Like thousands of educators and families, I became aware of Outschool during the global shift to distance learning. Prior to March 2020 I was not familiar with online education options and only through engaging in distance learning with my class of once in-person students did I come to understand the possibilities for connection & exploration in the virtual space. Over the course of just a few weeks in March/ April 2020 Outschool added 40,000 new students and more than 1,000 teachers. While it is not clear what the numbers are at present (some sources list engagement in the millions), it is my understanding that many people share my experience and have made similar shifts- by transitioning their teaching practice to 100% independent online teaching and/or enrolling their children in virtual learning experiences as part of a homeschool experience or to supplement their school’s offerings. To me, the fact that there are so many people either engaging or having engaged with a platform like Outschool speaks to the notion that many people are seeking an educational experience that is more aligned with their values and unique interests.
Outschool provides learners ages 3-18 with innovative learning opportunities outside of the regular classroom. The site functions as an AirBnB-style marketplace and virtual school, providing families with access to thousands of live online classes offered by independent teachers. These classes take place in small-groups over live video chat with assignments and/or feedback between the live sessions. Families primarily use Outschool’s classes to provide children with opportunities to pursue interests that are not typically offered in school.
This interview with Amir Nathoo outlines his journey to founding Outschool. Amir holds a MEng in Electrical and Information Sciences, is a self-taught programmer and began working in the field of computer science in the early 2000’s. He describes his formative years as being a time that was balanced by academic focus and a myriad of self-selected extracurricular activities including aviation, rowing and ballroom dancing. In 2016 he launched Outschool with Nick Grandy (the first engineer at Airbnb and a product manager at another education startup) and Mikhail Seregine ( helped build Amazon Mechanical Turk and Google Consumer Surveys) guided by the beliefs that “Online learning is poised to play a much larger role in kids’ education. We see a future where in-person learning is enhanced by online learning to offer a breadth and depth of educational opportunities not possible today.” and “Rather than just using software in the classroom as a teaching tool, we’re looking to use it to transform the nature of the education system itself. We’re doing that by offering a new format for learning with a marketplace-based approach.”
Outschool’s core principles spark connections between the schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy and other Reggio-inspired schools. Outschool believes that “choice empowers learners” and this is demonstrated by the practice of families & learners choosing teachers and classes based on their needs and interests. Outschool promotes access and opportunity by providing learning opportunities beyond what is offered in a child’s local school or community; thus serving as a way to meet the interests of the child. Outschool is informed by the belief that social experiences enrich learning and encourages learners and teachers to participate/ design classes that are collaborative in nature.
Outschool and the schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy were born from times and in places experiencing notable social, political and cultural shifts. Both are rooted in innovation and demonstrate an ongoing commitment to reimagining traditional educational approaches in ways that evolve to meet the needs of children and families. Reggio and Reggio-inspired schools are “based on an image of children as curious, competent, and capable of co-constructing knowledge” and this is evident in the physical environment, documentation materials and myriad of professional development opportunities nurtured by the schools. Outschool shares the Reggio-informed beliefs that children should be given choice in their educational experiences and that social connection & community are valuable parts of the learning experience.
Online learning in general continues to be met with criticism by some, primarily those who are cautioning parents against enrolling young children in online learning that does not include social components. Outschool founder Amir Nathoo responds to this by stating “It’s not enough for kids to just read [class] content,” says Nathoo, whose parents were both teachers. “They need the shared accountability. They need the interaction and engagement that they get from their peers.” Critics also point out the lack of equitable access to online learning opportunities (I see this reality as well and plan to visit it in a later post). To address this, Outschool offers financial assistance and recently launched a grant program through their non-profit arm Outschool.org that is geared towards providing greater access to the platform for families, schools & nonprofits. This approach is guided by questions of how to provide equal opportunity for education and as stated by the Executive Director of Outschool.org Justin Dent, “How do we want our children to be educated? Do we really want to settle for a society where something as arbitrary as a zip code wields so much power?”
Outschool promotes and cultivates a greater understanding of human and civil rights by connecting people from many backgrounds in real time. Nathoo states, “The most inspiring moments for us come when we see learners join a class from diverse locations like California, Georgia, Utah, Ohio, Canada, Russia and Australia. They learn with each other and explore a shared interest led by a passionate teacher. In the current political environment, connecting learners from different backgrounds, cultures and views seems more important than ever. Luckily for us, we see this everyday.”
I think Outschool’s roots in innovation, accessibility and community have it poised to continue to grow into a global learning space that will continue to attract educators and learners while making the world feel a bit closer. The platform changed the course of my career and I am incredibly grateful for all of the opportunities it offers.