School of Everything: eBay for knowledge

Last night, I attended the launch of School of Everything, a new web service that acts as a kind of eBay for people who have something to teach. Potential teachers list their areas of expertise (anything from knitting to programming to driving to yoga to TIG-welding to whatever) and potential students find teachers with a simple search that can be geography bounded (for in-person instruction) or not (for online instruction). It's one of those great, simple, smart ideas that make you want to smack your head and say, "Why didn't I think of that?"

The site is admirably simple, but has the elements that you'd expect from a thoughtful consideration of similar buyer-seller connection services like Etsy and eBay: reviews, pushpin maps, and a notification service that'll send you an email if an instructor shows up in your area willing to teach you something you've expressed an interest in learning. The site makes money by skimming a small transaction fee for people who arrange payment through the service -- everything else is free.

The thing that struck me as I watched the launch was that this is the kind of thing I mean when I give lectures about "profiting from the information economy." Historically, the "information economy" has been assumed to be about reducing the supply of information so that only paying customers get it, and only on the terms that they pay for -- for example, the record companies would like an Internet where the only music that's available costs money, and once you buy the music, you can't sell it again or give it away.

But School of Everything turns this on its head. The economic proposition is simple: you know something I want you to show me, and School of Everything will make it easy for us to meet and transact commerce to make this happen. It doesn't depend on no one else being willing to do this for free, nor does it control what you do with the information once you learn it. Indeed, this is a service that benefits from the wider spreading of information: the more information there is about knitting, the more knitters there are, the more knitters there will be clamouring to learn knitting from an expert retained for this purpose. A knitting teacher doesn't want you to hoard what you learn: she wants you to tell everyone about it.

Furthermore, it creates opportunities for commerce from people whose skills have historically been undervalued: for example, new immigrants who are native speakers of languages that you're trying to learn have something valuable in their fluency with colloquial, conversational speech in some other language. But this very fluency has been an historic economic handicap, because it often accompanies a lack of fluency in English. By eliminating the cost of connecting language-learners with native language-speakers, the handicap is turned into an advantage.

The service is only available in the UK now, but the plan is to spread it around the world. Now I just need to find something I want to learn and give it a spin. School of Everything

(Disclosure: My wife works for Channel 4, one of the investment partners in School of Everything)

25

  1. Thanks for coming along last night Cory, really glad you like the site.

    Although we’ve been focussing on the UK up to now, the site actually works from anywhere in the world. It’s the School of Everywhere!

  2. Thanks for coming along last night Cory, really glad you like the site.

    Although we’ve been focussing on the UK up to now, the site actually works from anywhere in the world. It’s the School of Everywhere!

  3. By eliminating the cost of connecting language-learners with native language-speakers, the handicap is turned into an advantage.

    While I think the skill-share / trade approach sounds great – I’d say that this would tend to compliment professional services/business as much as change the existing dynamic (like ebay).

  4. Thanks for posting about this Cory; have just set myself up as a private tutor and have been looking for ways to reach people – the site looks amazing, really simple to set up an account and very user-friendly for all concerned.

  5. This sounds cute BUT Wikipedia has shown that the cost of knowledge is being driven towards zero. Most teachers aren’t in it for the money, and money will taint the process. Scientific and medical journals are slowly becoming free where the cost of production is being shifted to the authors. If you institute some sort of “teacher rating” system analogous to the seller’s rating on Ebay, it will become too subjective, like uh… rate my professor? Google gave up on the pay for knowledge idea with Google.Answers, before Yahoo’s version took off WITHOUT a fee driven concept. But Yahoo.Answers is largely crap. It’s just too difficult to assess the quality of the “teachers”. Would you attend a school that allowed anyone to teach without accreditation let alone pay money for it?

  6. Hmm, I signed up and found the site an interesting idea… But it lacks a feature I was assuming it had when I looked at the tour. You can`t just browse the map. There is a “near you” option, that apparently shows teachers within some distance of you – but I have no idea how near or far.

    When you do a search for something specific, you can browse the map. Why not just allow random map browsing? There are a lot of things I am interested in, and quite a few things I am sure I`d be tempted to have someone teach me if I saw the option available… I also split living time between two locations, so would like to be able to check the vicinity of both – something that “near you” clearly doesn`t address.

  7. I was talked up by one of the SpongeFish crew before their site launched last year…and flopped, apparently. It was supposed to be the exact same type of you-teach-me i’ll-teach-you knowledge broker, but rapidly devolved into yet another video sharing site and then an irrelevant SEO farm. I certainly hope this new site doesn’t follow in these footsteps!

  8. Congrats to School of Everything for the launch and nice post Cory.

    We launched mindbites.com last year with a similar goal, that of connecting people to share knowledge and earn money for themselves or charity. Our focus is slightly different however, allowing users to sell video instructionals online, vs. aiding the connecting of people in the physical world. What we have found is that people do indeed thirst for sharing and learning very targeted and specific knowledge from things such as Sewing a Pillowcase Dress, to How to Sign with your Baby, to How to Buy a Used Treadmill.

    I’ve got to respectfully disagree with dejamuse on a few points: 1. Starting a business is a hard and noble cause, please respect these guys blood and tears and don’t call it “cute”, 2. Talk with the people who make their living teaching others, they do indeed care about making money, and 3. While I wholeheartedly agree that the market for knowledge online is still sorting out, it is way too premature to say that all knowledge is going to be free. Just look at Kindle, the sales of books and magazines, and even Chris Anderson’s new book.

    Congrats again SOE. Would love to meet sometime and compare notes.

  9. also check out, in a very similar vein, supercoolschool.com.
    they offer classes for browsing, the abilty to request a class, and the ability to offer to teach
    I recently heard a presentation from them at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.
    (they are also on Facebook, apparently)

  10. A site called TeachStreet launched here in Seattle and Portland and creates localized directories of teachers and classes. Sort of like a Yelp for local learning. It’s an incredibly simple idea but done very well.

  11. Thanks for the feedback everybody – and hello again supercoolschool and teachstreet! ;-)

    Porori – thanks, that’s useful feedback, I’ve added a bit of explanation and a couple of useful links on the ‘Near you’ page that may help , but we’ll have a think about how to make the geographic browse/search more usable and work in different locations too.

    On the free/money issue, we actually started out wanting to help people share knowledge and learn from their peers for free, but we quickly realised the importance of helping people make a living doing what they love. When you sign up to teach and learn now, you can say whether you’re looking for financial transactions, skills-swapping, helping people or just meeting people, so hopefully all the different types of transaction can co-exist and benefit each other. We’ll see how this evolves for our community and for other sites.

    The key thing for us now is to give people all the information they need to find each other and make informed decisions. And on that note – back to work!

  12. I recently visited a related school in Los Angeles:

    “The Public School is a school with no curriculum, located underneath TELIC Arts Exchange. The Public School is an open structure, or maybe a stage, on which ideas about school perform new realities. At the moment, it operates as follows: first, classes are proposed by the public (I want to learn this or I want to teach this); then, people have the opportunity to sign up for the classes (I also want to learn that); finally, when enough people have expressed interest, the school finds a teacher and offers the class to those who signed up.” (http://thepublicschool.org)

  13. This is a very interesting discussion. I noticed jreneau’s post about mindbites.com and wanted to add my two cents into the discussion. I am a MindBites author (teacher) and I love this website. I’ll give you a bit of my background and why I am now a part of the online teaching world. I am a certified teacher and after I had my daughter I wanted to find a way to stay at home with her. However, the reality of life is that I had to still make some kind of living to pay the bills. So I created my company, My Smart Hands (baby sign language classes). I posted a video on YouTube of my daughter signing to show the world what babies are capable of and to encourage people to sign with their children and ultimately sign up for one of my classes :-) What I quickly learned from posting on You Tube was that there is a huge interest in baby sign language (my first video has over 450,000 views: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7gSZfW4gVhI ) but the majority of people watching my video didn’t live in an area where they could take one of my classes.

    This is where mindbites.com comes in. I was receiving hundreds of people a week asking for advice on how to sign with their babies. I would spend time answering them but it was hard to describe what to do in an email as sign language is a very visual language. So I decided to offer short instructional videos on mindbites.com This is a place that offers videos for $1.99 to the public and shares the sale with the author (teacher) 50/50. It is a great deal for people wanting to learn something and a great way for me to teach people that I wouldn’t normally reach. It has been huge success for me and in fact it has allowed me more time at home with my daughter because I can easily work at home around her sleep time.

    Here is an example of my first video:
    How To Sign With Your Baby
    http://www.mindbites.com/lesson/145-how-to-sign-with-your-baby

    Laura, Founder of My Smart Hands

  14. What a cool idea! I can think of lots of things that I might be inclined to use it for. Like my husband and I are starting to learn Japanese, and while we can get the basics from software and books and such, when we get a little farther along, having a real person to help us would be a big help.

    The only thing that I wonder about the site is how the teacher’s qualifications are shown. I worry about paying up front for something as subjective as teaching. It’s not like ebay where an item either arrives or it doesn’t, is what it was listed as or not. If a seller doesn’t ship an item or misleads about it, I can file a Paypal claim and get my money back. How would someone prove that their teacher didn’t teach them adaquately? Whether or not you learned what you wanted is a bit harder to quantify and prove. Not just as a student, but as a teacher. I don’t know what would prevent students who just didn’t pick up a skill as easily as they’d hoped from giving bad feedback to a qualified teacher.

  15. It didn’t make me want to smack myself upside the head because I’ve had the exact idea now for several years. The difference between School of Everything and my idea, 2Know, is that my idea was mainly a web-based iteration using desk-top sharing and conferencing technology like Web Ex, and like Ebay, it would have include elements common to an online market giving one the ability to compare pricing among various vendors all at once.

    I would have wanted learning/teaching captured and archived and the resulting archive to form a video version of eHow. Additionally, I would have ad-sponsored the archive and split the resulting revenue equally between teacher and learner. This would’ve been meant to give an incentive to get people to use the service to learn various things as they might have expected an eventual payback.

    In addition to imagining this idea as a web based service, I also imagined it to be of service to help people with micro-problems. Suppose you need to format a text document in a certain way, or you need to figure out some aspect of a program. Instead of banging your head against a wall for two hours (as often happens when you’re trying to figure out programming/computer related things), hire someone by the minute from anywhere in the world.

    How would you know that such a person was qualified? Well, you would be able to see samples of their past work, and, of course user rating. If they had the answer you were looking for and you were satisfied with their work, you would save them in your favorites.

    Suppose, however, that the person contracted determined that they were not going to be able to help you. They could then refer you to someone they knew who might. Thus, 2Know would have comprised a set of meta knowledge which could be described as knowledge about (those who have) knowledge.

    There are also strong social networking possibilities with such an idea

    Maybe these are ideas SOE can incorporate later, or, perhaps they are ideas they have already thought of. In any case, I hope that the school of everything does well.

    The more one really thinks about the possibilities of this idea, the more one realizes that, properly implemented, it could profoundly improve the world.

  16. Very intriguing — I’ll have to check this out deeper. I’m an advocate for video tutorials/screencasting and would like to expand upon that in the future.

  17. Torley,

    Are you involved with School of Everything? If so, has no one bandied about the idea of making this web-based, more or less?

  18. Well – I’m a big supporter of life-long learning (an idea that a lot of public and local government organisations also seem keen to promote).

    Of course, it’s important that people who have spent time studying in order to _teach_ a vocation are paid. However, I think promotion of the idea that hobbyists and enthusiasts should charge for their services is very poor.

    Recently I’ve been using the internet to develop my latest hobby, electronics hacking. Much of my learning has been dependant on the generosity of people who are more knowledgeable that I am. I’ve accepted the knowledge and guidance that I’ve been given, with a tacit assumption that I will go on to help others in the same way. I’ve been astounded by just how much support and advice people are willing to give. No money has changed hands – it’s heartening to think that people are still able to help people without wanted something in return.

    I believe that education should be free and that knowledge should be shared freely. Having highly-developed skills and knowledge doesn’t make a person a good teacher, especially if getting paid is a motivation.

    Sorry if I sound a bit down about this concept… but there’s only so much ‘social-networks-can-change-your-life’ a person can take without becoming a little critical. Education is already being re-invented; and this revolution is occurring all over the internet. My main hope is that this revolution is not monetised; school-of-everything seems a little bit like a shop.

  19. Thanks for this post and please keep updating. What an interesting concept! I have a lot of reading on this before I can properly weigh in, but I’m excited about the idea. I’ll pick my 10th grader’s brains about it tomorrow.

  20. Lukus, it IS a shop, where an honest exchange of skills and time can take place.

    Is it wrong to pay a tutor for catch-up lessons? Or a yogi to teach yoga? Not everything is free, people are surely allowed to make an honest buck off their talents?

  21. Arkizzle, if teaching is a person’s vocation, then I think that they should be paid.

    Teaching another person, without expecting financial gain, is a precious and positive concept. I don’t want this to change.

  22. This model for learning might be something. Think of it: an endless supply of educational resources and styles.

    What if the future of education is about teachers taking on roles more like traffic cops- pointing students toward and guiding them through flows of information that best facilitate learning?
    Well, it’s an interesting thought.

  23. Lukus, the internet and RL are full of people willing to help people out with learning stuff and offering suggestions and advice about almost anything.

    On the other hand, this site seems to provide a space in which a person might get one-to-one, focused tutoring. It is not the same thing as a friendly chat online. If someone willingly gives their time, at arranged intervals and to a requested degree of expertise, with a structured program, maybe the person should be reimbursed for their time.

    Are you suggesting that only ‘official’ working teachers should be paid for teaching? Should I not be a free-lance teacher if I have the skills to be so? Should I only do so if I have an RL parallel-career?

Comments are closed.