Aaron Rasmussen, Co-Founder of MasterClass, believes online lectures should be as binge-worthy as your favourite Netflix shows. His lastest venture, online learning platform Outlier.org, has just made TIME’s 100 Best Inventions of 2020. Vietcetera had a chat with Aaron about helping students from all over the world fall in love with learning - while saving lots of money.
Why did you decide to create Outlier.org?
I grew up in rural Eastern Oregon without access to good education. I attended Boston University and transferred in credits from a community college I attended every summer to afford my education.
Many years later, after co-founding and leading the creative direction of MasterClass, I took some time off to travel and see more of the world. As a side note, in my travels I was lucky enough to visit Saigon, ride over the Hải Vân Pass on scooters with friends, visit Hội An, and Hanoi.
I was struck by the fact that people around the world, like me, struggled to afford a quality education. And that lack of access was totally unnecessary.
With Outlier.org, our goal is to make the most effective, engaging, and affordable online college courses in the world so that we can save students billions of dollars each year—and make a world-class education accessible to everyone who wants it.
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How much money does Outlier.org help students save? Would you say you’re a non-profit initiative?
I kept thinking about a blog post from MIT professor Woodie Flowers, describing the incredible amounts of money that students spend on college. Updating these numbers for the present day, around one million U.S. college students take Calculus I every year. On average, that course costs about $2,500 per student.
So Calculus I, alone, costs college students $2.5 billion each year. And about 40% of those students fail! Not only do we spend $2.5 billion, annually, on one college course, but we also waste $1 billion on failed calculus courses.
While Outlier.org’s goal is social impact, it is a for-profit, venture-backed company. This is deliberate: Coming up with a market solution to education, rather than relying on charity, is far more durable.
Our business model is straightforward – we offer each course for a flat rate of $400, providing a full refund if a student does all the work and does not pass. This price point covers all costs, including textbooks, and is significantly more affordable than the $2,500 that the average student pays for a traditional college course.
Outlier.org is poised to cut billions of dollars in student spending and enable economic mobility for countless students, on their own terms.
Why are most people still not studying online?
College courses have existed online, in one form or another, for decades. But because many universities often rely on out-of-date software and poorly-produced lectures, the format has never truly competed with in-person learning.
Students often think of online courses as a compromise. Most don’t think cinema-quality lectures, 1-on-1 tutoring, and cutting-edge active learning techniques.
We address higher education’s longstanding issues with affordability and accessibility while bringing an unprecedented level of design and applied cognitive science to the space. Online lectures should be as engaging as possible.
We like to imagine a future where online lectures are binge worthy. And we’re making that happen. One Outlier.org student reported that he found the lectures so engaging that he watched five hours of Psychology instruction in a row.
MasterClass and Outlier’s content is just stunning. Is aesthetics a must-have for all online classes?
First of all, thank you. Second, good design is absolutely integral to what I do. I wrote about it for Fast Company earlier this year in my piece, “Software ate the world. Now it’s design’s turn.” For something to be valued and considered meaningful, it has to be thoughtful and beautiful.
Do you take online courses yourself?
I take online courses constantly, and have been since long before co-founding MasterClass, or founding Outlier.org. I think it’s a fantastic way to learn, and I need to be aware of what works and what doesn’t. Most recently I took a course on the Science of Well-Being with Laurie Santos on Coursera and a very long course on sound recording and mixing on MZed.
How does Outlier.org measure student success?
Our main milestones are built around maximizing student success. The initial semesters of Calculus I and Intro to Psychology show that our students achieve a C-grade or better at a rate that surpasses the national average for in-person classes. Meaning, these work just as well or better than in-person classes on average.
That is totally unprecedented and means that this model can scale, while staying affordable and effective.
We’ve seen some of the similar versions of Outlier.org and MasterClass in Vietnam, namely TopClass.com. What are your thoughts on them?
I’m flattered! In all seriousness though, I think that replicating what we do will be very difficult. But if smart entrepreneurs are able to help make college education effective and affordable, I sincerely welcome their efforts.
Will Outlier.org be localized into Vietnamese?
The courses aren’t localized, but we’ve found there is significant demand for English-language versions of the courses. The great news is that we can already accept international students today!
What’s the future of learning - will everything be online?
Going forward, I think we’ll see an increased acceptance of the ability to learn online, a considerable diversity in approaches, and a greater ability for students to choose what they prefer.
At Outlier.org, we believe that the future of higher education lies in quality and affordability, but there will always be demand for in-person instruction, depending on the personal preferences and priorities of every student.