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In America, college graduation is usually a momentous occasion, an initial step towards achieving various life goals. Possibilities of a bright, new future stretched ahead for the newly matriculated. But with skyrocketing tuition and the growing number of students graduating every year, ask what college graduation today and the immediate response will likely be… debt.
This was the impetus for Michael Karnjanaprakorn
to think about a new way of approaching learning. “When I was growing up, education was said to be the vehicle down a secret path that would unlock all successes in my life,” he recalls. “Then I noticed… Everything promised wasn’t happening.”
The fact that brought things full focus came by way of a Wall Street Journal article
. It alerted: “Consumers now owe more on their student loans than their credit cards.” At the time a whopping $826.5 billion versus $829.8 billion. The article further cited that an estimated $300 billion in federal student loan debts had been incurred in the prior four years.
“The other fact that really opened my eyes was that the default rates on these loans were really skyrocketing. They were the highest they’d ever been and showed no signs of ever slowing down. I began questioning the value of my college education,” says Karnjanaprakorn.
This information spurred conversations between Karnjanaprakorn and his friend Malcolm Ong. A post-college move to post-Katrina New Orleans with its 80 percent dropout rate had shown Karnjanaprakorn just how awry things could go with the education system. Karnjanaprakorn and Ong wondered – how could this problem be impacted? How could they make a change not only for those seeking a higher education, but for all stages of learning? Could the two friends start some sort of company that might reverse the trend?
Karnjanaprakorn describes what came next as a slow birthing process. The duo came up with the following three basic tenets upon which Skillshare
was founded. Make education accessible and affordable to everyone. Bring together a group of like-minded people. And finally, offer students the opportunity to learn what they wanted rather than what traditional education dictated they must learn.
To get the ball rolling, Karnjanaprakorn wrote several articles
about the education crisis, suggesting some collective actions/solutions. “I felt like colleges were being run as for profit institutions or corporations when they should be a basic right and accessible to every single person on this planet.”
The first big step towards affecting change came by way of a game of poker—the World Series of Poker, to be exact. On the table was several million dollars in prize money. Karnjanaprakorn set his sights on winning the jackpot, then donating the funds to several charities, including a charter school in New Orleans. The only problem? Karnjanaprakorn was not a poker player.
Hearing of Karnjanaprakorn aspirations, several professional poker players volunteered to show him the ropes. The result – Karnjanaprakorn came away from the tournament with $100,000 for his charities. Soon, a flood of people was requesting he share the poker secrets bestowed upon him. In the fall of 2010, Karnjanaprakorn set up an online workshop to field the requests and teach a class. This vehicle became the very answer he and Ong been searching for and ultimately, the emergence of Skillshare in April 2011. Taking their place at the helm as co-founders, CEO and CTO respectively, were Karnjanaprakorn and Ong.
The poker class was a hit. Still, getting people to wrap their minds around the model of Skillshare as an alternative to traditional education proved difficult. Typical questions the start-up faced: Wouldn’t students only want to attend a school that guaranteed an accredited degree? Why would students want to learn once they’d already graduated from a normal school? Why would anyone be interested in classes if they weren’t tied to getting a job?
“I’d underestimated just how difficult changing the status quo would be,” Karnjanaprakorn remembers. “With support from the community, we kept the ball moving forward one millimeter at a time.”
Other Internet companies revolving around education exploded onto the scene, changing the obstacles Skillshare faced. Says Karnjanaprakorn, “The shift moved from raising awareness around the problem to focusing on solutions.”
Since its inception, Skillshare has expanded from in-person community classes to include an Internet platform that provides accessibility to students around the globe. Class costs range from free to thousands of dollars with a “sweet spot” of about $20. Time-wise, classes range from a single hour to courses lasting a month. In keeping with teaching what students want to learn, the curriculum is eclectic, offering everything from sneaker design to programming, food photography to illustration.
“Success is less about a student getting a job and instead tied to learning skills they want to learn,” explains Karnjanaprakorn. “Classes are very project-based. Students come away with proof they have specific skills because of the work they created in the class.”
Students aren’t the only ones benefitting from Skillshare. “The majority of our teachers don’t teach at institutions and because of that they get really creative in how they want to teach,” says Karnjanaprakorn. “We’ve just had one teacher break $25,000 teaching a single class. In 2011, another instructor made $100,000 teaching fulltime through Skillshare.”
When it comes to the future of learning, Karnjanaprakorn projects explosive growth and innovation for how true education is done over the next 18 to 36 months. As for his hopes, those seem like worthwhile goals for the world at large.
“Lifelong learning,” says Karnjanaprakorn, as if making a wish, “Where people have fun learning in a social environment without the requirement of a huge time commitment.” Taking that dream one step further, he continues, “Then having that come full cycle, where people share and teach what they’ve just learned. That’s how society advances; how knowledge is passed from one generation to another. If that cycle happens, the world becomes better place.”