First let’s start with why we decided to do this in the first place. Many of you ask: what is Other Internet? Other Internet is a nimble organization focused on cultivating agency for the world we currently live in. Agency comes in many forms and can be thought about at many scales. Understanding is one form, so we research and write about emerging technologies and cultural phenomena. Building tools is another form, so we also use our product experience to consult on teams and projects we believe in. We believe in food sovereignty so we raise chickens and participate in community gardens. And we also incubate projects like this one.
Most recently, we’re exploring agency and the topic of online peer learning.
Why online peer learning?
Education is the OG agency creator, both in terms of knowledge capital for students and in terms of civilizational longevity. Of course, today the evolution of culture vastly outpaces the formation of formal educational opportunities that explain this evolution. Higher ed can only be so agile. If you fall outside of these confines, how do you learn about, say, the crypto bubble of 2017, or an architectural theory of Tik Tok?
Past just online education, we are specifically interested in topics in and adjacent to humanities and social sciences. Many “new schools” being started today are focused on vocational opportunities. Design and code bootcamps bundle complex skills into teachable commodities, a direct tradeoff of nuance for convenience. While we find the tech backlash demand for engineers to “take humanities courses” to be reductive, it’s also clear that emerging technologies and fields of design (crypto, governance, machine learning) involve engagement with subject matter traditionally housed within the social sciences.
A second rationale for this exploration focuses on educators and researchers. If/when the student debt bubble bursts, we expect that many current lines of research will no longer be fundable. How then will these knowledge lineages survive? At the same time, we personally have a large network of internet-native thinkers—bloggers, thought leaders, and “outsider academics”—whose work is valuable but difficult to monetize. Traditionally deep thought is funded by education.
Finally, we were interested in addressing learning tools and methods. There are lots of casual ways to learn about things online. As a matter of fact the overabundance of novel information is a problem in itself. People need meaningful ways to rigorously engage with subjects they would like to understand more deeply. We’re interested in what this looks both inside and outside formal “classroom” contexts.
In summary, this past fall we decided to try our hand at hosting online classes because we are interested in three things:
1. What serious learning outside of academia looks like
2. Financial sustainability for people who research and publish online
3. Creating way more compelling online learning environments
With these goals in mind, we set out to find a set of course formats, subjects, and instructors.
We decided on the first courses based on the availability of experts in our network who think about topical issues, rather than coming up with specific course ideas. We thought this made sense because if someone has demonstrated their expertise on X subject online, they probably have people who follow them and are interested in learning more from them about X subject, satisfying an agile marketing prerequisite.
Our choices of instructors and topics:
- Sonya Mann - networked community dynamics
- Drew Austin - the interaction between technology and the built environment
- Byrne Hobart - the theory and history of financial bubbles
We thought these satisfied our interestingness and marketable feasibility threshold.
Next we thought about format. We knew that we wanted to try and find a balance between the course load and time commitment being realistic for attendees who would largely be working 9-5 jobs. But we also knew that we wanted the courses to feel like they had weight to them and would capture the attention of attendees. We decided on two ‘guided reading groups’ and one ‘themed writing workshop.’
The guided reading groups were priced slightly higher and emphasized students reading on their own time, while using class time to have a blend of lecturing and seminar-style discussions about the reading. Class would meet weekly for two hours over several weeks.
The themed writing workshop was on the other side of the length spectrum, only two sessions and 4 total hours of class time. Instead of gradual reflections on readings, it was output-oriented and designed to quickly ramp up writing production for participants.
Marketing and Selling the Courses
With topics and instructors set we designed a simple site to host course information and a checkout flow for enrollees. Deciding on an approach here took a surprisingly long time, as we found it difficult to find a good balance between quick-and-easy and appearing legitimate.
When we set out to market the workshops, we underestimated just how many of the signups would result directly from the marketing efforts of instructors, and if not this, the preexisting network of Other Internet. Thus it may be the case that we spent too much time working on marketing artefacts, like this course preivew video:
We sold the courses at three prices: full price, a slightly discounted early bird / instructor referral price, and a heavily discounted scholarship price. Of 37 total signups, we gave out 7 scholarship tickets. Attendees were, as we expected, mostly adults in their mid 20s and 30s, with scholarship spots requested by younger participants. Between all 37 students, we sold just over $8,000 of courses, and paid out 70% of this to instructors.
Eventually the classes filled up with participants, and our first workshop was right around the corner. We then shifted out efforts more into pedagogy. Our philosophy up to this point was to put trust in the expertise of instructors to design and teach the workshops as they see fit, but upon completing dry runs of the courses, something became clear which seems very obvious in hindsight: just because you are an expert in a subject area, does not necessarily mean that you have an instinct developed for how to convey your knowledge in a live classroom setting.
The key detail here is “classroom setting.” All of our instructors were already excellent writers and knew how to effectively communicate their thinking in at least one context. But there is no guaranteed overlap when it comes to predicting someone’s instruction style. A lesson learned here is that when looking for future instructors we need to have ways to screen for teaching capability specifically.
We worked with our instructors to design a curriculum and a schedule that we thought would work well for the context and waited for the first workshops to begin.
Facilitation and Participation
Behind-the-scenes from our first ever workshop
We used Zoom for synchronous online meetings of classes, which worked well for the most part. With a high number of participants we noted that conversation could be difficult, and using Zoom chat could be a distraction. In the future we’d like to have several methods of facilitating discussions with numerous participants.
We also used discord for asynchronous hanging out and link sharing outside of official class session times. This worked ok, but was largely inactive. We think this is a largely a reflection of the difficulties of community organization, not tooling.
We did not screen students at all, simply letting anyone who paid participate. Everyone self selected to be there, which we thought would draw a tight group together based on how niche the topics were. In the best moments in conversation this came true, but there were also moments where we realized that students in the workshops had fairly divergent learning objectives, even if their cultural reference points are similar. The scope of the classes were not set up in a way to deal well with these divergent objectives, and we also suspect this affected engagement in the Discord. Finding a balance between keeping the class accessible to a diverse range of students yet also constrained enough where student commonalities can amplify learning outcomes will continue to be a difficult balance when working at this scale.
When participants walked away from our courses, what did they gain? This once again was quite varied. In our reading groups, a common sentiment was that the readings broadened perspectives, and led to interesting conversation which did the same. Possibly due to the short timeline of the workshops, possibly due to many students balancing 9-5 jobs, it was questionable how ‘sticky’ the content from the courses were. Compared to the writing workshop which had a clear output objective, the reading groups had no homework other than to do the readings, and little accountability for students. This ‘make of it what you want’ structure was by design, but it was clear that future courses need to emphasize clearer structure around assignments and/or outputs. Although it might be fair to assume that in the ‘continuing’ education space, self-direction and autonomy are more pronounced, people are people after all and generally benefit from being held accountable.
We conducted a survey and user interviews to get additional feedback. Here are some representative responses we received:
I thought the rough time requirements were good. It was about 4-5 hours of time commitment each week which was meaty enough to get into things but not so meaty that I had to restructure my life substantially.
The best way to improve instruction would be to clarify the format of the online Zoom calls.
More structure and clarity would have been helpful
It was tight and absolutely focused. Enjoyed the Zoom format and length of the course.
Sessions were maybe too open ended.
There wasn’t as much participation as I would have liked
This short workshop experience feels like a good intermediary that I was searching for, between MOOC-type courses with little specificity or accountability and $500+ long-term workshops that I honestly couldn’t afford.
These varied opinions speak towards how a given course can present itself very differently depending on what an individual's expectations are. For example, those who found the workshop too open ended might be used to traditional schooling environments where there is ample structure. Conversely, participants who enjoyed the flexibility of their workshops might be more comfortable with self directed learning. The insight here is not that one style is better than the other but that we should a) set expectations better for what style of learning a given course will follow and b) complete higher fidelity entry surveys to learn about what participants are expecting.
In addition to surveying for student outcomes, we were interested in the experiences of a crop of first time teachers facilitating class in an experimental environment.
As a writer who has never taught before, leading this reading group was a great opportunity for me to share some of my favorite ideas and develop them in a collaborative setting. While the course was framed by texts and concepts I’ve been developing in my writing for a while, discussing them at length with a diverse group pushed me to better understand those ideas' strengths, weaknesses, and relevance to others in a way that writing frequently doesn’t. Many of us are typically overwhelmed with information and reading material, trying to efficiently process as much as possible, and I found that this course allowed us to slow down and spend more time focusing on a few texts in greater depth—an ideal project for a classroom setting, virtual or otherwise. This experience also showed me that teaching is a lot of fun. As with writing, the best way to become a teacher is by actually teaching, and this course gave me a perfect opportunity to do that, setting me up to succeed despite my lack of experience.
Just-in-time reaction and off-the-cuff explanation is soooooo much harder than writing, at least for me. I have to scramble to keep up. Text feels more natural and less energetically taxing. Not sure whether that's mainly because I have about a billion times more experience with written versus verbal performance. I remain frustrated by the difficulty of transplanting concepts into someone else's brain. It's probably the wrong mental model / approach...
I have a lot more experience writing essays than I do guiding a reading group, so it was an interesting experience. When you write online, you learn to ignore the comments by default; the most common reason anyone leaves a comment is hostility, and hostility from strangers is about the single worst source for action-guiding advice. But a reading group is a living, breathing comments section right in front of you. Fortunately, people who select in to a reading group, and who are looking at you face-to-face (well, face-to-monitor-to-webcam-to-face) lose essentially all of the default meanness of the Internet.
If you’re interested in hosting such a group, here’s what I’d suggest:
Have a mix of attendees you know (so someone will be brave enough to ask the first question during Q&A) and people you don’t (so you too actually learn something).
Pick a topic without a settled answer, and without a single unifying theory. This is easy in economics, where nobody knows anything for sure, and where anything everyone believes is rendered false by consensus.
Have a structured portion of the class, but design it as a launchpad rather than a destination.
Choose a topic where you’re much better-informed than average, but expect to be wrong—or at least to be caught flat-footed by a good point you wouldn’t have thought of—pretty often.
Prosaic, but important: have a good way to end the class. The modern mode of communication is that everyone is in a constant process of ghosting on everyone else, so conversations tend to naturally peter out over time. That’s fine for group chats and email threads, but demoralizing face-to-face.
Small-scale online education initiatives are constrained by unit economics. They need to take advantage of the direct relationship between the educator and student to be financially feasible. While we think this first experiment shows that DTC classes are an eminently sustainable model for existing educators / adjuncts, it’s hard to derive meaningful financial outcomes as the middle man while paying instructors wages they deserve without ratcheting up prices significantly.
Small-scale online education initiatives are constrained by marketing. You need students to sign up, or everything else is irrelevant, but distribution channels for this kind of niche content can be small. To convert signups, you need to work with the expectation that a course provide value within a prospective student’s preexisting framework for valuable education, i.e. “this course will help me earn money,” etc. But you also have to work against this expectation and highlight why your course is valuable in ways that a student can’t see before they take it, i.e. “this course will enrich me but not make me better at my job and that is still valuable.”
Small-scale online education initiatives are constrained by scale. It is difficult to benefit from economies of scale without making a whole education platform. Synchronous courses, even if impactful, can only scale to a certain extent.
Teaching is a skill in itself. It consists of a knowledge base, the ability to communicate it, and the ability and desire to lead, empathize, and create structure in a dedicated learning environment.
Free / affordable virtual classroom tooling is not perfect but makes running classes highly feasible. Given a group that is interested in discussion, what you get from accessibility and convenience might outweigh what you lose in immersion. In this context, small groups are better than big ones.
Even (especially?) ‘grown-ups’ benefit from accountability and structure. You can pull jujitsu moves by teaching humanities subjects in ‘project/outcome oriented’ format. It should feel like work, even if the content is far from ‘work.’
Seminar-style classes feel antiquated for practiced online thinkers. Many of our reading group participants have already spent hundreds of hours reading, thinking, tweeting, and even writing online. For these “advanced students” the limited synthesis opportunities presented by the lecture/discussion format is a step backwards.
We’re hoping to run a few more courses, improved by the learnings from last fall. But we’re also thinking of exploring different aspects of this problem space.
This time around we focused on pedagogy, curriculum, and course structure. For our next experiments we are interested in working on the angle of financial sustainability for online-native researchers and educators. At the end of the day, this problem space involves a small number of variables: a topic, a leader, an audience, an outcome, and a price point. There is a significant amount of exploration possible just by manipulating these, so look forward to new related experiments from us.
In the meantime, we’d love to get in touch with you if you are working on an initiative related to serious learning outside of academia, independent research funding models, or technology for better online classroom environments. If you’re interested to learn more about our goals and learnings with this sprint, please message firstname.lastname@example.org!
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