The Internet has become a powerful platform for sharing educational content and for finding information about almost every topic imaginable. But even with all the opportunities for teaching and learning online, the value of face-to-face instruction from a knowledgeable teacher can’t be discounted.
That’s the premise behind the New York City peer-to-peer learning company Skillshare. Skillshare builds on a basic premise proven by the immeasurable amount of content on the Internet: there are a lot of smart people with valuable skills to teach — and leverages the Internet’s grassroots community-building function. The result is a wide selection of person-to-person classes on any number of topics — from wire jewelry, to scone-baking, to Web development, to Bayesian statistics.
It’s a cross between Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade goods, and Kickstarter, an online fundraising tool. If enough people show an interest in what you have to offer, your class is a go. Classes run an average of $20 per student, and the startup takes a 15% cut. Skillshare doesn’t provide classroom space, but it does offer guidelines on finding a good venue to hold class.
So far, the startup has been focused solely in New York City, but it has recently expanded to San Francisco and Philadelphia. Skillshare is asking people all over the country to nominate their cities and with enough interest, the goal is to continue expanding.
But as the startup does so, it’ll have to maintain the type of quality classes that have made it so popular in its native New York City. I talked to the company’s community manager Danya Cheskis-Gold about Skillshare’s mission and vision for peer-to-peer instruction and lifelong learning.
Q. Why did you opt for offline instruction?
Danya: There’s something truly unique and magical about learning in-person with other people who geek out on the same things you do. Scott Heiferman, the founder and CEO of Meetup.com, sent out an email to the entire Meetup community on 9/11, and he reminisced about his inspiration for starting that effort. After 9/11, he was talking to his neighbors more than ever and he saw people actually helping each other out in a world where we were increasingly becoming solitary and virtually connected. He had this brilliant idea to use the Web to actually get off the Web and grow local communities. Skillshare’s all about that. Literally any location can be a place where people come together over learning — any public space like a park, coffee shop, bar, restaurant, or office would work. It’s incredible to see student staying after Skillshare classes for 30 minutes, 45 minutes, an hour…just getting to know each other and bonding over how they can apply the skills they just acquired.
Q. Why do you say “no” to tutoring and test-prep?
Danya: Sir Ken Robinson says that the current education system is “educating people out of their creativity.” For Skillshare, creativity in learning — from designing 3-D printed models to cooking with color — is at the top of the educational food chain. Creativity is about making something new, something of value, something so wacky or absurd that it challenges our stodgy intellectual constructs and forces us into open-mindedness and innovative thinking. We’re really focused on fostering new and innovative ways of learning while providing people with the skills they need to actually get that job they want in design or get that promotion at work.
Q. What are some of the classes/topics that the Skillshare community has offered that have surprised you the most?
Danya: More than being surprised about the topics, it’s more about the incredibly original things people have done with their use of our classes. For instance, Zach Klein, founder of Vimeo and Svpply, was so into Skillshare classes that he offered up $1,000 of his own money to give a scholarship of sorts to anyone who wanted to take classes. Wesley Verhoeve, founder of The Family Records, recently just announced that he’s giving all of his employees a stipend to take Skillshare classes for professional development purposes.
Q. How do you help “amateur” teachers teach? (The flipside: How do you help “amateur” students learn better — or take the reigns of their own learning?)
Danya: We’ve got a whole slew of resources in our Support Center on everything from how to pick a topic to how to create an appealing class description that’ll attract students to what to do if something comes up and you need to cancel a class. We’ve also got some exciting stuff in the works — we want to be an essential go-to for info and inspiration about education, innovation, productivity, efficiency, creativity…all of the things we believe in and think will be valuable for both teachers and students.