revived by Pandemic, entrepreneurs are looking to refresh some of the most traditional principles of education, from flashcards to tutors to after-school programs. And they’re not just bets: they’re unicorn-priced businesses looking to capitalize on consumers’ new digital adoption.
The edtech sector’s boom is fueled by the creator economy, which promises to help creators monetize and democratize their passion, while maintaining their identity. The creator economy has grown over the past year as a wave of new creators eager to meet the growing appetite and demand for digital content from home audiences.
Edtech and the maker economy certainly differ in the problems they try to solve: finding a VR solution to make online STEM classes more realistic than organizing a maker’s various monetization strategies into a single platform. There is a different nut to crack. Nevertheless, both sectors have found similar ground over the past year – as explained by the rise of cohort-based class platforms.
Large-scale, cohort-based platforms help experts launch classes for their communities, with no previous learning experience required. Students move through the classroom together – ergo “cohorts” – as specialist on-demand sounding boards. It’s a bet on education, but it allows a person to demonstrate their passion by pushing all their chips to the center of the table, rather than working for the institution. While the idea of experts teaching a group of people isn’t exactly new, it’s being refreshed by a wave of new startups.
Entrepreneurs and investors say this is not a simple overlap. Some fear that turning creators into teachers could lead to hordes of unqualified teachers who have no understanding of real pedagogy, while others wonder who has traditionally been empowered to educate for true democratization of education. Yes, it needs to be dismantled.
Anyone is a teacher!
Massive open online courses (MOOCs) and traditional institutions are built around the belief that students want to learn from accredited teachers, while many group-based platforms have remained around a more controversial, yet compelling, ethos. Are: Anyone can be a teacher. The idea of empowering people to monetize their talent is a page straight out of the maker economy rulebook.
In other words, instead of convincing a college professor to teach in your spare time, what if you convince a tech startup’s star product manager to start a class sharing your tips and trade secrets? This is not a theory; It is an enterprise backed business. Mighty Networks raised a $50 million Series B to help its creators start classes. Last month, NAS Academy raised $11 million to help creators launch their Masterclass-type series. Then there’s Maven, an early-stage edtech company that raised millions before its own name—and led the charge in popularizing cohort-based classes as a branding move to get started.
These companies sit at the intersection of edtech – and its evolving ideas on how education should look – and the maker economy, with a strong base of “individuals as businesses”.
Mark Tan has attended a dozen fellowships and received years of coaching during his years in tech. For Tan, who moved to the United States from the Philippines, the allure of virtual classes has always been the network of students participating in the program. That virtual networking led him to work at Amazon and Twitch, and most recently, he spent the past three years working as director of product at Wyze.
The realization that “you don’t have to be an expert teacher, just an expert” is what eventually convinced Tan to start a course of his own on Maven. It will launch in a few weeks and is all about community driven product development.
“I’ve been in fellowship with people who are really well-known, and sometimes it’s hard to connect with them because they’ve been in my shoes five or 10 years ago,” he said. “I think being a teacher is more dependent on the expert.
“Over time, I realized there was more to learn from other people, so I spent more time connecting with them. [my peers] Instead of spending time listening to lectures.”
Their four-week class originally cost $799, but now costs $599 and requires a commitment of five to 10 hours per week. Programming will range from live weekly workshops and open Q&As to guest speakers and peer-to-peer networking.
In many ways, Tan is the quintessential example that cohort-based platform founders look to when trying to bring creators to their service. He has experience in large, well-known companies, has spent years experiencing the product he is now selling, and has a passion for education after seeing the benefits of peer-to-peer learning.
“The best teachers are those who haven’t been teachers before,” said Anna Fabrega, who spent years as an elementary school teacher before joining Synthesis, an online enrichment school inspired by Elon Musk’s Ad Astra model. “I think a teacher’s instinct is to jump in and try to control, over-engineer and plan everything so the kids don’t struggle… but I think the approach that works best is [by doing] Adverse.”
Fabrega explained that Synthesis focuses more on creating good facilitators who can feel connected and create intimacy with students than teachers who focus on a specific curriculum to hit certain metrics. Huh.
“We really want to make sure the kids are in charge and doing all the heavy lifting, not the teachers,” she said.