Michael Karnjanaprakorn believes that education and learning are two different things. And when it comes to learning, he says, schools don't provide enough. "Learning is bottom-up, student-centric," he says. "Education is top-down. It's a one-size-fits-all model."
With his company, Skillshare, Karnjanaprakorn aims to bridge the divide by offering courses on real-world skills, from cooking to programming. He was inspired to start the company in part through his experience as a graduate student in advertising at Virginia Commonwealth University's Brandcenter, which emphasized collaborative, practical projects. (He blogged about his time there when he announced Skillshare's launch of online courses.) On Skillshare, users can sign up to take classes taught by actual practitioners in their fields--say, a course in visual storytelling from an animator at Disney.
When it launched in April 2011 in New York City, Skillshare was decidedly old school--it began with offline courses. Teachers set the maximum number of students--usually no more than a dozen--and chose the course’s location: a creative studio for a design class, or a home kitchen for a cooking class. Rather than take notes, as in a typical classroom, students were encouraged to try out new skills for themselves. Four months after its launch, Skillshare expanded to San Francisco, and rolled out courses nationally soon thereafter.
Karnjanaprakorn always had Web classes in the back of his mind: He knew his company could reach more people that way. "I always knew we would move online," he says. "I just didn’t know what it would look like." In particular, he wasn’t sure how the localized, collaborative nature of Skillshare’s courses could translate. The growth of massive open online courses, or MOOCs--sites that made university-level courses available for free on the web--provided the blueprint.
In August 2012, Skillshare launched its first 15 online courses. Since then, it has hosted 150 of them, which have enrolled more than 50,000 students. (Inc. contributor Lewis Schiff recently launched an online in business strategy on Skillshare in conjunction with his book Business Brilliant.) After just six months, nearly 80 percent of Skillshare’s users take online courses, Karnjanaprakorn says.
Anyone can sign up to teach a course on Skillshare. For online courses, the company vets proposed courses mainly to ensure that they aren't redundant. The company ensures quality by asking students to rate courses. Teachers set their own price, and Skillshare takes a 12 percent cut; the average price is $20 per student. Skillshare then matches teachers with specialists on its education team to help them develop syllabi for their courses. Courses typically include a combination of pre-recorded instruction videos, individual assignments, and live-streamed "office hours," during which students can review work with the instructor. Students can also create or join online groups to discuss and collaborate on assignments.
Because Skillshare emphasizes practical skills, the company eschews the notion of credentialing. Instead, the company sets out to help students develop a portfolio of work. In several cases, Skillshare’s courses have served as career launching pads. One student’s final project for a humor writing class was . Another student for his company on Kickstarter after taking a course on launching start-ups for cheap, taught by Karnjanaprakorn. "Students actually going out in the real world and being successful--that’s the best feeling you can ever get as a teacher," he says.
Karnjanaprakorn isn’t the only one sold on Skillshare’s promise. The company has raised $3.6 million dollars from investors, including Union Square Ventures, Spark Capital, SV Angel, and Founder Collective. Other companies, such as GE and Ogilvy, have begun to use the site as a branding platform.
"The skills kids need today--problem solving, creativity, and collaborating--a lot of our classes are targeted to that realm," Karnjanaprakorn says. "Those are things you predominately won’t find in the college tradition. Design, film, culinary arts, fashion: Those are all things best taught by people doing it in real time."