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Online learning platform Outlier.org's strategy to boost signups amid COVID-19

Online learning platform Outlier.org has seen a boost in signups amid COVID-19. Outlier.org Founder & CEO & MasterClass Co-Founder Aaron Rasmussen joins the On the Move panel to discuss.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: With so many universities conducting classes remotely this semester, students are increasingly opting for other online platforms to earn credit, but also save on tuition fees. And that has given online education platform, outlier.org a big boost. Let's bring in Aaron Rasmussen. He's the founder and CEO of Outlier Aaron, just give me a sense of what you have seen over the last six months, because we have seen so many of these online education platforms really expand their market as a result of what's been happening in higher education.

AARON RASMUSSEN: Yeah, thanks for having me. Over the last six months. I mean, we only came out about a year ago, but we saw about 7X the enrollment over summer that we did in spring. So there's been a lot of interest and a lot of focus on high quality online education. And I think part of this is, as people try different online education solutions, they start looking around and saying, OK, what's the best version of this?

RICK NEWMAN: Hey, Aaron, Rick Newman here. You're basically trying to disrupt traditional higher ed with online courses that are way cheaper. That sounds pretty appealing. I think, to a lot of students. What are the barriers to entry here? I'm sure the traditional universities don't want to see you as competition.

AARON RASMUSSEN: There are a lot of barriers to entry in this particular market, one of which, is simply, making an online college course is difficult, especially one that a student wants to pay attention to and performs well in. So it takes an extraordinary amount of time and money and expertise. For example, I reached out and contacted the top 200 calculus professors in the United States.

And it took about three and 1/2 months of these conversations to find out how people are learning and how they want to learn. And I was casting, trying to find somebody who translates well over video. And finally met Tim Chartier out of Davidson, and you could just tell that his charisma and his passion for teaching would come through. And it did.

So one is actually making the content itself. Secondly, to be clear, we don't do four-year degrees. We're focused on introductory courses. So our belief is that students should have a low cost option to get their prerequisites and their general education requirements out of the way, and then they can go to a four-year university and they can attend the upper level courses there. So in many ways, we're actually fairly symbiotic with much of the university system.

AKIKO FUJITA: I mean, Aaron, you don't offer four-year degree, but it used to be that these universities that students would go onto, would not even accept some of the credits from these online courses. And yet, it does seem like we've seen a huge shift, in part, because of what's happened because of the pandemic, but also because of conversations around tuition fees and just how astronomical they are. Have you seen a significant shift even just within the last few months on universities coming on board with offering credits through those like your platform?

AARON RASMUSSEN: Absolutely we've seen a shift. We've actually had a surprising amount of cold outreach from really phenomenal universities looking to innovate. And I think what's happening is, a lot of universities look at everything they have to bring online. We've got to have a lot of empathy for the professors and the administrators here that suddenly on the turn of a dime, they had to bring their entire course catalogs online.

We spend half a year, a year, making single courses. It takes a lot of time and energy. So they're looking for ways to bring on part of their catalog at a super high quality without too much expenditure from their instructors, allowing them to focus on their higher level courses that universities sort of differentiate on. So we've seen a lot of inbound in, for example, our Florida Polytechnic pilot program over the summer.

They wanted to offer a calculus course. They analyzed ours, determined that it would be worthy of credit there at Florida. And they found that students actually performed better than the national average in the calculus course. And in fact, better than the in-person courses.

BRIAN CHEUNG: Hey, Aaron, it's Brian Cheung here. So something that a lot of students have had I guess concerns about with online instruction, it's not unique to Outlier, it's just broadly a concern with this COVID era, is interaction with instructors. And not just in terms of grading, because especially with a course like psychology, for example, the amount of interaction might be different than, say, with kind of a mathematical course like calculus.

But how is Outlier trying to address that interaction that people tend to get used to inside the classrooms? How are they getting that digitally? What's maybe unique also about Outlier relative to other online courses in getting that type of interaction?

AARON RASMUSSEN: That's a great question. When I looked around and tried to figure out why we don't have a great online set of college courses, one of the main theories was, they're lonely. People want to do these courses with other people. That's how I survived computer science in undergrad, is having a great group of friends to go through it with.

And when I talk to students, what you find, and keep in mind, we take a lot of our inspiration from video games. Our VP of Product, Michael Astolfi, and I used to write video games together. So we thought about, how do you learn a videogame? You learn from the other players. So you can learn an incredibly complex system from your peers. So what we did is, we tried to set up an environment, and we just used real time chat communication to get students together to work and learn from each other and help each other through the course.

Now this is great, because it applies two things. One is sort of social pressure with your cohort. You want to do well. And secondly, you get that nice reward of being able to help another student and be seen as competent, and to use your skills in a way that sort of socially beneficial. And one of my favorite things to see is at the end of the class, we'll see messages like, hey, this was really fun, who wants to stay friends after this. Our hope is that our students will end up lifelong friends.

AKIKO FUJITA: Yeah, it's been fascinating to watch the education space overall, especially seeing how much we have seen it shaken up over the last six months in this pandemic. Aaron Rasmussen, good to have you on today. He's the founder and CEO of outlier.org.

AARON RASMUSSEN: Thank you so much for having me.