilmSchool.org teaches New Media content creation and monetization using virtual reality classrooms. It’s a fully interactive, fun and supportive learning experience, taught live by A-list media professionals from London, Hollywood and the Metaverse. We are higher education for the next generation, offering an ECTS accredited Bachelor’s Degree starting mid-2022. Here’s a 1-minute video of what we promise: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQ0dkSajIiw
No love for Dr. Mach? Sad.