As the cost of education skyrockets in the U.S., online education is an increasingly appealing alternative to the traditional classroom. Everything from standardized test prep to undergraduate classes is being offered online. While some bemoan the fate of scholarly pursuit, the entrepreneur behind one education startup believes this is the shake-up academia needs.
Socratic co-founder Chris Pedregal says the educational system wasn’t designed with its end-users in mind. “Very little in the educational space is impacted by the questions students have,” he says, pointing out that this is the approach behind many tools students already use to find information, such as Google.
Socratic is an open-source platform that aims to get the best teachers—whether they’re teenagers in England or college professors in Kansas—in front of as many students as possible. “Teaching, up until now, has been a one-to-few network,” says Pedregal. “It is going to change to become a many-to-many network.
Socratic’s approach is a “just-in-time model,” whereby students access videos and forums to learn about specific concepts, such as the Periodic Table of Elements for a chemistry class. It is analogous to a person using Google to figure out how to boil an egg rather than enrolling in a cooking class. It might not be coincidental that Pedregal used to work at Google.
“We are not trying to replace school or a course,” says Pedregal, who co-founded Socratic with Shreyans Bhansali, an engineer who is passionate about applying crowdsourcing to education. “If you are a student who doesn’t understand a specific topic, we want to be the best place to teach you that specific topic.”
Courses like calculus are taught in five- to ten-minute, easily digestible videos. Teachers choose how to present their own content. Some use animation, others rely on two-camera shots, and one teacher opts for Google Glass. By pushing the most-watched and most-liked videos to the top of the page, Socratic also crowdsources the opinions of the students themselves. “Our goal is to become the best place to learn about any given topic in any given subject,” says Pedregal.
Socratic features a large YouTube video library, since video comes closest to evoking a live classroom, and because YouTube is the platform many instructors already chose for sharing lessons. But the site also offers forums and Q&A exchanges.
Pedegral declined to reveal how many users Socratic has, but hundreds have posted “thank you” notes on the most popular videos. “If we can put it on a page and it helps students learn, we will do it,” says Pedregal. He says Socratic’s mantra is “Make learning easier.”
Socratic avoids the so-called MOOC model of full-term, lecture-driven online courses, which sometimes enroll thousands of students only to see most drop out.
How will Socratic generate revenue? Pedregal is vague about that, pointing to business models like Duolingo and StackExchange, which offer crowdsourced content free to consumers. Duolingo, for example, makes money by charging companies for translations that users have provided for free.
For now, Socratic at least has an idea for how teachers will get paid. Instructors who opt in are compensated via YouTube advertisements, but so far it’s not enough to make the work very profitable. Socratic employee and YouTube chemistry teacher Tyler DeWitt says none of the popular YouTube teachers he knows are able to support themselves with the work yet, but he believes that day is coming.
Pedregal says that if Socratic is successful, that day will come soon. “Thousands of teachers are stepping up and creating really good teaching videos and putting them on the Internet, but they are not being brought together in a community. That is what we are trying to do.”