Outschool – A Review

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Note: This review combines my experiences as a parent (my 9 year old has taken 33 classes on Outschool with 30 different teachers) and as a teacher (I’ve taught 7 classes on Outschool) and includes insights I’ve gained by following Facebook pages about Outschool for both parents and teachers. I have intentionally combined these two sides into one review, because I think it’s interesting for parents to see the teachers’ perspective, and vice versa.

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.”

Many of the original users of Zoom were families that home schooled by choice, and were looking for classes to supplement their academics, and also looking for social interaction for their kids. Since coronavirus, Zoom has grown incredibly quickly. It still offers a wide variety of classes – there are thousands of options! Some are pure academic subjects – a semester long writing class, or reading comprehension. Some are classes in art or music. Some are social clubs where kids draw comics, play video games together, or talk about their fandoms. Many are a combination of the two: a creative writing class with a Pokemon theme, or writing persuasive essays to free Hagrid from expulsion from Hogwarts, or math facts in a Mission Impossible escape room. In the best classes, teachers are able to combine teaching solid skills with something they’re passionate about and they can geek out with the kids while teaching.

Classes are held on Zoom a video teleconference site. You sign up online, and get an email with a link. When time comes for the class, you sign in and join the teacher and other students on the call. They can all see and hear each other and talk in real time. Teachers can share videos, do demos, lead discussions, facilitate show-and-tell, and integrate interactive games, sometimes using other apps. Some classes are more formal – following classroom rules for raising hands. Others are more free-for-all.

Class size varies between 2 – 18 students. Most of the classes we’ve taken have been 4 – 8 students, because I’m seeking social interaction for my son. That’s why he’s taking classes.

In terms of schedule: They have one-time classes, on-going classes that are open-ended – your child attends every week for as long as they want, and multi-day classes/camps where you commit up front. They also have asynchronous “flex” classes where kids may watch a video, then turn in homework. These don’t interest me, so we have not participated in any. Classes are taught at all hours of the day and night and weekends. (Note: the website converts class times to match your local time, so if it says noon Thursday for my son in the Pacific time zone, our teacher might be teaching at 3 pm in New Jersey, and for another student it’s 7:00 am on Friday in Sydney.)

The cost of the class is set by the teacher. Outschool recommends $12 per hour of class, so a 45 minute class would be $9. But I’ve paid everywhere from $6 to $18 per session, for classes ranging from 25 – 60 minutes long. Some teachers also offer private tutoring – often for less than local in-person tutors. Academic classes that require specialized knowledge for the teacher tend to cost more than the social classes any hobbyist can teach. 70% of the fee goes to the teacher, 30% to Outschool.

Outschool teachers are not required to have specific teaching credentials. Outschool “believes that many adults can offer rewarding classes based on their experience and interests.”) There are some great options on Outschool, where you can take an opera class taught by an opera singer, or learn about Native American culture from indigenous teachers, or take a class about Disney lore from someone whose “day job” is teaching math, but their passion is Disney.

Here is Outschool’s video overview of their programs.

What We’ve Loved About Outschool

As a parent

We have not used Outschool for academic classes – we took the summer off from academics, and in the fall, he’s enrolled in online public school for all his academics. We use it for fun. My son has taken some classes that I hoped would be fun AND provide a learning experience – like a beginner vocal workshop, a conversation skills class where they talked about Dav Pilkey books. But mostly, he’s done classes where he can talk about and/or play favorite games, like Dungeons and Dragons, Among Us, Minecraft, and Pokemon Go.

My son is effectively an only child (his older brother and sister are adults who live elsewhere), and with coronavirus, he’s been mostly home for months now. Outschool offers him a chance to hang out with other kids and a new adult. And they’re other kids and an adult who share the exact same passions he does. They can go on and on about grass type Pokemon in the Galar region! They talk, they play, he laughs a lot. For me, to be honest, it’s a relief to have him talk to someone else about these things, so I don’t have to hear anything more about Among Us for that hour!

He practices his social skills. (And when he’s not doing well, I can make him mute himself till he can be nice again.) I know there’s an adult keeping an eye on things, making sure the kids stay reasonably appropriate with each other. My son is autistic, and can have challenging behaviors, so this is reassuring to me. (Note: there are lots of social skill based classes specifically aimed at kids on the spectrum. We haven’t tried them, but I do look for teachers whose bios or class descriptions give me a sense that they could work well with my son.)

We’ve sometimes plan out our Outschool classes in advance… like one week his “summer camp” was 10 Outschool sessions (2 each day) with related activities that I planned for between classes. And sometimes we’ve just spontaneously decided to enroll him in something when my husband and I decided to spend a Saturday cleaning the garage, and needed something to entertain him, or last week, when as a reward for completing a school project, I went online at 3:28 and discovered there was a Smash Bros class at 3:30 he could jump into and play. I really appreciate that flexibility.

He’s taken a couple classes where the teacher was truly excellent at engaging the kids. Not only talking them through the game they were playing, but also providing really good coaching in problem-solving, conflict resolution, and more.

More Benefits

Other benefits include: Having access to unique classes and expertise that may not be available where you are. Having diverse teachers and students – people of all races, genders, ages connecting from various parts of the world over shared interests or challenges. For preschool age kids who aren’t able to do in-person preschool, well-run online classes can provide a good first introduction to classroom manners and early learning. And, of course, the sheer fact that your child can have a fun, engaging learning experience at any hour from the comfort of your own home rather than just vegging out on the couch in front of the TV.

As a teacher

I love being in complete control of my teaching – I choose what I want to teach, when I want to teach it, how much to offer, and how many kids to take. You can schedule out your Thursday mornings months in advance, or you can toss something on the schedule for a Sunday morning a couple days from now and see if kids sign up. I really love teaching and miss it over the summer, so I really enjoyed having some chances to meet some new kids online and have fun teaching them. I taught mostly one-time classes, with one 3 session class, so I didn’t have much chance to build a relationship with the kids, but I can still get to a good rapport very quickly.

I teach science to 3 – 6 year olds. I take only small groups – a maximum of 7. Their parents are generally seated nearby (they need to be off camera) and the kids all have their cameras on and talk with me. I try to be really interactive – asking them questions, having them share their ideas. I give parents a link to a blog post with ideas of lots of follow-up activities they can do if they choose. For me, it’s fun to spread hands-on, interactive science learning to families who may or may not have access to it otherwise.

Potential Problems with Outschool

Maybe it’s not fair to say some of these are problems… some of them are the nature of the system. So I think it’s really important for parents to know more about how things work.

Marketplace

Outschool is an online marketplace. Just like Etsy, Amazon, or ebay. Their role is to connect seller and buyer. (i.e. teacher and student) The joy of all these online marketplaces is they give you easy access at relatively low cost to resources that you might not have available in your community. And there are lots of fabulous products being sold by reputable people. However, it’s also a little bit of a Wild West. We have not had a bad class experience. Most of our classes were good to excellent, but some have been pretty mediocre. It’s not a big loss… $10 and 45 minutes of my kid’s day is the most that’s at risk. But I still want to increase the chance of him having a good class.

If you want to have a good experience, it’s really up to you to do your homework – just like on all those other marketplaces, really be sure you read the details of the product description (class description), read the reviews of the seller (the teacher), and read the reviews of the specific product (class) that you are considering.

Teacher Quality

There are SO MANY teachers offering SO MANY classes (thousands!!!) that there is minimal oversight on quality. All the teachers are background checked. And there are decent security protocols in place – learn about this from the parents‘ point of view and the teachers‘.

However, the process to apply is very easy. You just write a brief application and make an introductory video. Many people are approved within a couple hours of submitting the application. Some get rejected two or three times, but just make slight adjustments to their application and are approved – it is unclear to those who have gone through the process whether there was rigorous evaluation of the applications, or more the whim of the reviewer. There’s no interview… no mock teaching sessions before being hired. Just the application.

Also, there is a teacher referral program where teachers get $200 if they refer other teachers, so there’s a big motivation to get more people signed up quick. (If anyone offers to “help you with your application”, this could be part of their motivation. That’s fine, but you should know this.) Some of those new teachers are primarily motivated by the earning potential. (Check out all the YouTube videos on how to maximize your income on Outschool, and I can tell you it’s a frequent topic of discussion amongst teachers. Some of the methods are minimizing prep time and down time between classes, and maximizing enrollment.) Teachers also create a LOT of new classes very quickly – many get inspired by an idea and knock out a class description and send it in. The first class you submit can take a week to get approved. But after that, you can receive an approval for a new class minutes after submitting the application, which makes me wonder how much attention is given to it. But, then again, classes can also be rejected for seemingly small reasons, then easily accepted when re-submitted. So, as I said, not a lot of oversight – there’s simply too many teachers and classes for there to be the sort of thorough evaluations that you as a parent might hope for.

I want to be really clear – there are lots of AMAZING teachers on Outschool who are passionate about teaching and love helping your children succeed! I just want you to be aware there are others who really aren’t that great. Read their bios, watch their intro videos and use your judgment. Note: some of the mediocre teachers have advanced degrees. Some of the best teachers have no degree. Some of the mediocre teachers may have 100 reviews. Some of the best teachers are new to the system (though not new to teaching) and don’t have any reviews yet. Give them a chance! Personally, I would always choose to do a one-time class with a teacher before committing to a multi-session class. If you find a teacher you like, the system makes it easy for you to find their other classes, to “follow” them so you know when they add a new class, and to request a new class from them.

Class Quality

As above, read reviews. But also, be sure to read the class description so you know what to expect. Many times when a parent is disappointed in a class, you’ll see that they didn’t actually read the class description. For example, they’ll say “I didn’t know my kid needed supplies” when the class description makes clear that they do. There are some classes that might be great at meeting other learner’s goals, but aren’t a good match for your family. And if you take a mediocre class, then review it, but also give the teacher private feedback on how they could do better the next time.

Another note: if you’re hoping for a really interactive class for your child’s social development… the general trend is that in classes for young learners (under age 8 or so), most of the kids are camera on and talking with each other. I hear that in classes for teens, most of them have their cameras turned off and are mostly muted, so it can feel like a meeting full of blank squares. Be sure to read reviews for that teacher and that class to see what they say about how they engage learners.

Note, parents are not allowed to appear on camera on Outschool for internet safety reasons. But you can listen in. And, ALL classes are recorded, so if you ever want to check up later on what happened in a class, you can. Many teachers make the recordings available automatically. If they do not, you can request it.

Sorting through the Options

There are THOUSANDS of classes. That is an advantage in that almost any class you can imagine is available. And it’s a disadvantage because it’s incredibly overwhelming to sort through them all. The search feature helps, but it could be so much better. Outschool could learn a lot from other online shopping sites – for example, I want to be able to set more parameters and eliminate things from consideration. (i.e. don’t show me sessions that are less than 40 minutes long… don’t show me classes that allow more than 9 students, don’t show me classes that are taught by organizations rather than individuals.)

Internet / Technology Challenges

So, for an online class to work well, it really helps to have a good device (laptops and tablets are better because their screens are larger, but phones can work), with good sound/speakers so your child can hear, and a good mic so your child can be heard, and an internet signal that works. I have a tutorial here on how to improve all these things. You also need to know how to use Zoom, and be sure your child has the basic skills like muting and un-muting, chat, and being able to switch between gallery and speaker view if they want to. Don’t wait till the class you paid for starts to test all this! Practice Zoom before your first class. You can do a free Zoom test at any time. Learn the basics of Zoom and how to test it out. And if you have a young child, have reasonable expectations for what “being engaged” in class might look like. I don’t expect most three year olds to sit perfectly still and attentive for 30 minutes. It’s OK if they wander around a bit, wiggle, snack, and so on. Here are tips for helping a young child succeed at online learning.

Also, your teacher’s internet needs to work well, and they need to have good cameras and good mics. There have definitely been classes my son has been in where the teacher’s Zoom skills and Zoom set-up were not optimal. There were also challenges this summer, where maybe your student is in Washington state, but their teacher was affected by a power outage in Iowa, or a hurricane in Louisiana or a wildfire evacuation in California, or just everyday failures of internet signals. Also, since most teachers are teaching from home, you may encounter things like their dogs or their kids disrupting class. (I teach with my nine year old at home, and yes, he has disturbed my classes a few times. But I was amazed to discover some teachers teach with their babies in a bouncy seat just off screen!) If it’s bad enough, the teacher may give a refund, or you can use the Outschool Happiness Guarantee for a refund.

For Potential Teachers to Consider

I’ve had a good experience teaching for Outschool. But here are concerns that I have seen raised on the Facebook groups:

  • Zoom Challenges. This can be a challenge if you’re new to it. I work in non-profits and with social service providers and educators, and they tend not to be very tech minded, so I created a set of Zoom tutorials you may find helpful. There’s one that has tips for improving your internet signal to reduce freezing.
  • Hard to Get Noticed. There are thousands of teachers and at least 15,000 different classes. Even if you’re offering great stuff and getting great reviews, it could be hard for families to find you. Some people are really discouraged when they post classes and get no response. I’d encourage you to expect this and be pleasantly surprised if it goes better than that.
  • Class cancellations and unpredictable income. If your classes don’t reach their minimum enrollments, they can be cancelled 24 hours before class. (Note: some teachers will un-cancel and have had good luck getting last minute students) This summer, I had a third of my classes cancelled due to low enrollment. This was fine for me, because I was teaching just for the fun of it, but it is very stressful for teachers who gave up a brick and mortar teaching job and hoped to make a full income on Outschool because someone on the internet told them they could. (Note: some people do, for sure… but there’s no guarantee of it!) Also, sometimes teachers will have lots of students signed up for an on-going class and they think their income will be fine, and then all the kids cancel… not due to anything the teacher did wrong, but for all their own random reasons.
  • Inappropriate Kids. Like any classroom, you may have inappropriate behaviors and you’ll have to use your classroom management skills. There are new challenges – inappropriate chats or screen sharing, but also new tools – the mute button, the “send to waiting room” option…
  • Inappropriate Parents. Parents are supposed to be off screen, but apparently some parents sit in on classes, interrupt, etc. Or some parents make a lot of noise in the background, unaware of their impact on class. I’ve not had this, but it’s a semi common complaint.
  • Age range issues. You set age ranges for classes, but some parents choose to ignore them. So, you might have a class for 9 – 12 year olds that has a 6 year old enrolled, which is awkward for everyone. (You can email that parent in advance and counsel them out if you choose.)
  • Extra Kids. Parents are supposed to pay separately for every child who attends. There seem to be frequent cases where they paid for one kid, and a couple kids are listening in. In my heart of hearts, I don’t mind because I’m happy to have any kid in my class. But, if I had this happen, I would enforce this rule.
  • Radio Silence. Many teachers began teaching in the first place because they are extroverts and want to interact with people. If you’re teaching online classes to teens, know that many of them go camera off and silent for class, and you can feel disconnected from them.
  • Plagiarism. There are definitely reports of people feeling like their class description got copied word for word by someone else. Some people fear that some of those blank screens may have been other teachers listening in to steal ideas. I have no personal experience with this, but it’s worth commenting upon.
  • Reviews. After every class, parents are invited to review you. Many teachers take their reviews very personally, getting really upset about anything less than five stars, or any critical comments. I would encourage anyone who chooses to teach in this venue to remember: not all reviews will be five stars. (For me as a parent, I’m going to give you four stars if you did a really solid class… you only get five stars for an EXCELLENT class.) Try not to take critical comments as a sign of failure on your part or irrational expectations on the parents’ part, but as insight into an aspect of your class that you need to reflect on and think about if / how you want to change it.

For a more detailed review on teaching for Outschool, look here.

Summary

Overall, as a parent, I love Outschool. I love that my kid can hang out with other kids for an hour and talk about video games and laugh and learn. When I run out of other ways to relieve the monotony of quarantine, I love that we have this outlet. As a teacher, I love that it lets me connect to students around the world, and share great ideas for fun, easy, hands-on STEM learning. I think as long as you have reasonable expectations for it, and you understand how the system works, then you can have a great experience there. And even if you hit a mediocre class, it’s still just a few dollars lost, and likely a better experience than your kids being passive couch potatoes.

Discount

If you would like to use this Outschool referral link, it is basically an online coupon / promo code that will give you a $20 credit on your first class after you sign up on the platform. (I don’t get a kickback on this or anything, I just want you to know this is available.)

FYI… back in June, I wrote Outschool – A Review part one which has my initial impressions of Outschool before taking and teaching classes. You may also want read that post for more details.

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