Last week’s elections showed that if democracy means closed schools, millions of American parents are prepared to go in a different direction. Fearful for the future of our democracy, millions of others felt a sense of loss. I feel that way about every election. Not because I’m always on the losing side, but because I grew up in Canada’s parliamentary system and remember elections as more fun than terrifying. Parliamentary democracies are less likely to produce demagogues since elections are at the constituency or riding level only. And within a constituency, there are often some very amusing candidates.
Not that there aren’t fringe candidates in U.S. elections. Last week’s New Jersey gubernatorial race included Socialist Workers Party candidate Joanne Kuniansky, a deli worker at Walmart. But Walmart deli doesn’t hold a candle to the UK’s Monster Raving Looney Party, which runs wacky candidates in the constituencies of prominent politicians in order to appear in ridiculous costumes next to the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair as local results are read live on the BBC. The Monster Raving Looney Party has touted policies such as abolishing the income tax (only meant as a temporary measure during the Napoleonic Wars), minting a 99p coin, and punching holes in the roof of the Chunnel to create a mega carwash. Rather than advocating for hard Brexit or soft Brexit, the Party campaigned for an al dente Brexit. Monster Raving Looney membership only costs £12 per year and gets you a party ID card, a letter from the party leader, and a certificate of insanity.
The Canadian version of Monster Raving Looney is the Rhinoceros Party, so named because politicians are thick-skinned, slow-moving, and dim-witted, not to mention the large, hairy horns growing out of the middle of their faces. Rhino policies have included counting the Thousand Islands to see if the U.S. has stolen any, strengthening Canada’s military by towing Antarctica north to the Arctic Circle in order to monopolize cold (so Canada will be unbeatable in the next Cold War), and furthering higher education by building taller schools. The Rhino Party’s current platform says:
For millions of students in Zoom school last year, replacing teachers with photos of famous scientists wouldn’t have had much of a negative effect on learning. It might even have been salutary; online, even a patina of expertise attracts students.
Allowing experts to teach a multitude has been the promise of online learning since dot-com days of yore. In 2000, the New York Times predicted that a “pot of gold” awaited top professors who’d leverage technology to sell “the knowledge inside [his or her] head directly to a global online audience. That means that, just by doing what [he or she] does every day, a teacher potentially could grow rich instructing a class consisting of a million students.”
Late last month, the marketplace for online courses from over 50,000 instructors – Udemy – went public at a $4 billion valuation. With nearly $500M in revenue over the past 12 months, $4 billion is a hefty 8x revenue multiple on a business that hasn’t yet demonstrated an ability to make money. As Susan Adams reported in Forbes, Udemy spends $1.20 to generate a dollar of revenue, prompting her to quote my partner Daniel Pianko: “It’s like the Polish farmer joke. The farmer goes home to his wife and says, ‘I made nine zloties selling my wheat.’ The wife slaps him across the face and says, ‘It cost us 10 zloties to grow the wheat.’ And the farmer says, ‘But I sold a lot of it.’” Udemy’s stock price has traded down from the IPO.
Udemy’s underlying challenge may be that not all experts are created equal. Consider the top-selling course, Double Your Confidence & Self-Esteem, taught by Jimmy Naraine, a “high-end coach” who “helps his clients [take] that big step to a completely different lifestyle” (and who must have an uncanny ability to quantify self-esteem – how else would he know it’s a double?). Or there’s Udemy for Recurring Income, where students learn how to come up with “profitable Udemy course ideas.” If the rule is that on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, the exception may be online courses, as demonstrated by the tawdry universe of self-proclaimed experts shilling them. But just as the New York Times foresaw 21 years ago, the future of online learning won’t be driven by Udemy carnival barkers, but rather by real experts in two categories of real market value: (1) love; and (2) money.
Several strong businesses have already been built around love-courses – tapping experts to teach people what they’re passionate (or at least curious) about. MasterClass offers courses from experts you may have heard of: Alicia Keys on songwriting; Martin Scorsese on filmmaking; Gordon Ramsay on cooking; Frank Gehry on architecture; Carlos Santana on guitar playing; Christina Aguilera on singing; and Gary Kasparov on chess. It took MasterClass years to convince these masters to allocate time and attention to creating an online course, and presumably, like a book deal, meaningful guaranteed or advanced payments. But the upshot is a collection of 130 master classes attracting a great deal of interest from subscribers. And although The New Yorker is predictably snooty about the notion of mastery in a few hours, MasterClass is one of the few online education players to reach New York Times million-student status and was recently valued at nearly $3 billion.
MasterClass’s first masterstroke was recognizing that when it comes to conveying expertise online, brand matters a lot. According to The New Yorker, MasterClass has standing offers to Barack and Michelle Obama, Stephen King, and Elon Musk. Also on the list: Queen Elizabeth and The Pope (albeit in “non-actionable” status). Its second was recognizing that expertise isn’t worth much without production and design. Courses involve elaborate sets, big crews, and even stand-ins for lighting. Its Hollywood-caliber productions are budgeted at close to a million dollars per course. Production also includes instructional designers and interviewers working with experts to help them get their message across in the most teachable way. MasterClass itself has already become something of a brand. Steph Curry wanted to do a MasterClass because “I saw who you had on the shelf, and I want to be on the shelf with those people.” MasterClass is to Udemy as Penguin Random House is to self-publishing.
Because there’s only one Queen of England (and it’s not clear to me what her MasterClass would be – corgis?), another company in the passion category is pushing the envelope on expert branding for online education. Yellowbrick, a University Ventures company, offers career discovery courses that chart a path to careers in dream fields like videogames, sneakers, or streetwear. As the real experts in these areas aren’t necessarily brand names (at least not to people whose idea of fun is writing newsletters), Yellowbrick brands experts by promoting where they work: Google, ESPN, the Brooklyn Nets, Stephen Curry 30, Inc, and Yellowbrick’s university partners like Columbia, NYU, FIT, and Parsons School of Design. Like MasterClass, Yellowbrick invests heavily in course design and production, and like MasterClass, Yellowbrick is growing rapidly.
So what about category #2, money-courses? Not as celebrity-dense for sure, but the Yellowbrick model ought to work: branding experts through where they work e.g., prestige companies like Microsoft, Amazon, or Tesla. So who’s combining high production values and instructional design with online learning from branded experts in sectors of significant economic opportunity?
Coursera is a natural first stop, delivering experts via high-value courses in data science and self-driving cars from brand-name university partners like Johns Hopkins and University of Toronto, as well as courses and certificates from technology brands like IBM and Google. But with over 3,000 courses, Coursera isn’t delivering MasterClass-level production. Likewise, with its acquisition of Coursera rival edX, 2U may be thinking about instilling its renowned production values into edX’s most popular money-courses. Udacity is laser-focused on skill gap sectors and its approximately 100 courses have higher production values. But Udacity treads lightly with branding instructors; course marketing focuses on the meat and potatoes of tech skills with no branded experts in sight. Pluralsight is similarly focused on high-value tech courses, but instructors look like a more curated version of Udemy: some world-class experts, others may be the Jimmy Naraine of microservices architecture.
In online learning, the biggest difference between self-proclaimed experts and real experts is that real experts are too busy with their day jobs to think about packaging and selling courses. Just as passive candidates for jobs are often more desirable than active candidates (the ones you really want probably already have good jobs), real experts in hot sectors need to be sold on the idea of an online course; before it can be designed, produced, packaged, and sold to learners, the best online learning is sold to real experts. And selling experts is not for the faint-hearted, let alone fly-by-night e-learning companies. It requires reputation, proven production capabilities (i.e., quality on par with what experts do in their professional lives), distribution, and an economic model that will get an expert’s attention. Notably, none of the aforementioned online learning leaders have taken this MasterClass approach.
Among money-courses, the best synthesis to date is found at Reforge. With a subscription model like MasterClass, Reforge organizes courses around business problems like retention and engagement, experimentation and testing, and monetization and pricing. Who builds and leads them? Executives from companies like Tinder, SurveyMonkey, HubSpot and Instacart. Reforge has attracted these experts through MasterClass-like persistence and networking (and presumably an attractive economic model). And as with MasterClass, it’s now at the point where tech leaders are seeking out Reforge.
Beyond branded experts and production values, Reforge has added a critical third element that we haven’t seen in less expensive love-courses: synchronous learning. Reforge casts itself as a membership network where “each has something to offer.” So in addition to 2-3 hours of self-paced material each week, members attend live sessions where instructors apply concepts through work-based scenarios.
Earlier this year, departing New York Times CTO Nick Rockwell included a shout out to Reforge in his farewell: “Reforge in particular really helped us educate ourselves en masse, injecting great thinking and practice into the org. I think about 150 Timesians went through their Growth Series.” Reforge’s growth is outpacing an already fast-growing sector, and its formula represents the future of online learning.
Where are universities in this picture? After all, selective schools are top brands themselves – brands already leveraged by Coursera, edX, and Yellowbrick.
There are four reasons to believe colleges and universities won’t be launching Reforge-like models anytime soon:
The onset of instructional design service providers, course production infrastructure, and best practices for online learning has yet another impact on colleges and universities. Because as MasterClass and its brethren have shown, said infrastructure can be extended to translate expertise from practitioners with no training or teaching experience whatsoever. So the money in online learning will be in tapping branded experts – mostly practitioners – in a highly curated and designed manner and assembling the resulting content into learning experiences that are lavishly produced and synchronous. While Coursera, edX, and Yellowbrick will ensure universities make an appearance (primarily for love-courses), establishing the requisite expert networks for money-courses will be led by Reforge-like models in verticals like financial services, healthcare, pharma, retail, logistics, automotive, and consumer products, and economy-shifting subsectors of tech like AI and BCI (brain-computer interfaces).
In the New York Times article from 2000, an unnamed “president of an elite eastern university” said he “always thought our new competition [online] was going to be Microsoft University.” He wasn’t entirely wrong. Microsoft won’t do it, but specialists like Reforge will.
Like most things digital, online learning will help the rich get richer. And the real rich (in terms of money, not love) are practitioners, not professors. Ironically, after a year of unprecedented advances in online learning at colleges and universities, it’s clearer than ever that the future of online learning lies off campus. Only rhinos, monster raving looneys, and higher education leaders might think otherwise.