Startups such as Coursera, 2tor and Udacity have used the web to bring college professors' lectures to a wider audience.
Skillshare, meanwhile, is eliminating the lectures–and the professors.
A new class format the startup is launching on Tuesday aims to create a learning environment where teachers become facilitators and students, at times, become each other’s teachers. To do so, it straddles the gap between online and offline learning.
The new “hybrid classes” have both an online component where teachers orchestrate projects, resources, videos and feedback as well as an option for students who live near each other to meet periodically.
Skillshare’s website, which launched last April, has until now been focused on helping anyone organize an offline class to teach anything (it charges a 15% fee on class tuition for the favor). By removing the brick-and-mortar restriction, it has made those classes available to a global teacher and student population.
But it also hopes to change how they're taught.
“The basic idea is students learn by doing, and learn by doing with other people,” Skillshare founder Michael Karnjanaprakorn says.
In a trial class Karnjanaprakorn taught earlier this year, for instance, he gave his 200 students mini-projects (starting with “define your goals”) for each week. They culminated in one large project: launching a minimum viable project for their startups.
Though he thought fielding questions from a class of that size would be cumbersome, more often than not students answered each other before he got a chance. Bi-weekly live-video office hours, which were recorded for anyone who missed out, filled in the rest.
Jason Culbertson, one of his students, says it was the first class about entrepreneurship that he translated to action. In addition to participating online, he met weekly with about four classmates in New York to work on his projects. He completed the classes' rather daunting ultimate goal, launching a startup called Hashpix.
“These tasks were being shared with a group of people who, after a while at least, knew what I was working on,” he says. “I felt like I had the moment of a group of people to get things done.”
It’s not a teaching method unique to Skillshare. The Tinkering School and a K-12 alternative school called Brightworks are just two organizations based on similar project-based, collaborative learning structures. Karnjanaprakorn says he picked up the theory during grad school at Brandcenter VCU, which prides itself on not having many textbooks, lectures or tests.
But is this what the future of education looks like? Some subjects lend themselves more naturally to the class structure than others. It’s easier, for instance, to imagine a knitting class based a series of projects than it is, say, a class on Russian literature.
Skillshare may never replace traditional college education. In fact, that seems to be part of its point.
“Your statement of accomplishment no longer needs to be a degree, certificate or stamp of approval,” read the startup's education guidelines. “Instead, frame the pictures you’ve taken, bake a cake, and wireframe your future website.”