Schools of the Future

Schools of the Future

The future of education is a concept that I think a lot about, and also have worked within in recent years. Besides spending a little under a year at Prenda, a YC backed EdTech startup in Phoenix AZ, I also spend a lot of timing interviewing edTech founders on my podcast and writing about EdTech on this blog. One topic that consistently comes up, especially in a post-COVID era, is what does the future of higher education look like when the internet is as accessible as ever? With student loan debt numbers skyrocketing, the value of a degree being under question, and Zoom classes becoming more widely adopted, one has to wonder “how is all of this going to end up?” .

I think the answer, like with most things, has been unveiling itself slowly for the last few years and has recently become more clear to me. The future of higher education is in the hands of the modern day creators we all know and love from the internet. Drastic jump? Maybe, but let me explain, starting with a name you’ll probably recognize if you’re active on Twitter; David Perell.

A Modern Day Teacher: David Perell

David Perell is a true student of life. Few people like to share their learnings online more than him. If you go to his Twitter feed, you’ll find that he shares an assortment of posts to his extremely engaged (and quickly growing) follower base looking to learn. He has his podcast and writes essays often as well, where thousands of his followers spend time learning about concepts he’s discovered. He could be seen as what you would describe as an influencer, or on today’s terms, a creator.

There are many others like him. Tiago Forte is another, who is known for his his work on productivity. Or Jack Butcher, who is known for his work on simplifying the complicated. What these people have in common is that they have a skill, and they made a name for themsleves online by educating the world about this skill. If they were like their predecessors, they would go straight to making a course.

There are many online personalities in this position who have a skill who have tried to make a living through the internet with sites like Udemy, Teachable, Coursera, etc. This course format has to be at least a decade old. Although it has worked for some, it doesn’t come without its shortcomings. Course completion rates are notoriously low, as are the signal to noise ratios when students seek out a new course. At the end of the day, the online course format just becomes a little…stale.

The creators mentioned above have pioneered a new format of education; One that is cohort and live lesson based + one that is location independent. I’ll explain. Going back to David, an example of this would be his online education experience, Write of Passage.

Write of Passage is what David calls his educational based experience…Hell, we’ll just call it a school. Just like any online school, David teaches skills needed on the internet in 2021, and he does it in a cohort based structure. He gets X amount of people to commit to going through the experience at a time, and then they go through and learn together. The cohort model fosters a sense of accountability, community, and creates an optimal online learning environment. The key difference between David’s approach and the old model is that the new one is based on live lessons, not pre-recorded content + introduces a cohort learning environment.

Other creators already mentioned in this post are following suit in this method of teaching. Tiago Forte has his Building a Second Brain class, where he teaches his students how to organize both their life and the information they come across. Jack Butcher has his Visualize Value platform, with a heavy educational component attached to it as well. They are not alone. Creators are adopting this format to educate their audience, and cashing in while doing it. In some ways, they are becoming modern day teachers, native to the internet. If this is true, then what does the modern day school look like?

A Modern Day School: On Deck

On Deck is a company that started as a casual meetup for founders in SF and NY in 2015 or 2016. About a year and a half ago, they decided to double down on the elements that were working for them and they launched the Founder Fellowship, which was a YC-like program for founders wanting to break into tech and start a startup. For around $2,000 (with scholarships available), anyone could accelerate their network and raise money faster.

The founder fellowship stood alone for a bit, so it seemed like a “one-off ” for the team. That was until On Deck started spinning out these new fellowships on a consistent basis. There was an angel investing fellowship. Then a no code fellowship. A podcast fellowship. A fintech fellowship. They just kept coming, with no sign of slowing down.

At first glimpse, it seems like they are just getting distracted and can’t stay focused on a single fellowship. But if you take a look closer, each one of these fellowships is being led by a creator…someone who has already made their reputation online for doing that one thing.

For example, they got KP to lead the no code fellowship, who is a prolific maker and creator in the no code space. Why him? Once KP developed his clout to a certain point on the internet, On Deck approached him to run a fellowship under the On Deck brand. On Deck was doing this with dozens of creators like KP, and now they have over a dozen creators and dozens working under the brand teaching their own fellowship.

I soon realized that On Deck was building a bundle of these new type of classes. They wanted 1,000 David Perell’s under one roof. I’ve heard someone describe On Deck like the Harvard of the internet, and I finally get why. In a world where On Deck wins, creators spend their time cutting their teeth building an audience online and then they can get recruited to teach in a modern school like On Deck to make a living. It’s almost like a new school franchise model or a modern school bundle. In the future, I see hundreds of other schools like On Deck being built in the same fashion. For every Harvard, there is a Stanford. For every On Deck, there is an X.

Changing Of The Credentials

People may wonder “how is this possible”? How can schools just be formed on the internet to compete with old institutions? For me, I think the answer is in how the credentialing of teachers is expanding. The credential is evolving from something that is granted by an institution (a degree) to something that is earned by being a practitioner on the internet (a creator). The audience, that someone builds online, trusts the creator’s content, which means there is a clear leap to be made to paying $$$ to learn from them in a school setting. In short, creators are becoming the new teachers because of the trust built with their future students through developing years of content.

Looking at this whole picture, it only took a few creators to pioneer this model. We’ll call them the innovators. It took On Deck to institutionalize it …let’s call them the early adopters. It still feels like in order for this small-group of internet based education to succeed, it needs to cross the chasm. If it doesn’t, this style of education will stay niche and we’ll be stuck with our growing student loans and subpar educational experience for decades to come.

Three Companies Building Picks and Shovels

Luckily, there are companies that are building the picks and shovels for anyone to cash in on this new model of education allowing them to start their own schools.

CBC Mystery Platform

One company I’ve seen building in this space is currently nameless, but is cofounded by Gagan Biyani and Wes Kao. Gagan is the cofounder of Udemy and Wes is the co creator or the AltMBA with Seth Godin. This company is early, but they’ve already starting working on schools for Anthony Pompliano, Li Jin, Lenny Rachitsky, and more to come. The formula is simple.

  1. Take someone who’s eared respect on the internet
  2. Get them a school
  3. Have them teach and get paid for it
  4. Eventually let anyone do the same

Virtually

There is a company out of the S20 Y Combinator batch called Virtually that enables anyone to create their own cohort-based schools. They provide all the technology out of the box, and enable a creator with an audience to plug them into their virtual school and start immediately. It’s early, but it has tons of potential. Unlike On Deck or the platform listed above, anyone can create a school using Virtually.

Monthly

Monthly is a company that I interviewed on my podcast about a year ago which finds creators online and works with them to create a cohort-based course, and split the revenue. The branding is very slick and they’re working with some top-tier creators. This is one of the first attempts I’ve seen at the cohort-based platform models.

This Is Modern Day Education

If we zoom out one more time, what we see here is a shift in who “earns” the right to make a living by teaching. As the internet gets more widely adopted, traditional credentials will matter less to the public, and these creators will be seen the new modern-day teachers. And with these modern-day teachers, the business model is much more aligned with the audience. Instead of charging tuition to cover the overhead for a campus, support staff, etc., now costs can be lowered for students if most of this is based on the internet.

Modern-day teachers don’t need to jump through hoops to get the right paperwork to feel qualified to teach; they just take to the internet and share what they have to share and build trust with an audience. They refine their message with feedback loops. They grow their following. And one day, they look back and they’ll realize they’ve been teaching for years just by putting out so much free content. May as well call it a school, slap a price tag on top of it, and make it official. These are the schools of the future.