Edtech leans into the creator economy with cohort-based classes

Revitalized by the pandemic, entrepreneurs are on the hunt to refresh some of education’s most traditional tenets, from flashcards to tutors to after-school programs. And those aren’t just bets: They’re unicorn-valued businesses looking to capitalize on consumers’ newfound digital adoption.

The edtech sector’s boom is rivaled by that of the creator economy, which promises to help creators monetize and democratize their passions, all while maintaining their identity. The creator economy has grown over the past year due to an increased appetite for digital content from at-home eyeballs and a wave of new creators eager to meet demand. Edtech and the creator economy certainly differ in the problems they try to solve: Finding a VR solution to make online STEM classes more realistic is a different nut to crack than streamlining all of a creator’s different monetization strategies into one platform. Still, the two sectors have found common ground in the past year — as encapsulated by the rise of cohort-based class platforms. At large, cohort-based platforms help experts launch classes for their communities, no previous teaching experience required. Students move through the class together — ergo “cohort” — with the expert on-demand as a sounding board. It’s a bet on education, but it also allows an individual to showcase their passion by pushing all their chips to the center of the table rather than working for an institution. While the idea of experts teaching a group of people isn’t exactly new, it’s being refreshed by a wave of new startups. It’s not a simple overlap, entrepreneurs and investors say. Some fear that turning creators into educators could bring in a rush of unqualified teachers with no understanding of true pedagogy, while others think that the true democratization of education requires a disruption of who is traditionally given the right to educate.

Anyone’s a teacher!

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) and traditional institutions are built around the belief that students want to learn from accredited teachers, while many cohort-based platforms are forming around a more controversial, yet compelling, ethos: Anyone can be a teacher. The idea of empowering people to monetize their talents is a page directly out of the creator economy rulebook. In other words, instead of convincing a college professor to teach in their spare time, what if you convinced the star product manager at a tech startup to launch a class sharing their tips and trade secrets? It’s not a theory; it’s a venture-backed business. Mighty Networks raised a $50 million Series B to help its creators launch classes. Last month, Nas Academy raised $11 million to help creators launch their own MasterClass-type series. Then there’s Maven, an early-stage edtech company that raised millions before it even had a name — and led the charge on popularizing cohort-based classes as a branding move to begin with. These companies sit at the intersection of edtech — and its evolving views on how education should look — and the creator economy, with its empowering premise of “individuals as a business.” Mark Tan has taken part in a dozen fellowships and received years of coaching through his years in tech. For Tan, who moved from the Philippines to the United States, the allure of virtual classes has always been the network of students also participating in the program. That virtual networking led him to stints at Amazon and Twitch, and, most recently, he spent the last three years working as a director of product at Wyze. The realization that “you don’t need to be an expert teacher, just an expert” is what eventually gave Tan the confidence to launch a course of his own on Maven. It will begin in a few weeks and is about community-driven product development. “I’ve been in fellowships with people who are really well known, and sometimes it’s hard to connect with them because they’ve been in my shoes five or 10 years ago,” he said. “I think there’s an overreliance on the expert being the teacher.
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“Over time, what I realized is that there’s way more stuff to learn from other people, so I spent more time connecting to [my peers] rather than spending time listening to the lecture.” His four-week class was originally priced at $799 but now costs $599 and requires a commitment of five to 10 hours per week. Programming will range from live weekly workshops and open Q&As to guest speakers and peer-to-peer networking. In many ways, Tan is the quintessential example that cohort-based platform founders look for when trying to bring creators onto their service. He has experience at big, well-known companies, has spent years experiencing the product he is now selling and has a passion for education after seeing the benefit of peer-to-peer learning firsthand. “The best teachers are the ones who haven’t been teachers before,” said Ana Fabrega, who spent years as a primary school teacher before joining Synthesis, an online enrichment school inspired by Elon Musk’s Ad Astra model. “I think that the instinct of a teacher is to jump in and try to control, over-engineer and plan everything so kids don’t struggle … but I think the approach that works the best is [by doing] the opposite.” Synthesis focuses more on creating good facilitators that can sense engagement and create intimacy with students than educators who focus on a specific curriculum to hit certain metrics, Fabrega explained. “We really want to make sure that the kids are the ones in charge and doing all the heavy lifting, not the teachers,” she said.

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