Outschool – A Review, part 1

outschool promo

Like me, you may have seen countless ads for Outschool come across your Facebook feed. Have you wondered about it? I’ve decided to explore it, both for my son to enroll in classes there, and for me to teach programs for them over the summer and perhaps beyond. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

What is Outschool?

In their own words, Outschool is a “marketplace for live online classes for learners age 3 to 18. Classes include interaction with real people – teachers and classmates – in videochats, with messaging and group discussion.” It harnesses the power of the internet to match teachers who are working from their homes to kids across the country in their own homes.

Many of the classes are academic skill building classes, but often with a twist that allows the teacher and kids to connect over a shared interest while also teaching / learning core academic skills, such as English classes on describing setting or characters within a Marvel Avengers theme or chemistry using Harry Potter references. Many classes are educational about non-core academics, such as music, art, and coding, or go further into an academic subject than a typical school might – I saw a 52-week long class (one hour a week) on the history of world war 2. You might think no kid would be that interested in world war 2, but I know of one! And some classes are just for fun – like Disney  trivia or tea parties. But each class offers a chance for your child to connect to a teacher and to other kids, which may feel especially relevant during this socially distanced time.

How does it work?

They describe it as being “as easy as Skyping with their grandparents.’

Classes are held on the Zoom teleconferencing service. Zoom allows the teacher and students to all see each other and talk in real time. The teacher can read books, share powerpoint slides or video clips, do hands-on demos, lead discussions, facilitate a show and tell or sharing time. Kids can talk (unless the teacher mutes them) or can use chat to type messages to each other (unless the teacher opts to disable this.) Unlike online classes that are based on pre-recorded videos that the children watch (like BrainPop or Khan Academy), this format means kids get social connection and practice with school skills like hand-raising, turn taking, and listening to others. (One reviewer noted “Class management really differs per teacher. In some classes my child dutifully raised his hand and listened intently, while in others it was a free-for-all with a dozen kids working to see who could be the loudest.”)

For the majority of classes all you need to participate is a device that can run Zoom – computer, tablet or smartphone, and internet. If your device does not have a built-in microphone and webcam (most do), you might need to purchase those separately. They say the minimum internet connection speed is 1Mbps – use fast.com to see your speed. (More on tech requirements for Outschool.)

Some classes require additional supplies – sometimes just paper and pencil, sometimes materials like Legos or ingredients for a recipe, sometimes a show and tell item to help them connect with each other, sometimes another device on which they can run Minecraft or kahoot or another app during the call. The descriptions will call this out. Some on-going academic classes have homework.

Class Size

Classes are generally small – Outschool offers these recommended sizes to teachers: For ages 6 and below, up to 6 learners. For ages 6-12, up to 9 learners. For ages 12 and above, up to 12 learners. (It is possible to do one-on-one tutoring as well.) I will note that I have seen class listings larger than the recommendations, up to 18 students for one class.

Class Schedule

They offer a variety of formats:

    • One-time is a one-time class – length ranges. For a 9 year old, I saw everything from 25 minutes to 90 minutes.
    • Multi-day is a series of classes. Could be just two sessions – could be 52 weekly classes. The child enrolls for the series, and refunds are limited after the series starts. (Teachers can choose how to pro-rate refunds.)
    • On-going is often for a “club” type activity, where, for example, every Tuesday at 2, kids get together with a teacher to talk about the Star Wars universe for 45 minutes. If I understand it correctly, you subscribe, and are charged for each session you attend. You can cancel the subscription at any time and won’t be charged for future classes.
    • Camps – I would assume the goal would be to have something that would meet every day of one week, but so far most of the examples I’ve seen are two to three sessions a week for one to three weeks.
    • Flexible / asynchronous: learners watch videos and communicate by messaging. (Personally, that defeats the purpose of why we’re considering Outschool classes – we want the live interaction.)

 

Class Cost

Varies. Outschool recommends an average of $12 for one hour of class. (So a 45 minute class would be $9.) For one-time classes I considered, I saw everything from $6 to $20 for the class – if I convert all those to their per minute cost then convert that to an hour’s cost, they ranged from $9 per hour to $23. It’s reasonably affordable – I know one parent who thinks of the fees paid as “easier to find and cheaper than a babysitter.” However, it can add up – I signed up my son for ten classes in a week, which is 475 minutes of class (or not quite 8 hours) for $136. Cheaper than summer camp, but fewer hours too!

The cost is set by the teacher. Outschool keeps 30 percent of class fees and 70 percent goes to the teacher. I’ll include a Outschool referral link at the bottom of this article that you can use for a $20 credit when you sign up for Outschool

Who are the teachers?

There are hundreds of independent teachers. Their backgrounds range widely, from PhD to no college, from new to teaching to retired after 40 years of teaching, from expert in an academic field to someone who just loves My Little Pony.

Outschool does not require teaching credentials. They require that teachers be 18 and older, residents of US or Canada, have passed a background check, and have some expertise in the area they will be teaching. Now, I have to say that some of the best teachers I know do NOT have degrees in the field in which they teach – they just have a deep passion for it. So, I support this approach. But on reading reviews and talking with friends who have taken Outschool classes, they have found that the teacher’s skills are a little hit and miss – some with excellent teaching skill and knowledge of the topic, some not as  much. One reviewer said that even with the weaker teachers, it was like their kid was kept busy and having fun chatting to a fun aunt or uncle for a half hour while the parent worked. Others are reportedly excellent.

You can pre-screen the teachers by reading their bios and reading reviews. Note that there are lots of new teachers who don’t yet have reviews. Don’t let this discourage you – give them a chance! Try an inexpensive one-time class with them and if you like them, you could always check what other classes they teach.

Who are the students

250,000 learners have enrolled in Outschool classes. Some may have only done one, but others have returned time and again. In the past, Outschool students may have been primarily home-schooled kids, but these days, most kids in the U.S. are schooling from home! And this summer with many camps shut down and fewer social opportunities many parents will use Outschool to provide fun interactive activities for their kids.

Your child might be in a class with kids from all over the country. Each class has an allowed age range. Teachers are encouraged to offer an age range of 4 years max, or a smaller range for younger kids. How I use this information: if my son is the oldest allowed age for the range, I read the course description to see if I think it will interest him or be too simplistic. If he’s the youngest allowed, I think hard about not just his academic capabilities but also his social skills to think about whether he’ll succeed.

On Common Sense Media, there was one review saying she felt like her special needs child wasn’t well-served because she had asked that they be allowed to participate in a class that they were too old for by age, but that she believed was developmentally appropriate, but was told they couldn’t make exceptions to the age ranges.

On the other hand, multiple parents felt like Outschool was a good match for their kids with special needs. One parent reviewer talked about how her child could choose the topics that he had deep passions for, and then during class “He can wiggle without concern for disruption, crunch Cheerios for better concentration (while the mic is muted), have dim lighting as he’s sensitive to bright environments, pet his cat for reduced anxiety and LEARN very well all while all his sensory needs are easily accommodated.”

If you have multiple children who would like to attend the class, you should pay for each child separately. (And that includes if you have a child who couldn’t resist sitting in on their sibling’s class even if they weren’t planning on it ahead of time.)

Parents are encouraged to be off-screen. I plan to listen in with half an ear to make sure my son is appropriate, but I will also be working while he’s “in class.” But they do not want adults on screen watching the children, for privacy / safety reasons. (They also do not allow people to participate on a device with no webcam, because they want to ensure it is only children attending, not adults who might have inappropriate reasons to attend.)

Safety

Here is their statement on internet safety and policies that they have in place. Classes are all held in password protected meetings to minimize Zoom bombing, and teachers can block screen sharing, mute mic or camera, or remove anyone inappropriate. It should be noted that all classes are recorded for Outschool and for teachers to review. Some teachers choose to share these with students. Students are told these should not be shared anywhere, but there is some privacy risk here.

What classes do they offer?

They offer 15,000 classes – I got a weekly email from them today talking about 418 new arts classes, 401 new English classes, and so on. There’s a LOT of classes! Here’s what they say:

“Outschool isn’t a traditional school, and many of our teachers have taken this opportunity to let their creativity shine!  We have classes that cross multiple subject areas, teach traditional topics with a twist, use high-interest subjects to capture learners’ attention, or challenge students with topics not generally taught in schools.  The only limit is your imagination!”

The teachers’ requirements state that classes must be unbiased, and secular – they can talk about religion in a culture but can’t promote belief in a religion, and if addressing sensitive topics they need to call that out in description. Some topics like health and sexuality require additional credentials to teach.

To give you a sense of what the offerings are like, I’ll share my personal experience.

My Search Terms

On June 17, I did a search, with these filters: June 22 – 26, 9 am – 5 pm (Pacific), age 9, any subject, live online, any length. I skimmed through them, and when I found some I thought were a good match, I opened the description in a new tab. (You could also choose to click on the heart to save them on a list of favorite class ideas.) The list of options was feeling never-ending, so I stopped when I had 30-some tabs opened. I honestly don’t know how many I skimmed through, but I suspect I was choosing somewhere between 1 in 6 and 1 in 12, so that means I may have looked at 360 options that fit my filters above!

There were lots of categories of things that I skipped because they didn’t meet my son’s interests or my goals. I’ll list a few here, just to give a broader sense of all the things you might find on Outschool. I wasn’t looking for:

  • things that were primarily academic skill-building like reading comprehension, writing practice, or math skills practice, because it’s summer and since he’s caught up academically, I feel like we can take the summer off from that. (That said, there were several things that at least looked like engaging ways to learn these skills.)
  • dance classes or yoga classes
  • music classes – there were several – most seemed to be an intro to an instrument… I assume you can take more classes with the same instructor to learn more advanced skills, but I didn’t look into that.
  • Language classes – again, I saw lots of one-time intros – there may also be class series. Some had themes like learn your numbers, or learn your colors. My favorite was the language scavenger hunt – they teach you the name for an object, then you have to run and find one in your house.
  • Art classes – there are a LOT of art options – most are focused on a specific project, like learn to draw manga eyes, learn to paint a dog, magic unicorn with stars – colored pencil drawing skills, collage animals in the style of Eric Carle.
  • Cooking classes – all about buttercream, perfect pot pie, easy croissants…
  • History (though I love the “roadtrip time machine – geography and history of America in the 20th century”)
  • Social skills and emotional regulation skills – these are super important, especially for kids on the autism spectrum, like my son, but we’re lucky enough to have great local social skills groups he participates in, and a great psychologist he works with. But I’m glad these resources are available on Outschool for those who don’t have local options.
  • There were also just social occasions like the American Girl Tea Party. And plenty of games and trivia quizzes like Harry Potter or Frozen trivia.

There are a lot of fun overlaps – like cooking and language with “Spanish you Can Taste – Brownies in a Mug” or book discussions with a related craft, or social learning with dance (let’s learn to be kind and how to shake it off when others are not) or ways to learn academic skills in an interest zone, like American Football: Basic Principles and Math.

So, sifting through all of these class options took quite a while. But, to be fair, I did a pretty broad search. You could filter your options more with a  much tighter search, like setting the filters to one particular date, one particular category, and then adding a keyword to search for like “horses.”

What I looked at in more detail

These are just the first ~30 classes that caught my eye as possibly meeting my son’s interests and my needs for next week. They are not intended as recommendations of specific classes for YOUR kid… but it gives you a sense of what you might find.

What you can learn about each class

Each class listing includes a brief description, a more detailed description, information about class size, age range, schedule, and cost. You can also see how many students are already registered for the class. (I could see that I might sometimes decide that the current enrollment was already too big of a class for my son to do well with. Also, if there’s only one slot left, you know you need to sign up soon.) They list any needed supplies and any homework requirements. Some may require parental assistance or supervision (like a cooking class or a wood carving class.)

Each class page also has a teacher bio and reviews. On the class page, it will list reviews for that specific class. If you’d like to see other reviews of the teacher from other classes, click on their name.

Sorting through the information

So, the challenge with Outschool is there are SO MANY classes to sort through – it’s way more than I could hold in my head! I created an Excel spreadsheet of my own – typing the data into it was quite time consuming… it would be SO EASY for Outschool to create a program on their website that would do this for you, where you could basically click on an item to add it to your comparison table, and the website could auto-fill the class information into a comparison table where you could look at all your options side by side, and sort in various ways, like by date and time and cost and so on.

My spreadsheet had these columns: title, date, time, length of class session, class size, age range, cost, cost per hour calculation, type of class (I used my own categories – a little different than the Outschool categories), then my own quick vague summary of the class description and teacher bio, since these are quite lengthy, and supplies. I formatted it as a table so it’s easy to sort by date, by class name, by type, etc. Feel free to check it out:

Sample spreadsheet of Outschool classes

Registration

My goal for next week was to have my son try two classes a day each day. So, I chose ten classes to sign him up for. In general, that was very straightforward. It takes a minute or two to sign up, and you quickly get a confirmation email.

One of our choices, the Bey Blades class, had one space in it, but just as I went to sign up, it filled! But I requested another time and two days later, I had an email offering us a slot in a class a couple weeks from now. I signed up for one class (Ms. V’s Excellent Exploration…) but we were the first student to sign up, so I wasn’t sure if it would actually run or have enough kids in it to be fun. Then I realized it conflicted with Pokemon Escape room which he also would really enjoy, so we canceled Ms. V (you can cancel a class that’s more than a week away, or cancel a class within 24 hours of when you signed up for it), and we signed up for Pokemon Escape Room.

How were the classes?

I’ll let you know next week! Come back for more reviews. (You can like my page on Facebook or follow my blog by clicking on the links in the right hand sidebar – or at the bottom of the page on mobile devices.)

If you have experience with Outschool, feel free to comment!

If you would like to use this Outschool referral link, it is like a promo code that will give you a $20 credit when you first sign up on the platform.

More Resources

Coronavirus times have led to an unprecedented dependence on screen time, as our kids attend school and camps online, talk to friends and family online, watch movies for entertainment when not many other options are available. Are you wondering how to find a helpful balance? Check out my article on my other blog about screen time in coronavirus time.

Are you looking for ideas for easy, cheap, hands-on STEM learning – this blog has hundreds of ideas – just go to my Inventors of Tomorrow home page to see the topics covered. And on my resource page, you’ll find recommendations for STEM focused books, videos, apps, and subscription kits. If  you would like your child to attend an online class taught by me, you can find my Outschool classes on my profile page: https://outschool.com/teachers/Janelle-Durham.

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