From clothing design to video production, a new online learning model enlists experts to teach classes that improve marketability and encourage curiosities.
WORDS BY Jennifer Lioy // ART BY Katrine Dermody
Class begins in a brightly lit kitchen. Oyster specialist Julie Qiu stands behind a pile of shucked oyster shells on the counter in front of her. Oysters 101 begins as Qiu describes the rock-like bivalve mollusks. The camera closes in on her hands as she explains the difference between a tasty, plump critter and a dehydrated, inedible one. “I’ve always had an idea of what people should know when it comes to oysters,” Qiu says. “If I sat a friend down and had to tell them everything they need to know about oysters, this is what it would be.” This is Qiu’s Skillshare class, Raw, Alive, Delicious! 8 Elements to Oyster Mastery.
Most students don’t come to Skillshare — a project-based online learning community — looking to become oyster gurus. The company launched in April 2011 as an in-person educational community, offering classes and workshops on topics like web development, marketing, and graphic design within a number of major cities. In August 2012, Skillshare launched its first “Hybrid Class,” an online model that incorporates elements of classroom teaching using project-based lessons and video instruction. While individual classes cost between $10 and $30 (with a few free classes thrown into the mix), the recently introduced membership option allows students to pay $9.95 per month for unlimited access to classes.
With the introduction of hybrid classes, the company began recruiting instructors with industry clout to draw people to the site. Marketing guru and bestselling author Seth Godin has more than 9,000 students enrolled in his class, The New Business Toolbox: Help Your New Business Do It Right The First Time, which went live in January 2014, and Brooklyn artist Mary Kate McDevitt’s class, The First Steps of Hand-Lettering: Concept to Sketch, has more than 10,000 participants since it launched in October 2013. A major draw for illustrator and Skillshare student Sam Rosenweig is the ability to take courses from artists whose work he admires. “They pull some pretty well-known and appealing designers and illustrators,” Rosenweig says. “It’s fun to take classes with someone you wouldn’t have access to otherwise.”
Skillshare aims to meet a need not only for project-based instruction, but to teach particular skills that are currently in high demand. A late 2013 study by LinkedIn assessed the skills and employment history of more than 259 million LinkedIn members’ profiles and found that 20 of the 25 most in-demand skills last year were technology related, including social media marketing, web programming, computer graphics and animation, digital and online marketing, and user interface design. Skillshare’s classes aim to meet the demand for these skills, among others, with classes targeting those areas, specifically. These areas of interest can be taught in a condensed and affordable way with the right instruction.
Filmmaker and Skillshare instructor Andrew Gormley spoke to the accessibility of the model, saying, “If what you want to learn is HTML and Ruby On Rails, you should probably go this route. It’s the most up-to-date information, and you can literally finish the classes in a month and then start working in the field almost immediately. There’s something really special about that, how quickly — if you’re willing to invest the time — you can just get it done.” Skillshare student Margaret Corley tried to teach herself calligraphy for three or four years before enrolling in an online course. The accessibility of the platform was a major draw. “When I started learning calligraphy, there wasn’t a class in my area,” Corley says. “There was nowhere to learn it.”
Students come to Skillshare with a diverse set of interests, looking to take classes ranging from business strategies for startup companies to the basics of DIY audio mixing. “They are millennials who want to be a jack-of-all-trades, who have many different passion points,” Qiu says. “They’re into everything — or they want to be into everything. They’re like, ‘Maybe I’ll go in and learn Photoshop one day, and then maybe I’ll learn how to knit.’”
Skillshare shifts the educational paradigm by giving students the freedom to choose what they want to learn. Maybe you have a bachelor’s degree in ceramics but are unsure how to market and sell your work. Maybe you own a small business and don’t want to pay someone else to build a website. The end project is something tangible, something to show future employers, to put into practice within your small business. This class structure comes directly from the Skillshare team, which coaches instructors throughout the lesson-planning and video-production phases of class development. “They want teachers to create a syllabus that is focused around one project,” calligraphy instructor Molly Suber Thorpe says. “Students can feel by the end of the course like they’ve really accomplished something they can take away from it.” Skillshare takes the do-it-yourself mindset and gives you the best resources and most effective instruction to actually do it yourself.
The Skillshare educational model has its limitations, of course. Students and instructors face the same challenges online learning has always seen: ineffective interpersonal communication, difficulty troubleshooting problems, lag time in answering questions, and the ability for teachers to fully engage students. It becomes even more challenging with a screen between the two. “There’s so much unintended learning that could happen on both sides when you meet in person,” Qiu says. “As a teacher, you just see a little graph of how many people sign up everyday. It’s just a number. I’m not sure who they are or what they think of [the class] unless they leave a review. It has become more transactional, I guess.” But just like in the physical classroom, forging personal connections is essential. “The individual instruction you get from a professor is always going to be more intimate,” Corley says.
When the economy tanked, even if you had the fancy degree, it didn’t give you a job,” Qiu says.
But instructors are finding ways to overcome the typical hurdles of online learning. The Skillshare platform has a discussion forum within the page of the class itself, and students have the option to provide feedback and criticism on other student work, which helps foster an online community. Gormley supplements his course on video editing by offering a Google Hangout once a month for his students to ask questions and get face time with the instructor, bringing some semblance of classroom learning into the online course.
The Skillshare model works because it knows exactly what it is. It doesn’t try to be a replacement for a four-year degree program or a trade school providing a comprehensive overview of any large area of interest. Rather, it provides specific, affordable, and accessible instruction to students who want to learn something. “When the economy tanked, even if you had the fancy degree, it didn’t give you a job,” Qiu says. “I think a lot of people said, ‘Screw this, I’m just going to gain what I need to learn, what I want to learn, and see how I can make my own way.’” For some, that means learning the proper technique for shucking an oyster, and for others, it’s how to build that stellar web portfolio that lands you a job.
Five Wackiest Skillshare Classes
1. Show Us Your Balls: Meatball Making with Daniel Holzman, co-founder and executive chef of The Meatball Shop in New York City.
2. Rock Poster Design: From Concept Development to Execution with artists from DKNG Studios, based in Los Angeles.
3. Introduction to DIY: Becoming a Maker with Mark Frauenfelder, founder of Make magazine in Sebastopol, Calif., and group blog Boing Boing.
4. Perfect Southern Fried Chicken and Biscuits with Kelly Leding, founder and owner of Burnt Sugar NYC.
5. Brine Time: Pickle like a Pro with Travis Grillo, CEO and founder of Grillo’s Pickles, which sells its Italian dills in 200 stores along the East Coast.
The ancient art of calligraphy is now taught using modern technology. PHOTO BY KATRINE DERMODY.
The Internet can be your oyster, and classroom, thanks to Skillshare. PHOTO BY KATRINE DERMODY.
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