When Craig Newmark started Craigslist, he didn’t intend to create a multi-million dollar media company. He certainly didn’t plan to kick local newspapers right in the classifieds.
His goal was much more modest than that. He wanted to create a kind of online noticeboard where San Francisco techies could let each other know about social events. The site picked up, companies used it to look for employees, and before you knew it Craigslist was offering everything from resumes and real estate to restaurant gear and old Renaults in 550 cities and 50 countries around the world. It was part-owned by eBay and newspapers were begging for mercy.
Not bad for a simply-designed website that began as free public listings and remains gratis for the vast majority of its users.
The same kind of community spirit drives School of Everything, a recently-launched educational service that aims to help the curious find people with knowledge to share. Anyone can join the site, complete a profile that describes their skills – whether those are guitar-playing, personal development or permaculture – and offer to teach people in their area, usually for a fee.
And if you can’t find a local teacher of spoken Sanskrit or Malaysian martial arts right away, you can create a learning profile and the site will notify you when one signs up.
Network Online to Learn Offline
That all sounds very straightforward but the principle behind School of Everything is much more ambitious. Under a section titled “The Big Idea,” the website characterizes the education system as being designed to prepare people for factory work and describes itself as trying to create a new bottom-up approach to teaching in which knowledge is shared in the community instead of being passed down by schools.
“At School of Everything, we believe that learning is personal, and starts not with what you ‘should’ learn but with what you’re interested in. So we’re building a tool to help anyone in the world learn everything, and teach anything, how and when [it] suits them – by putting people in touch with each other, not with institutions,” the website says.
The service itself was created by five friends in the UK who, in co-founder Dougald Hine’s words, were “policy wonks, community activists and Drupal geeks.” In their spare time, they edited an email magazine about DIY culture and used the Internet to organize local events.
“I’d been reading an amazing book from the seventies called ‘Deschooling
Society’ by a guy called Ivan Illich, [co-founder and CEO] Paul [Miller] was talking about experiments like the Free University in Palo Alto in the sixties, and we realized that you could use the Internet to organize those DIY learning networks on a massive scale,” Dougald told us in an email.
The friends rustled up funds from the Young Foundation then completed a £350,000 round of seed funding. They also picked up a New Statesman New Media Award and UK catalyst Award for their website and, more importantly, they’ve so far attracted around 6,500 students and 2,500 teachers who offer information on around 5,000 different subjects. The site is particularly popular with music teachers and driving instructors but languages, photography and crafts like gardening, cooking, knitting and sewing generate plenty of interest too.
With such a broad choice based on open access to anyone who thinks they have knowledge and believes they can teach, one issue is always going to be the quality of the teaching available. Students will soon be able to supply feedback on teachers, and organizations representing accredited teachers will be able to vouch for their members on the site. In the meantime, students will have to rely on their intuition and the teacher’s offer to gauge their seriousness and professionalism.
“We advise people to use the same kind of common sense they would when finding a teacher through a card in a shop window or a poster on a café noticeboard,” Dougald says. “You can usually tell quite a bit by how professionally someone presents themselves on the site — and it’s the teachers who put most effort into their profiles who get most interest from new students.”
Money though is likely to be more of an issue. The School of Everything now has eight full-time staff but no monetization system. It does however plan to offer paid services to businesses and organizations that want their own branded network within the school and to add an optional payment system for teachers from which it would take a small commission from each transfer.
Virtual Classes Offer Flexibility… and Brevity
That could be particularly useful for the 10 percent of teachers on the site who also offer online classes. Dougald himself seems ambivalent about this method of learning, linking the School of Everything with physical networking services like MeetUp and FreeCycle rather than distance learning schools.
“We built the site with offline learning in mind, because we like the idea of using the Internet to do new things in your local area, rather than spending more time in front of a screen,” he explains. “It’s what I call the “Why Don’t You?” web — that was a children’s TV show they used to have in the summer holidays in the UK — the full title was “Why Don’t You (Just Switch off Your Television Set and Go Out and Do Something Less Boring Instead)?”
But that doesn’t mean School of Everything is opposed to online learning, Dougald stresses, and notes that it’s particularly useful for language teaching. In fact, the site is about to launch a service that lets teachers and learners post materials they’ve found helpful, including videos, links, books and notes. They’ve also been experimenting with incorporating Skype Prime into the site so that learners and teachers located far from each other can communicate.
It would be ironic though if the convenience of online teaching meant that even local teachers and students preferred to chat online than meet in person. Stephanie Kable, a 30-year-old French teacher who now lives in Israel, has taught English and French to around fifty students online through Myngle and “a few hundred” through her own language sites www.Live-English.net and www.Live-French.net. Classes, at 30-45 minutes, are shorter online and more focused on results, she says, offer a flexible schedule and are more convenient when neither side needs to travel.
School of Everything might offer a raft of reasons to turn off the computer and kiss goodbye to the desk, but whether you want to teach or learn, it’s still often possible to do it all virtually.
If you see a profile from someone with an old Renault offering to teach you to drive online though, you might want to give it a miss.