The Spectacle of Online Learning
Learning companies are new media platforms with subscription models and network effects
Recently, online learning has become what my friends and I discuss at dinner parties instead of the hit Netflix shows.
From these conversations, I heard about online courses such as David Perell’s writing class. I took it and had the most fun I had in a while. The energy of a 150-person Zoom session feels more like a music festival than a quiet classroom.
Online learning is a new form of entertainment designed for curious minds. The future of learning looks nothing like schooling as we know it. Traditional education focuses on textbooks, Alma Mater, and rigid paths. After taking over a dozen courses in the last 5 years, I would compare my online learning experience to a mix of Twitter, Netflix, and Coachella.
The fun experience is sticky which makes learning platforms valuable. In April, MasterClass, a producer of learning videos where celebrities teach their expertise, raised money from Fidelity at a $2.5 billion valuation. This is not much less than the $3.8 billion market cap of Lionsgate, a global entertainment platform that produces films and owns a premium-tier cable network. In the same month, Maven, a platform for cohort-based courses founded in 2020, raised a $20M Series A led by Andreessen Horowitz at a $100M valuation.
Online learning companies are becoming subscription-based media platforms with a network effect.
Online instructors are self-made celebrities
The old-school learning model encourages students to build an identity around a school brand. When I say “my Alma Mater is the University of Washington,” it creates an instant bond with other Huskies. When the institution is the face of the brand, the teachers in the school exist in the background.
Instead of an institution, online learners follow a persona, the public image of the instructor. I enrolled in Write of Passage because of David Perell. His wonky writing and Twitter musing resonated with me. The course is built on Teachable but the platform is nearly invisible to learners. Similarly, moviegoers know the Twilight Saga and The Hunger Games by heart but are less familiar with Lionsgate as their producers. Platforms enable brands to connect with audiences. While this originally started with entertainment and social media, it's now enabling teachers to become self-made celebrities.
Learning from a persona is compelling because the instructor is an approachable person. They share secrets with you. As Michael New teaches music theory in his Youtube videos, he talks about his passion for 3D printing. He compares learning music to getting better at playing Starcraft. His cat makes a cameo. These details make his 350K followers see him as a partner in crime in their learning journey rather than distanced figure preaching on stage. The personal connection drives viewers to invest time and energy into learning.
Good online instructors are natural marketers prolific with social media. Decoupled from institutions, instructors take charge of their own distribution through influence. Designer Jack Butcher frequently tweets to his 134K Twitter followers simple graphics that explain complex ideas. Impressed by his ability to visualize messages, his audiences sign up for his course Build Once Sell Twice that discusses brand strategies.
Instructors are intellectual guides, the how-to source for their audiences. As their followings increase, their influence benefits from the network effect. With that, enrollment for the class grows organically without depending on other distribution channels.
Access curated multimedia through subscription
In college, I remember spending hundreds of dollars buying textbooks as heavy as bricks. When I read the 50 pages of assigned text before lectures, my thoughts kept trailing off. Reading passively to digest the material felt like work. In contrast, what learners experience on MasterClass is closer to watching Netflix.
Instead of struggling through the required reading, online learners consume high-quality visual media. My journey of online learning started in 2017 with Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass course on Storytelling. Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite writers who penned The Grave Yard Playbook. He teaches the craft of building worlds and finding your voice. He does so through well-produced videos you can watch from the comfort of your home. The professional camera work, the lighting, and even the music make his teaching easy to absorb. I became an instant fan of MasterClass.
Learners pay to access curated learning content in the same way that they’re willing to pay for streaming services. Paid services offer the consistent quality of a studio-produced film, which is hard to find on a non-curated platform such as YouTube.
The MasterClass monthly subscription costs $15 which compares to Netflix’s standard subscription at $13.99. On a smaller scale, Farnam Street is a one-person media empire created by Shane Parrish, offering courses, podcasts, and access to an exclusive forum for $10 per month. Education is following in the footsteps of entertainment and music companies with the subscription model.
Learning leads to interest-based community, a new social network
In old schools, we spend a long time with people who follow the same learning path. We spend 2-4 years with the same group. Our peers often come from the same background as we do, and desire the same learning outcome, whether it’s higher education or a job. The path seems narrow when the avenues are defined. With online learning, students adopt the mindset of “choose your own adventure”.
I have some fond memories of the Coachella music festival. You indulge in a large amount of music in a short amount of time. Going from stage to stage, checking out rock to electronic to indie pop, along with excited fellow humans create a hard-to-forget experience.
Taking online courses reminds me of what I experience at a music festival. There is an abundance of content including videos, live sessions, guest lectures, and interactions on the course forum and Zoom. The material caters to niche interests. Students have the autonomy to choose what works for them.
Interaction with my peers is as serendipitous as the ones I had at festivals. Instead of 4 years, you spend 4 weeks with fellow students. You bond over a shared context, such as course themes and language. For example, David Perell coined the term “The Shiny Dime”, which his community faithfully uses to describe the smallest viable ideas one can write about.
While having a shared interest, individuals come from all walks of life. I’ve talked to one writer who specializes in astrology and the other in machine learning in the same breakout room. When you meet a fellow student, one of the most asked questions is “where are you based?” Every student enriches the learning community by adding flavors into soda water.
The cost of a 4-6 week course is similar to a music festival or conference. Students buy experience instead of a degree. Also, the students pay to become the member of a new social network. After courses end, students migrate to Slack and continue to support each other. This network is powerful because the group identity is based on a common interest. This close-knit group is not different from the followers of a cult film.
Building the future of online learning
The bottom line is, online learning distributes through social media, thrives with subscription models, and values a transformational community experience. Traditional schools focus on branding through pedigree and teacher-centric classroom engagement. Online learning platforms are becoming new subscription-based social media companies meant to entertain.
There has been a frenzy of venture investments going into online learning platforms with valuations similar to SAAS and social media companies. I expect to see more valuable online learning companies emerge as the future of learning becoming more like entertainment than schooling.