Tuesday, February 16, 2021

What An Education Uber Actually Looks Like

Betsy DeVos is among the many education disruptors fond of imagining a world in which education is handled Uber-style; but we don't have to imagine what a gig-economy education system would look like. It already exists.

Outschool was founded in 2015 by Amir Nathoo (he cutely lists his title as "learner" in his LInkedIn profile), and while he looks like he's about twelve, he's been at work for a while. He got a Master's Degree from the University of Cambridge in 2002, worked in software development for IBM, founded a couple of companies, invested in a few other, and then launched Outschool. The company is based in San Francisco.

Nathoo was interviewed by Rick Hess back in 2019 in an interview that Education Next just dusted off because, as you might imagine, Nathoo's distance learning micro-credential marketplace is having a strong pandemic moment. In it, Nathoo describes Outschool this way:

Outschool offers live online education experiences that connect teachers with learners in small-group settings to explore everything from Minecraft, Pokemon, and cooking to chemistry, algebra, and literature.

Nathoo also talks a lot about fun and passion, and his story always mentions how he got a computer when he was five and that sparked an interest in games and programming and his technology career, leading him to create this marketplace for "fun and social learning experiences." Others have characterized it with less sparkle, like the Techcrunch article that characterized it as "a platform for homeschooled students to bolster their extracurricular activities." But a super-profitable one-- from August 2019 to August 2020, Outschool sales jumped from $6.5 million to $54million. And venture capitalists have been taking notice.

Some writers call Outschool the Netflix of education, and that makes sense from a customer standpoint--log on and select from 100,000 live-taught virtual classes from 10,000 different instructors. But from the other side, this looks much more like Uber, because all 10,000 of those "instructors" are gig workers. As Nathoo explains, "All teachers on Outschool are independent and set their own class prices and schedules." They have to come from the US, Canada, U.K., Australia or New Zealand, and Nathoo says they and their classes are vetted, though I didn't find anything about what the vetting checks for. One waggish headline writer blurbed them as "Spanish with Taylor Swift, Potions with Harry Potter." 

Outschool.org is sponsored by the Edward Charles Foundation, a Beverly Hills organization that acts as a fiscal sponsor for organizations. Outschool.com is where the education stuff happens. The library lets you sort by date, day/time, age, format, length, topics,  and subject area. If you want to teach, Outschool offers you online listing for your class, access to the "community of learners," secure online payment, an integrated video chat platform, and "responsive" support. No teaching credentials are required, but you do have to pass a criminal background check.

Outschool takes a 30% cut; you decide what to charge for the course and how many students to allow. Also, you can sign up to teach as an organization. Classes and teachers come with Amazon-style reviews. And while class costs "start" at $10, I found plenty in the $100-$200 range. There are English, math and history classes, but anime and blogging are also covered. There are also such things as classes that meet only once, which are considerably less expensive. I suspect there are all sorts of tricks to marketing yourself as a teacher in this environment. The site says that those who teach online earn an average of $50 USD per hour of teaching. That comes of course with no benefits or extras--good basic gig economy stuff.

Outschool currently claims a half-million students in over 200 countries--that's up from 80,000 pre-Covid. It may have helped that they offered chances to sign up for free last spring to those whose buildings had closed. Nathoo has been writing articles as well about how to avoid homeschooling problems and "why trying to re-create school at home isn't working." (Spoiler alert: because you need an on-line resource that gives you access to many topics in a variety of modes.) You can read about one family's trial of Outschool-- lessons include all manner of caveat emptor, including due diligence on instructors because "anyone can teach in Outschool." 

Another mainly positive review of Outschool by a writer who has used the platform as a teacher and a parent underlines how much caveating the emptor has to do because of the ease of getting yourself on the platform:

However, the process to apply is very easy. You just write a brief application and make an introductory video. Many people are approved within a couple hours of submitting the application. Some get rejected two or three times, but just make slight adjustments to their application and are approved – it is unclear to those who have gone through the process whether there was rigorous evaluation of the applications, or more the whim of the reviewer. There’s no interview… no mock teaching sessions before being hired. Just the application.

Teachers also create a LOT of new classes very quickly – many get inspired by an idea and knock out a class description and send it in. The first class you submit can take a week to get approved. But after that, you can receive an approval for a new class minutes after submitting the application, which makes me wonder how much attention is given to it. But, then again, classes can also be rejected for seemingly small reasons, then easily accepted when re-submitted. So, as I said, not a lot of oversight – there’s simply too many teachers and classes for there to be the sort of thorough evaluations that you as a parent might hope for.

Also, Outschool appears to have some serious copyright issues with many classes tied to pop culture topics and materials. Nor is it clear how the usual fair use rules apply in a situation that is not really a school. But Nathoo has some crazypants aspirations, as per this quote:

We’re now working to directly measure love of learning and have a research grant to study it further and establish a metric as an alternative to test scores.

I can't begin to imagine how that's going to work, and I'm dying to know who funded that grant, but if he can crack this code, there are bigger things ahead than running a platform for gigging educators.

I can't imagine trying to make a living on Outschool, and it will be interesting to see what happens to those 10,000 teachers when regular school buildings open up again. But the model is simple enough. Parents have to look out for their own interests, teachers have to look out for their own interests, nobody is really providing any oversight, and Outschool makes a bundle of money operating a platform. There's your educational Uber. 

1 comment:

  1. Honestly, it sounds like this platform has even less oversight than Uber. If an Uber driver was consistently bad in some way (late, got lost, and especially abusive to customers) their bad reviews by customers would drive them out of the system, since Uber would cut them off in their own interest in maintaining the brand. I can't see where Outschool has a similar mechanism, and the review system they do have is the type that's easily gamed (like Amazon reviews) rather than the more focused kind that Uber has. The whole thing seems like an version of Survivor (the education edition) and pretty much certain to produce some very poor "classes" that will misinform and mislead students and parents.