How can virtual learning make education more invigorating and more accessible in the U.S.?
One innovative answer comes from Outschool, an virtual learning platform that’s been bringing interactive, internet-based learning to kids since 2015. The platform connects kids ages 3 to 18 with teachers who run small-group and one-on-one live classes on a wide range of topics, including core subjects like algebra and chemistry, but also topics like “Essential Horror Movies” and “Singing Taylor Swift Songs in Spanish.”
Like other educational technology companies, Outschool saw a surge in enrollment after the pandemic struck. But the company realized that many students who most needed extra education couldn’t afford it. So it launched Outschool.org, a philanthropic nonprofit that provides free virtual classes to kids in low-income families.
“This has allowed us to support 110,000 hours of free trumpet playing, math learning, and photograph-taking for 26,000 kids who might’ve otherwise spent that time losing their love of learning rather than pursuing it,” Outschool.org noted on its website.
An innovative take on online learning
The edtech industry is estimated to be worth more than $100 billion by the end of 2021, and to keep growing throughout the decade.
Outschool — which was valued at $1.3 billion in April — is in some ways like many other companies in the space: Students who need extra help with their core classes can take courses on subjects like chemistry, algebra, and literature. They can also connect with tutors for one-on-one sessions. Classes start at $5 and average $18.
But Outschool’s marketplace of classes isn’t limited to government-set curricula. Kids can enroll in classes on sketching characters from Studio Ghibli movies, singing songs from “Hamilton”, and learning architectural history by designing buildings in Minecraft. The focus on making courses fun is what separates Outschool from most other edtech companies; co-founder and CEO Amir Nathoo has estimated that 80% of kids use the platform for fun and 20% for core learning.
Unique classes emerge on Outschool because the platform gives qualified teachers the freedom to design courses in virtually any manner they want. Kids and their families can then leave reviews and a star-rating for the classes they complete, making Outschool something like the “Netflix of learning,” as the company has described itself. Creativity and competition make certain classes rise to the top of Outschool’s marketplace.
But some students know exactly what they want to pursue before browsing Outschool.
Pursuing passion through extracurricular learning
For 13-year-old Isaac Edwards, the obvious choice was photography.
“When I grow up, I want to be a professional photographer,” Edwards told Freethink. “I can’t explain it. It’s just my dream.”
Edwards has been drawn to sports photography from a young age, and was surprised with a one-on-one photography bootcamp run by Jay Gorodetzer, an Outschool mentor and professional sports photographer. Edwards attends the Boys and Girls Club of East Dallas, one of many communities receiving free Outschool classes through their partnership with Stand Together.
The photography bootcamp had Edwards learn the fundamentals of photography, like composition and lighting. He also completed different photography missions set by Gorodetzer, who used the virtual classes to explain to Edwards what it’s like to work as a sports photographer — and to show him it’s a dream within reach.
Edwards’ long-term goal is to be a professional sports photographer covering the NFL. Without Outschool, he would have had limited opportunities and resources to develop his skill set. Through regular schooling and self-study alone, it would be more difficult for Edwards to develop the skills needed to succeed in a competitive field like sports photography.
American schools and online learning
The pandemic was one of the most disruptive events in the history of the American education system. Amid school closures, health concerns, and a frenzied transition to remote learning, students are estimated to have lost months of learning, with those in low-income communities generally suffering more setbacks.
E-learning is no panacea for the shortcomings of American education. But it’s likely here to stay.
That’s the takeaway from a 2020 RAND Corporation survey that showed 20% of school districts have already adopted or plan to adopt virtual learning for the long term, citing reasons like increased staffing flexibility and meeting the diversity of student needs.
But not all Americans have equal access to the benefits of online learning. Data from the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress suggest that about 19% of American 4th-graders and 12% of 8th-graders in public schools likely don’t have access to the internet or devices required for remote learning. The report showed that Black and Hispanic students — and all students from low-income families — tend to have less access to technological resources.
The disparity in access to technology is often referred to as the digital divide. It can compound existing socioeconomic inequalities because students from disadvantaged backgrounds can’t readily develop the skills they need to succeed in the modern workforce. For online-learning platforms like Outschool.org to make a difference in American education, bridging the digital divide is a significant hurdle.
One way Outschool.org is working toward that goal is by not only providing free resources to low-income families, but also offering cash support to community learning centers, like the Boys and Girls Club that Isaac goes to, and partnering with organizations and school districts to provide full-time remote learning to low-income learners.
Outschool’s goal isn’t to replace classrooms with screens. It’s to make extracurricular education fun by connecting students with classes that fit their interests.