Straight Up Conversation: Can Outschool Bring the Gig Economy to K-12?
Amir Nathoo is CEO of Outschool, a marketplace for live online classes connecting over 30,000 students with over 1,000 teachers in 50 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., and 35 countries. Amir previously worked at Square, founding the Square Payroll product, and before that he was CEO and co-founder of Trigger.io. I recently talked with Amir about Outschool and virtual classrooms, and here's what he said.
Rick Hess: What is Outschool?
Amir Nathoo: We're a marketplace for live online classes for kids taught via video chat. All Outschool classes are taught by independent teachers, meaning they have autonomy to teach what they want to teach. There are so many parents and students looking for unique classes, and so many talented teachers who want to be more creative with their lessons than they can be in traditional school structures. We provide a convenient and safe platform for teachers to offer those lessons, and a convenient and affordable way for parents and students to find the right classes for them. We started in 2016 and are growing fast. As of this interview, over 40,000 classes have run with over 200,000 class hours.
Rick: How does it work?
Amir: Our platform allows these classes to meet live via video chat. This is really what sets us apart from many other online education options. The kids and teachers in an Outschool class get the chance to socialize and collaborate just like during in-person classes. But parents aren't stuck shuttling kids to different locations for each different activity their kids want to pursue. So, we're leveraging the connection and scale of the internet, while offering the live communication that happens in a physical classroom. Teachers using Outschool create their own courses, content, requirements, and so on, and we help connect them with students. We provide a secure and collaborative online learning environment.
Rick: Who is Outschool really intended to serve? Is this for students enrolled in traditional schools, for students seeking enrichment, or . . . ?
Amir: Outschool is intended for all kinds of students. Students on our platform come from traditional public schools, private schools, and homeschool environments. They have different motivations for taking classes, too. Some are looking for supplementary education, while others want to foster specific interests. Some students take classes because they need a bit of help in their main course of study. This is where the flexibility of the platform comes in. All of the courses are created and taught individually by teachers who have a passion for the topics they choose to explore. In other words, there's no overarching program students have to follow. The courses have specific start and end dates; however, students can sign up for multiple courses at the same time, take additional courses from the same teacher or in the same subject, or even repeat a course, if they want to. Families often tell us how much they love the freedom and personalization they can bring to their child's education with Outschool.
Rick: How did Outschool get started? And how did you come to this work?
Amir: My parents were both educators, so there was always a strong focus on education when I grew up. They made sure I had the opportunity to get a good education, and they also supported me learning and discovering outside of school. In fact, I started learning to code at the age of 5 because I was playing around with a computer they got for me. When they saw I was interested, they bought me programming books and arranged for computer science classes with a retired professor, which was hugely influential. Fast forward a few years, and I had a career in tech. I had founded and grown startups before starting Outschool that had nothing to do with education, but forming a company centered on making education more accessible was always at the back of my mind. When I met my co-founders, Nick Grandy and Mikhail Seregine, we started talking and finding common goals, and began to identify a space and an opportunity to realize that dream.
Rick: As you know better than I do, online classes have been around for a long while now. What's distinctive about what you all are doing?
Amir: One of the greatest things that distinguishes us in the edtech industry is the fact that most of our classes take place live via video chat with passionate teachers. You can find a wealth of educational videos online from other edtech companies and on sites like YouTube. This content is convenient—you can watch it whenever you have time, though it's often not engaging. While we have some pre-recorded classes for students who might live in an area or in circumstances preventing them from joining the live classes, where Outschool really shines is the "face-to-face" engagement where dialogue can take place. It's incredibly valuable to be able to ask for explanations from a teacher as he or she is presenting a concept or collaborate with other students to discuss a topic or solve a problem. You can't replace that with videos and worksheets.
Rick: Outschool offers over 8,000 classes. Can you talk a bit about how you curate the offerings?
Amir: Teachers use Outschool to create the classes they've always wanted to teach and come up with a huge variety of high-quality offerings. Classes range from one-time enrichment lessons to semester-long core courses. They're offered across all subjects, and our learners range from age 3 to 18. We encourage teachers to get creative and link learners' interests to academic subjects. We review all classes for quality and adherence to our content policies before they're published. Along with courses you might expect, like algebra and U.S. history, teachers respond to learners' requests to help them learn architecture through Minecraft, Spanish by singing Taylor Swift songs in Spanish, biology through Pokémon, and How to Become a Ninja. These are just a few examples of the innovative and engaging topics that teachers are offering.
Rick: As you noted, Outschool hosts some pretty whimsical offerings, like those classes on Pokémon, Dungeons and Dragons, and Gnomes, Trolls, and Fairies. Can you talk about the philosophy guiding which courses you offer, and how you juggle the entertaining and the educational?
Amir: One of the great things about our teachers and the classes they offer is that they help students learn and grow both academically and personally. The Dungeons and Dragons classes, for example, provide a fantastic venue for helping students develop skills like communication and collaboration, which are important life skills to nurture. We also have many classes that tie core academics with entertaining subjects, such as a Harry Potter "potions" class that teaches chemistry, or a Pokémon-themed writing class to help introduce potentially daunting concepts in a more familiar and engaging way. Connecting entertainment with education like this can also help students look more critically at the shows or books they like and find ways they relate to the things they're learning in school, and vice-versa. In addition, pairing a topic students already love with a new one can introduce them to something that may become a lifelong hobby or even a career. Our mission is really to inspire kids to love learning. I don't know if or how I would have found my way to tech if I hadn't stumbled upon a love of programming as a kid. We want to give our students the opportunity to stumble upon their own passions in whatever form they take.
Rick: How do you find your teachers, and where do they come from? How do you ensure the quality of the teaching?
Amir: Our teachers come from all over the place, which underscores one of our goals of making education available for anyone with a fast-enough internet connection. Many teach or have taught, either in a traditional school or at home by homeschooling their own kids. We have plenty of other teachers, though, who came to education by way of the subject they're teaching. For example, we have one teacher who is a human rights attorney and has worked for the United Nations who teaches classes about diplomacy, international law, and debate. Maintaining a safe and high-quality learning environment for our students is extremely important to us. We do thorough background checks and interview all of our teachers, and we select those who have teaching experience or an expertise or passion they want to share with learners. We make sure to support those teachers after we bring them on by providing training and professional development to make sure they are all the best at their jobs as they can be. We also monitor feedback and student satisfaction scores to make sure they're resonating with students. No teacher will have perfect reviews—what works for one student may not be effective for another—but we do review those and address any potential issues before they become problems.
Rick: Can you talk a bit about the costs and the financial model—how much do parents pay on average, and how much does it cost you to keep this platform running?
Amir: Outschool classes start from $5 and go for an average of $18 per class hour. Teachers set the price per learner according to the expected class size, the time and materials required to deliver the class, and the teacher's level of experience and qualification in the subject. Parents pay the price listed on the class page and Outschool takes a 30 percent fee. Small-group classes are less expensive for parents and more lucrative for teachers than one-on-one tutoring because costs are split between participants. Our live online format also removes the need for facilities and the time and costs associated with travel to an in-person activity. This lets us offer violin classes, for example, starting at just over $10 per hour compared to the typical $50 per hour cost of local classes.
Rick: Last question. If there are one or two big things about online classes that most people don't realize or fully appreciate, what are they?
Amir: Many people still associate online classes with long, boring videos, and some people still think that our classes are only for students who are homeschooled. Neither of these things is true. The classes offered on Outschool are dynamic, engaging, and fun—and are available for kids everywhere. Technology has really shrunk the world, and we believe we're taking advantage of that in a way that benefits our students wherever they may be.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.