Learn online, not alone.

Will Dayble
Jul 10, 2020 · 12 min read

Or: Why TED Talks aren’t education, YouTube is junk food, and Masterclass ingrains social inequality while selling democracy.

If you know where to look, there are serious issues with platform-based online learning (i.e. paying a monthly fee to access a learning on the internet.)

Treating education as a gym membership and calling it ‘lifelong learning’ is disingenuous, while flat monthly pricing is inequitable. Decentralised doesn’t mean democratic, and individualised learning doesn’t work.

For context, your author is the founder of an online school that produces blended learning for schools and communities. Like many of you I’ve been critical of the status quo. Then optimistic. Then critical again.

Here’s our current thinking on platform based, online education.

1) Gym memberships suck.

If you’ve ever bought a gym membership, you might know the sense of guilt you get from failing to show up as much as you promised you would.

This experience is often mirrored online. People buy memberships to internet services, fail to use the service as much as they thought they would, then bail.

This is the model that makes gyms profitable. If you walk into a gym you won’t see the average member at that gym, you‘ll see the small portion of gym members who actively visit the gym four or five times a week.

The super users.

The real members that make the gym profitable are the ones sitting at home feeling guilty that they’re not at the gym.

By the same token, membership websites have two business goals:

  1. Get lots of people to sign up.
  2. Stop those people from leaving.

This works well for a music app like Spotify, where listening to music every day makes sense. No user side dark patterns there. (The dark patterns at Spotify are in the licensing end of things, but that’s another story.)

But for an education site, the membership model can often serve the platform more than its users. Consider Skillshare and Masterclass, big players who both moved from per-class pricing to whole-platform subscription within the past few years. It makes great business sense.

Subscription companies can have huge valuations and you can make a hell of a lot of money (Lynda sold to LinkedIn for $1.5B), but I’m not convinced it leads to better learning outcomes, which should be the main point of education, right?

The internet helped us to get used to paying for things monthly, mostly because it’s better than lock-in contracts for things like online project management tools, phone plans or pay TV.

But ‘better than the previous model’ doesn’t mean ‘the model for everything.’

Effort within a company is a finite resource, and effort spent on maximising subscription and reducing churn is time that can’t be spent on other things: Taking care of students, finding out what works, discovering weaknesses in programs, experiments, failure and fun.

In fact, a lot of what makes education work at all as a societal construct is a ‘waste of money’ if you start thinking about students as customers to be acquired, with a lifetime value that’s measured en-masse in a spreadsheet.

The real benefit of slowly creating high quality education content on the internet is that it creates room for teachers to facilitate and guide, instead of teaching the same lecture over and over.

Teaching and learning is an interpersonal activity. We don’t need better gyms, we need to better support our personal trainers.

2) Flat pricing isn’t equitable.

The big benefit of the internet is that you can build something once, and then have many people use that thing for a fractional marginal cost. Why put an expensive human back into the mix and unknit all that value?

The slogan of internet education was that it would ‘democratise’ access so that poor and rich alike could get an amazing, borderless experience.

This is unsurprisingly similar to the rush towards democratising access to money for the unbanked, which seems like a good idea until it leads to perpetual debt and Valley tech startups flooding poor communities with high interest loans under the flag of “financial inclusion.”

Our experience of this problem was in charging a monthly, flat fee.

For some people, that $9AUD per month was absurdly cheap. For the value, crazy cheap. Customers were telling us they couldn’t believe the value to price comparison, a few asked us to charge them more. We’re not boasting, just admitting that some people felt we were foolishly undercharging.

But, importantly, others couldn’t afford it at all.

I remember a user in Kuwait ask how much it would cost to use our product for her classroom (too much), and then the next day I’d meet someone from North America who was confused about the price being so low.

We thought briefly about country based pricing, based upon the minimum wage of that country. Our original decision of $9 AUD / month was that it was half an hour of Australian minimum wage. We figured that if we were more valuable to the individual than that demarkation, we’re doing okay.

But country-based pricing, holy moly.

Talk about a Wikipedia spiral of doom. I had at least 30 tabs open about weird wage laws, legal and education systems, and worker’s rights. We finally decided it doesn’t really matter because there are such disparate levels of wealth even within countries. Thanks, Hans.

I kept thinking about this one guy, Brad, a social worker I met at a community event. He was running a program to help at risk youth gain confidence and resilience skills through a basic entrepreneurship course, selling t-shirts. He was scraping together dollars to get his program funded and $9 a month was a lot. Far too much if we charged him that for every kid in his program.

This is in Melbourne. We’re a damn rich country.

We’ve ended up giving our product away to so many people and doing weird pricing for the rest that it’s difficult to see the point in flat pricing if you really care about equity and access.

Flat pricing seems good, but it just create different problems. It’s not so much a race to the bottom as a gentle settling into an uncanny pricing valley.

Expensive education trends towards exclusivity (think Harvard), and cheap trends towards free (think YouTube). And free isn’t free.

If you have a premium product like Harvard does, constraining access to that product keeps prices high, while allowing you to claim you’re supporting the community by giving free tuition to a tiny portion of the population.

Long story short, one size fits all doesn’t fit all.

One to many doesn’t necessarily mean for the many.

3) Decentralisation ≠ democracy.

Here’s another lovely internet quirk: We thought that ‘flattening out’ access to things online would make them more accessible, ethical and help the broadest number of people. And sometimes, it worked.

But we also built a system that hyper-charges monopolies.

This video is a fascinating insight into the mindset that creates so many of the products we interact with on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.

The short version: Building an internet business that doesn’t become a monopoly is a losers game. Internet platforms must aim for monopoly. There’s only one search engine. Only one video platform. Only one social network.

This is dangerous for education.

In the article below, Scott predicts that a handful of elite cyborg universities will soon monopolise higher education globally. MIT@Google. iStanford. HarvardxFacebook.

I don’t think this is a technological failure as much as an exploited weakness of late stage capitalism. When people say “tech company” these days, they often don’t mean a technology based company, they mean ‘high-growth wannabe monopoly’, using whatever means necessary to get there, which usually necessitates technology of some type.

YouTube is the prime example.

Arguably, YouTube is the largest ‘free’ education resource on the planet. Videos made by ‘content creators’ have taught me woodworking and painting and cooking skills I theoretically couldn’t have learnt for free anywhere else.

But the dominance of YouTube leads to a tournament model that burns out creators, who must tastefully weave Squarespace and Dollar Shave Club ads into a highly produced, low-key, yet up-beat sense of personal intimacy that borders on creepy and exploitative.

Creators have an instinctual understanding of what “the algorithm wants”, with a feedback loop that leads to frantically uploading as many videos as possible, which dilutes and destroys the quality of the experience overall, for both creators and viewers alike.

How many times have you skipped the first minute and a half intro of a YouTube video, knowing that the creator only has it there to appease the 10-minute video Gods for that sweet, sweet ad revenue?

Proficient YouTuber users know to skip the last 30 seconds because that’s the ‘like and subscribe’ section. We even get adept at quickly skipping the product placement chunk in the middle.

We underestimate the cultural power of YouTube at our peril.

YouTube, like the Apple app store, and other similar platforms sponsor a tournament model that would make Katniss Everdeen shudder.

Search for “content creator” on YouTube some time. People making videos for other people about making videos for people. It’s completely surreal.

So what? Cui bono?

So if being a content creator is a hard slog, it seems the only reliable way to win in this landscape is to own the platform the tournament is played upon.

In the education world, there is a growing number of “education platforms” selling subscription services to learning management tools. This ‘Picks and shovels’ play makes good businesses sense, if not good education.

There’s a real multi-level marketing option in this game: Sell online courses about selling online courses. At the time of this writing, the front page of teachable.com has this quote, from Melissa:

“I’ve used Teachable to sell hundreds of thousands of dollars in online courses. If you are thinking of creating your own online course, Teachable is the place to be.”

If you visit Melissa’s website, you see this:

Hold up. She’s selling an online course about how to sell online courses. On a platform that sells the ability to make online courses. What?!

Compare the teaching page of Skillshare with the driver page of Uber and the language becomes obvious. “Opportunity is everywhere” says Uber, and “We provide help every step of the way” says Skillshare.

Both promise to do the heavy lifting of finding you customers. Skillshare claims that it “operates on a membership model, so your class will have a built-in audience from the start” at the same time as posting articles on how to promote your class online.

People have become wise to the ills of Uber and AirBnb. When will we look at platform education as capitalising upon a casualised Precariat?

Quit your job. Be your own boss. Hustle. Join our platform. We’ll give you a slice, promise. In the common tongue: In the darkness bind them.

We’re turning our digital nomads into digital serfs.

4) Learning is social.

This one is so darn obvious: Learning is a social activity.

Online learning with no social aspect falls flat. The story around MOOC completion rates is pretty dire. The ones that work usually have a social aspect baked into the core of how they function.

The weirdly performative aspect of YouTube and social media, the flattened tundra of one-size-fits-all digital experiences gives a sense of intimate social connection, but it’s one that isn’t conducive to the best parts of education: Striving, pain and gain, collective power and shared experience.

Isn’t it weird that ‘social media’ is something you do when you’re alone?

There’s a really weird emergence from YouTube lately, people watching other people’s night time routines, as their night-time routine. It’s like making a microwave dinner, and then spending an hour watching a cooking show.

The social aspect of our lives has become so atomised that people are getting comfortable with truly Black Mirror-esque perversions of it.

Bry at the Future of Sex described pornography to me as ‘junk food’.

Individualised online education is disturbingly similar. Tremendously unhealthy, and so easy to consume. You can get addicted to it. It can be a wonderful indulgence for some folks, even if it should be a sometimes food.

The sugar-rush dopamine hit of well-produced video learning or a compelling TED Talk can give us an illusion of achievement in the same way that social media is built to yank our dopamine receptors in unhealthy ways.

Prof. Bratton calls TED talks ‘middlebrow megachurch infotainment’, while YouTube is a self-optimising, weaponised distraction machine, full of empty educational calories in a modern misinformation diet.

Optimistically, the opposite still works!

Small groups of people spending intimate time together on a shared journey is a consistently magical experience. It works. It always has and always will.

This might be in a campus, inside a school room, or talking with anonymous strangers online. (Zoom fatigue is a topic for another day.)

For example, I personally learnt an incredible amount about code, myself and the world via IRC chat when I was a teenager. Magic. Simple chat tech enabled borderless communication amongst like minds. The tech itself isn’t to blame (or really worth of praise) for the state of modern education.

Here’s a lovely video about an old idea that’s deliciously fresh:

Watch it! It’s fun!

The kicker for me: I’m not convinced you can jump in to, or pull yourself out of the learning pit on your own.

You need help. You need peers. I’d say you can’t leap in safely without knowing that your peers and a caring mentor will be there to play in the mud with you and help you surface out the other side.

Learning is social. Social change is social.

Learning online shouldn’t mean learning alone.

So what do we do about it?

Perhaps that means now is the time to avoid futurism? To forget the techno-utopian? Can we instead examine the flaws of the status quo and halt them?

Can we just … stop? Halt the things that don’t work?

If there are ethical problems with serve-yourself learning, they’re inextricably linked to how we treat learning, productivity and our workforces. Tech is not to blame, when the frames within which we build education are flawed.

I’m more and more convinced that modern education is acting as an outsourced human resources department for its corporate beneficiaries. Doing this online just makes it more efficient.

People are not a resource!

To quote the late, great Utah Phillips:

“You are about to be told one more time that you are America’s most valuable natural resource. Have you seen what they do to valuable natural resources?!

Have you seen a strip mine? Have you seen a clear cut in the forest? Have you seen a polluted river? Don’t ever let them call you a valuable natural resource!

They’re going to strip mine your soul. They’re going to clear cut your best thoughts for the sake of profit unless you learn to resist, because the profit system follows the path of least resistance and following the path of least resistance is what makes the river crooked!”

Online learning is a new idea, but it’s carrying around old baggage. We should think seriously about what we take with us, and what we leave behind.

Thanks for reading, I hope to see you online! Or in person.

Or, preferably, a well designed and adequately funded mix of the two.

-Will.

👩‍🏫 🥰 👨‍🏫

P.S. Big thanks to Carolyn Newall, Clare Carmody and Grant Ennis for their insightful critique, fantastic big brains and full hearts.

P.S. 13th July, 2020: This is a weird opinion piece to be coming from an education platform. We cancelled our SaaS model payments soon after writing this, in place of structured cohort courses. Phew.

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