Today in Tedium: Say what you will about the last two years, but it’s fascinating how quickly the future caught up with our immediate needs. We had to rebuild entire infrastructures, entire businesses, in the blink of an eye, and some were more successful at riding this unusual economic wave than others. (I repeatedly think how this never would have been possible even 10, 15 years earlier.) We haven’t really stepped back, as a society, and given these success stories their due. So, let’s do that. During the holiday break, I found myself chatting over Zoom with a founder of a company that three years ago was barely even digital in the sense that you might think of it—its approach was structured almost entirely around groups of people being in the same room. And in a matter of literal weeks, his company had to move the whole show onto webcams and chat rooms, and figure out a way to make it work. Somehow, they did—so well, in fact, that the business was acquired last year by a company that has always been digital. And I think the reason they pulled it off says a lot about the way we learn online. Today’s Tedium talks about One Day University, innovating on the fly, and the state of consumer-focused digital education. — Ernie @ Tedium
Today’s GIF is a small portion of the Big Bang Theory intro, which may be the most un-GIFable thing around. Maybe I’ll use another portion of it sometime.
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The year One Day University was founded. The general idea behind the concept was this: Put on events that bring together a variety of university professors that are known for popular courses and have them present that course to regular people at single-day events. The company evolved away from this model into something fully online during the early weeks of the pandemic.
What makes an expert an expert?
So, if you’ve been reading this newsletter for a decent amount of time, one thing you might have figured out is this: I watch a lot of YouTube. Part of the reason for this is that I’m always trying to learn new things, understand the subjects I cover, and get a feel for new perspectives and experiences. And YouTube, for all its faults, is an extremely easy way to do that that largely respects the creator.
But I have to be careful, because there’s no responsible programmer carefully curating what I see when I load up a YouTube page. I think really hard about how easily I could be led in the wrong direction with bad content. If I was watching a home improvement show on television, I would have no idea if Bob Vila was in the pocket of the company whose tools he was using, or if the point of view in front of me was somehow being politically manipulated. YouTube is that problem, multiplied by a few billion potential videos.
And so, as a defensive measure against bad information, I often curate what I watch within my history—I remove anything that pushes the YouTube algorithm in a direction I don’t feel like I can personally trust. If it takes me in a direction I want to go, I let it. But if it starts recommending to me polemics, I am quick to remove the things I viewed that led me to that unwanted place. You know what they say about filter bubbles, sure, but sometimes you need good curation to prevent bad information from passing through your feed.
In this context, One Day University represents an alternative to running wild with the algorithm. Steven Schragis, the founder and director of the platform (and fun trivia fact for magazine fans: the onetime publishing director of the legendary SPY magazine), built the platform with the idea that people who may be decades removed from their schooling might want to continue learning.
What’s the benefit of doing so through this service over just watching a bunch of YouTube videos? Well, as the name implies, actual professors lead the discussion, which means that there’s a certain level of curation and vetting to the overall result that you won’t get from a random guy telling you how to fix your refrigerator.
“If someone is the most popular professor at a university in the United States, that’s a certain level of vetting right there,” he says.
One Day University is not the only game in town on this front. And what’s interesting about its competition is that it often represents distinct ideological differences in thinking about how such a platform is built, rather than a series of copycats.
Apart from the aforementioned YouTube, where literally anyone with a camera and an idea for a channel can become a “teacher,” you have things like MasterClass, which is designed around the idea that celebrities have the experience to be good teachers. Want to learn from former president Bill Clinton, learn chess from Garry Kasparov, or get an electric guitar lesson from Tom Morello or Carlos Santana? That’s MasterClass for you.
Schragis admits that MasterClass, while something of a direct competitor, is good at the niche it’s in, even if the challenge they ultimately have is that the people that are teaching the classes are ultimately (very famous) first-time teachers.
“They work pretty hard to make these things good. And they’re aware that telling someone, ‘Okay now, teach,’ no experience teaching, is a problem,” he says. “And if they get a bad reputation for what they do, it’s gonna hurt the company.”
One Day University, by relying on popular educators, flips this model. Sure, a professor will likely not have the name recognition of Stephen Curry or Simone Biles. But on the other hand, they also know a lot about teaching a class.
“Our little niche, we are sort of lucky that if a professor at U of Michigan is about the most popular professor in the whole school, thousands of students keep wanting to take his or her classes, that tells me they know what they’re doing,” he says. “They don’t have to be coached.”
The number of years that One Day University was operating as a purely digital play at the time CuriosityStream, the popular streaming media company, acquired the company for an undisclosed amount. That’s right, the service wasn’t even a purely digital play two years ago—it was primarily an events business.
How the pandemic created a new path forward for One Day University
It’s strange to think how much could have gone wrong for One Day University had the economy played out even a little bit differently during that fateful period after the world shut down. Instead, honestly, a lot went right.
There was a real potential that this company, which was firing on all cylinders as a live events business, could have failed, costing a lot of talented people their jobs.
“March 2020 is about the biggest shift imaginable,” Schragis recalls. “Here we are in 61 cities across the country—live events, groups of professors, always exclusively having a newspaper in that city as our partner, in any given week five or six or seven events, moving around the country and betting on touring events and coordinating travel—and suddenly, March 2020, everything stops.”
In some ways, the sudden pivot and success of the new business model came in part from circumstance. Faced with the potential of shutting down for a few months in the early period when it was unclear whether COVID-19 would merely be a temporary disruption or a more permanent shift, it looked like a fairly tough spot to be in. (One shared by two analogues to the company’s model—the broader events space, and the broader education space.) But, like many companies, the U.S. government’s Paycheck Protection Program effectively offered a lifeline by discouraging small businesses from shutting their doors entirely.
By putting the company in a place where it was important to keep workers on the payroll, One Day University was suddenly given the white space to experiment with digital distribution, a medium it had only modestly dabbled into in the past. And honestly, the company flourished with that forced opportunity to take a step back and reset.
Working with employees that were already digitally adept, they saw opportunities to take existing technologies such as Zoom and adapt them to the needs of a lifelong learning model. And on the fly, the company was able to build a brand new model beyond in-person live events. And thanks to the fact that the company had put on nearly 15 years of events, it had a large list that it could email, informing of the new format, built around a monthly subscription model.
“The day we sent out that email, about 5,000 people became members,” he says. “So that was a really good day.”
Soon enough, it became tens of thousands of users, as word of mouth spread about this platform. It turns out that people like learning things in front of a laptop especially when there’s not much else they can do.
And the strange thing about this? The dynamic shift in model, despite all the headaches that led up to this fairly dramatic change, was actually a good fit for the company. For one thing, all the complexities of running an in-person event business suddenly disappeared.
“We sorta liked this. I personally love this,” he says. “I don’t miss being yelled at because the coffee is too cold or the line to the women’s room is too long. Or it was hard to park. We don’t miss having to rent huge auditoriums for a thousand people, flying professors around, the costs go way down.”
Of course, there were adjustments. Early on, there was a light bit of chaos because the model allowed all attendees to talk to the professors—which ultimately gave way to a more organized chat-driven approach, where the presenter talks for 45 minutes and people submit questions via chat for the last 15 minutes.
“There was about a six-week period where we figured out this concept,” he explains, noting that there was a learning-on-the-fly period where the company learned that the multi-professor approach it used during live events made less sense than having learners engage with a single professor. “We launched in April, but we really didn’t have our act together until May.”
Does he see his company moving back to live events? Sure, maybe, if it makes sense. As a New Yorker, he says that the time to come back to that setting will likely be once he can see the tourists come back to Broadway at scale. And despite the business benefits of doing everything with Zoom, it’s hard not to see an in-person One Day University take another bow once all is said and done.
“The live aspect of course has an excitement,” he says. “It’s different.”
But one gets the impression that a company built for a slightly earlier era of consumption was suddenly thrust into a brand new world, and it sort of worked out for them. They got acquired, after all. So perhaps they’re not in a rush.
My conversation with Schragis, the man whose company made an impressive pivot into a new world seemingly overnight, made me realize how tactical I often am with my own learning process. I generally am always researching things, but I’m often doing so in service of trying to fill out this newsletter, or report out a bigger story.
One Day University isn’t really built around that kind of tactical learning. It’s for people who like learning just because it’s learning, and want to do more of it.
As a result, the types of things the company tends to focus on include historic figures or things with a fairly broad appeal. (For example, a couple of upcoming sessions include “Albert Einstein: The Man Behind the Math” and “Beyond Chocolate and Vanilla: The Delicious History of Ice Cream.”) The people that are leading the classes are experts on the things they teach—they’re professors, after all—but the topics generally tend to be the types of things you learn about because you have a mental itch you hope to scratch, not because you’re hoping to become an ice cream expert.
But what’s really intriguing is the idea that, down the line, I might be in a position to learn just because I want to, not because I have to, because there’s some underlying structure that’s pushing me in the direction of filling my brain with fresh information.
“People reach a point different times in their life where they start to be interested in other things, just because it’s interesting.” Schragis says. “They go, ‘You know what, I never took that art course in college and I always wanted to, and now I can.’”
The ability to learn something just for the sake of learning it, because we didn’t know it existed previously, is something our world doesn’t encourage enough—at least not in a well-structured, thoughtful way.
In a world full of bad information, maybe nurturing that natural curiosity is a great way to get back to the good stuff.
Thanks to Steven Schragis for making the time to chat for this one. Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal!