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Classroom Technology Opinion

Outschool CEO on How to Engage Half a Million Virtual Learners

By Rick Hess — February 11, 2021 10 min read

Outschool is an online learning platform that offers over 100,000 virtual classes taught live over video chat, ranging from core subjects like reading, science, and math to more niche, interest-based topics, such as a Harry Potter improv class and a class that uses Minecraft to teach architecture history. Outschool currently has over 500,000 students, with families and teachers across more than 200 countries. COVID-19 drove this growth: Outschool’s enrollment, which had previously encompassed about 100,000 families mainly in the U.S. and Canada, saw a significant rise once the pandemic hit. I recently talked with Amir Nathoo, CEO and co-founder of Outschool, about the platform, the potential benefits and drawbacks of online schooling, and how virtual learning has fared during the coronavirus. Here’s what he had to say.

—Rick

Rick: What is Outschool?

Amir: 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. Classes on Outschool range from one-time enrichment lessons to semester long core courses. With over 100,000 online classes offered by teachers to learners around the globe, Outschool helps supplement what is often missing from a more traditional education. Outschool’s mission is to inspire kids to love learning by making education fun, social, and self-directed. Families use it to help kids pursue interests and discover new ones by meeting engaging teachers over video chat. Teachers use it to create the classes they’ve always wanted to teach and supplement their income at the same time.

Rick: What motivated you to found Outschool?

Amir: When I was 5, my parents bought me a BBC Micro, a computer that opened my eyes to a whole new world. I spent hours playing computer games and soon learned to program, so I could create my own games. This kind of magical out-of-school learning led to my career in technology and eventually to my co-founding of Outschool in 2016. My co-founders and I were motivated by a desire to have a positive impact in education and to try offering a consumer marketplace of learning experiences outside of regular school. We started by prototyping with a group of innovative parents and teachers in the secular home school community. We launched our product as a marketplace of live online classes for kids focused on fun and social learning experiences. The idea continued to grow as more and more parents sought unique after-school and weekend learning opportunities for their kids to avoid passive screen time and engage their inherent curiosity.

Rick: What makes Outschool different from other online learning platforms?

Amir: Outschool focuses on small-group, live, interactive, online classes, delivering excellent learning experiences. This format provides a high degree of social interaction between learners, teachers, and the Outschool community. Outschool also offers unparalleled diversity when it comes to teachers, subjects, and learners. With classes on everything from Fortnite to world dance to marine biology, learners can almost always find a great class to match their passions.

Rick: If I’m a student, what does using Outschool look like?

Amir: Once enrolled, students can visit their schedule page to find both a classroom page with full class details and a button to directly enter the Zoom meeting. Most classes are conducted live via video chat in small groups, though some are prerecorded “Flex” classes that are accessible at convenient times for the learner. We now offer a free introductory webinar for parents to learn all the basics of Outschool, including how to find the right class, how to use Zoom during class, how to successfully prepare for class, and more. We also offer a comprehensive list of classes tailored to each learner’s interests, availability, and other preferences for those who want help selecting classes.

Rick: How much does it cost to join Outschool? Does the price depend on the course, and can schools sign up for subscriptions for their students?

Amir: It’s free to sign up and browse classes on Outschool. You pick classes that your learners are most excited about and enroll with your credit card (a single class typically costs on average $10-15). All teachers on Outschool are independent and set their own class prices and schedules. Schools use Outschool in a variety of ways. In some cases, they select and reserve Outschool classes for groups of students. This enables them to offer class content they can’t do within their building and often includes, arts, enrichment, or field-trip-style classes. We are able to provide discounted pricing from our teachers who have opted in to supporting schools with private sections of their classes. We also have schools that provide each of their students with credit to use on Outschool. Students either select classes on their own or work with a teacher or adviser to pick the best fit for their interests and needs. We hope to have a subscription option early in 2021.

Rick: Is Outschool meant to replace traditional school or to supplement it?

Amir: Our mission is to inspire kids to love learning, and we seek to supplement local schooling with fun, unique, and social learning opportunities. Our classes focus on the learning itself, and we do not issue credit like a traditional school, though some families are able to work with their school to be able to count Outschool classes toward their studies. Outschool classes can be used for after-school enrichment or for extra help in math or writing.

Rick: Since Outschool classes work more as a supplement to school, what’s the main goal of taking an Outschool class? How do you measure whether a student succeeds in that class or not?

Amir: The main goal of any Outschool class is to inspire a love of learning. We vet teachers and classes against that goal, as well as on the content that they propose to teach. Where appropriate, teachers may offer quizzes in class or materials outside of class for parents to help confirm understanding of the materials being presented. But the most important thing is that learners come away more interested and inspired by learning in general and learning the topic of the class in particular. We’re wary of Outschool becoming too test-oriented as we have seen some negative impacts of that in the wider education system. We believe that by building love of learning first and then focusing on traditional assessment second, we will have much greater success at driving outcomes. 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.

Rick: You mentioned some of the interest-based topics Outschool offers for “personalized” learning. How popular are these classes compared with Outschool’s more traditional courses?

Amir: The majority of families who come to Outschool say they use our classes to help their kids explore new or existing interests. That doesn’t preclude traditional, academic subjectsplenty of kids are genuinely interested in math, for example (I was one of them). Classes that combine math with Minecraft or with art help inspire or develop that interest. Outschool takes the viewpoint that traditional or academic learning can and should be fun and interesting.

Rick: How do you control the quality of teachers and classes on Outschool?

Amir: We vet teachers and classes before they are published on Outschool and gather parent reviews to provide evidence of the quality. Every teacher is screened, background checked, and provided with quality training by our team. We review the professional background and education of all teachers and select those who have teaching experience, subject-matter expertise, or a unique passion they want to share with young learners. Each class is reviewed and approved by our team before public listing, ensuring every class meets our standards for unique content, learning goals, teacher expertise, class experience, and more.

Rick: Where does Outschool draw its teachers from?

Amir: All teachers on Outschool are independent and are on Outschool for a variety of reasons, whether it be to earn extra money as a side gig in the evenings or as a full-time income-earning opportunity. Teachers teach as little or as much as they want, and they set their own prices per learner. Currently, teachers must reside in the United States, Canada, U.K., Australia, or New Zealand to teach on Outschool, but we are working to open our platform up to teachers worldwide in the future.

Rick: Why would a teacher choose to teach for Outschool, rather than in a traditional school?

Amir: Each Outschool class is taught by an independent teacher who has a particular interest or skill set in that topic. We find that when teachers are passionate about the topic they’re instructing, they are eager to engage students on a new level. Outschool allows teachers to be creative in designing their classes and gives them the freedom to teach what they want. Outschool does not dictate curriculum or courses but relies on teachers to create classes while giving parents and students the autonomy to choose classes that best fit their needs and interests.

Rick: Based on the students who are successful in Outschool courses, what have you learned about the kind of student that excels with online learning?

Amir: We have found that a wide range of students can enjoy and benefit from online learning. We’ve seen kids as young as 3 and as old as 18 become inspired and connected with others through Outschool classes. The most important elements for a learner to be successful in an Outschool class are curiosity about the topic and a desire to learn socially with others. One of the surprising things we’ve observed about online classes is how many different topics are possible to cover in this format. For example, when we started, I would never have thought we’d see group guitar lessons be successful online. But we now have a thriving community of music teachers and learners who have adapted to this new format of learning.

Rick: How has the pandemic affected Outschool?

Amir: Since March, when the pandemic hit, we’ve gone from 80,000 kids taking classes to over 500,000. Outschool has grown by over 2000 percent this year, proving that many parents needed a resource like Outschool to fill in the gaps that their schools left by jumping to hybrid learning. Most of our customers don’t just stop at one classthey continue with Outschool day after day, week after week. In addition, we have encouraged teachers to add ongoing, subscription-based courses which allow kids to engage with the same peers often, fostering deeper relationships between learner to teacher as well as learner to learner. We have found Outschool to be a key resource for learning pods and at-home learning for parents across the globe. By signing up each kid in a pod for the same class, they can engage remotely with each other, learning the same concepts in real time as they would in a brick and mortar class.

Rick: What are one or two concrete pieces of advice you can offer parents and teachers who are trying to help their children or students learn outside of a traditional classroom?

Amir: The most important piece of advice I would give is to involve your child in making decisions about their learning. They will be inspired and engaged to be able to choose the topics and teachers. By starting with their motivation and then linking that to learning, you will inspire a love of learning which will benefit them for years to come. Secondly, encourage your child to be intentional about how they engage in online classes. Help them work through any preparation needed beforehand and think about how they would like to participate. As they gain confidence with online learning, they will find ways to engage more and more and to interact with other learners to help them engage, too. Talk to them about what went well and what they would like to improve about their participation after that class has finished. By helping them reflect on this, you will help them develop social and technology skills as well as an understanding of the class content itself.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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