Why We Invested in Outschool

By Jennifer Carolan & Esteban Sosnik

We are delighted to announce our series A investment in Outschool, whose mission is to inspire kids online through real, human connections.

Outschool is a live education experience that connects real-life teachers with K-12 students online in small-group settings to explore everything from sewing, Percy Jackson, and Hamilton, to Chemistry, Algebra, and Literature.

In some ways we see Outschool as an evolution of online learning sites known as the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that launched about a decade ago. These first generation MOOCs (Khan Academy, Coursera, and Udacity) opened up learning by distributing high-quality content and knowledge to tens of millions of learners around the world. MOOCs made information plentiful but also showed that motivation is harder to scale.

This lack of motivation resulted in course completion rates in the single digits. These well-funded companies learned what educational research had validated decades ago: that motivation drives learning. Without a large enough market of people motivated to learn merely for self-improvement, Coursera, Udacity, and most others pivoted into corporate learning where they were able to tap into workers’ interests in advancing their careers and earning a higher salary.

Motivation is rooted in emotion. In fact, the word motivation shares its root with emotion; both come from the Latin ‘motere’ meaning ‘to move.’ In a NYT essay titled, Students Learn from People They Love, David Brooks writes, “emotions tell you what to pay attention to, care about and remember. It’s hard to work through difficulty if your emotions aren’t engaged.

And this is exactly why Outschool is different from anything that has come before; it was designed for motivation:

1- Outschool is interest-driven. It’s a bottoms-up marketplace of classes proposed by passionate teachers. The importance of a teacher here cannot be overstated; “what teachers really teach is themselves — their contagious passion for their subjects and students.” These teachers are not mandated to teach specific content, but rather choose to teach what they love. In turn, students and families choose what they love from a catalogue of 8,000+ classes. Choice is ideal for students because it betters the odds they are learning key skills in a context of their choice. One Outschool mom commented on how her kids benefited from a writing class centered in Pokemon: ”it has the elements of a great persuasive argument class, but all the discussion was around the world of Pokemon, which glued the kids to the class.”

2- Outschool is social. We know from Patricia Kuhl’s research that the social brain pervades every learning process. Outschool classes are comprised of small groups (3–8) of students led by a teacher. They learn from each other’s responses, emotion, and engagement. And because classes are online with kids from all over the country (and increasingly the world), they gain exposure to different accents, perspectives, and lived experiences. “Kids enjoy being with each other. However effective, 1:1 instruction gets boring rather quickly for kids, and Outschool combines the best of both words” stresses Amy Phan, an Outschool user.

When we bring these best practices online and leverage the distributive power of technology, we have high-quality learning experiences at scale.

Some will argue that not all learning should necessarily be fun, especially foundational knowledge like learning the structure of a five paragraph essay. But when emotions are engaged through a passionate and caring teacher and when learning takes place in community, you vastly improve the odds of finding motivation to learn. And when a child is motivated through inherent interest or by a teacher who sparks it, they learn better.

At Reach, we are thesis-driven investors; we were able to make a quick decision to invest in Outschool because it fit our thesis so nicely. Our thesis is grounded in strong pedagogy delivered in new innovative formats, leveraging past educational research in new models of instruction, and human-centric learning enabled by digital technology. We’re delighted to be backing this great founding leadership team of Amir, Mikhail and Nick. All three have authentic stories about how education has played a pivotal role in their lives, and they decided to align their incredible past experiences at companies like Airbnb and Square, with a mission to bring education into the 21st century. We are extremely excited to support Outschool and broaden access to quality education in a model that motivates students to reach their full potential.