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With Outlier, MasterClass Co-Founder Aaron Rasmussen Brings Studio Production to Undergrad Online Courses

By Henry Kronk
August 18, 2019

Aaron Rasmussen, the co-founder of MasterClass, on August 13 announced the launch, a new high-quality online course initiative targeted at undergrads. MasterClass managed to sign on living legends like Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Aguilera, and Itzhak Perlman to create big production online how-tos on their fields of expertise. Instead of topics like acting, vocal performance, and short story writing, Outlier will deliver undergraduate college courses.

Debuting this fall semester, the program will offer Calculus I and Introduction to Psychology. The courses will have similar levels of production to the MasterClass offerings, and cost $400 per course. That price also gets students “access to 1-on-1 tutoring, AI-proctored assessments, dynamically-generated problem sets, and cutting-edge, active learning techniques,” according to the press release announcing the launch. The University of Pittsburgh has signed on to accredit the courses.

Outlier Is Live for the Fall Semester

While Outlier says their courses are transferable for credit, that may not be the case with each institution, and the onus falls on students to ensure that their Outlier course will be recognized.

eLearning Inside reached Aaron Rasmussen to learn more.

Henry Kronk: MasterClass was a really out-there idea—and that made it all the more amazing when such high-profile individuals agreed to participate. It seems to me that is much more conventional, at least by virtue of the fact that you’re offering a product that is already on the market at numerous different price- and quality points. Why did you decide to enter the online undergraduate course space?

Aaron Rasmussen: The idea for Outlier came to me in the year that I spent traveling after working on MasterClass. While in India, I was struck by the fact that so many people still don’t have access to quality education. And I reflected on this great blog post from Woody Flowers, a famous engineering professor at MIT, who pointed out some incredible statistics. I’ve updated his numbers since they’re a few years old, but it turns out that about 1 million students take Calculus I as a college course in the United States each year. On average, those courses cost about $2500. So Calculus I is a $2.5 billion industry. And 40% of those students fail!

His conclusion is that we should instead invest millions of dollars into making the best calculus course that we possibly can, in much the same way that a movie studio would invest over $100 million in a blockbuster.

In many ways, that’s what we’re doing with We want to make the most effective and engaging online courses that we possibly can, make sure that they earn students real, transferable college credit, and, because we’re able to bring those courses to students at scale, charge a fraction of the cost of a typical college course.

HK: The name ‘MasterClass’ makes sense to me as it describes the products the company offers. But Outlier … not so much. Are you a Malcolm Gladwell fan or does the name come from somewhere else?

AM: To me, Outlier represents something that’s a little outside the system but in a good way. When I was growing up, being an outsider was generally considered bad, but it really isn’t. This idea resonated with my team as well as the students that I lecture at USC, so the name stuck. 

Associate Professor Hannah Fry and Outlier founder Aaron Rasmussen film a scene for an Outlier Calculus I course.
Aaron Rasmussen and Associate Professor Hannah Fry.

HK: I’ve read previous coverage in which you discuss student debt and the average cost of Calculus courses—but there are less expensive and even free options for courses covering the same subject from prestigious universities available online. Why would learners want to pay $400 for an Outlier course over a free or cheaper option?

AM: People will pay for quality, and transferable credits, myself included. There is no shortage of options for students who are broadly interested in online education. But for anyone who wants to earn college credit that will transfer to high-quality schools, there are actually very few options available. And those that do exist generally charge the same price as a traditional residential college.

I would also argue that online education companies have not yet figured out how to create an educational experience that’s comparable to a high-quality in-person experience. At Outlier, we think that we’ve developed an approach that truly provides world-class education from a computer screen. We’re so confident in our approach, that is students do all of the work for a given course and don’t pass, we offer a full refund.

HK: The Calculus I course offers learners access to three different courses. They all go over the same principles, but they’re taught by three different instructors with three different teaching styles. How did you arrive at that decision? Is there any learning science behind the feature?

AM: This idea came directly from talking with students about the way they actually learn calculus. Specifically, a group of high school students asked if I knew that they spent most of their time searching YouTube for an explanation that “makes sense to me.” Once I started asking college students about it as well, they loved it, and we determined it was worth the extraordinary effort to make this a feature. 

For a topic like Calculus, which so many people struggle with, we wanted to make sure that we provided several ways for students to learn. It’s incredibly important to make that kind of material engaging and relevant to each student. Since calculus is a toolset, the application of that toolset makes a huge difference in how exciting it is to learn.  Some students will prefer to learn the calculus of happiness with [University College London Associate Professor] Hannah Fry, others will prefer sports with [fromer Baltimore Ravens guard and PhD candidate at MIT] John Urschel, and still others will prefer a more straightforward approach with [Davidson College Professor] Tim Chartier. You’ll notice that we actually didn’t take this approach with Introduction to Psychology, since psychology is more directly relatable.

HK:To play the devil’s advocate: Are high-quality videos really necessary for a college course?

AM: Absolutely. A subject like calculus is very difficult. If, in addition to learning the material, you’re distracted by poor audio, awkward lighting, bad pacing, and sloppy editing, then an already difficult subject becomes even tougher to learn.

It’s not just about the beauty of the frame either, it’s the format itself that contributes to understanding. You get more out of the shot choices in a film than you would from a single wide shot of the events of a film playing out on stage. It’s about making the message fit the medium.

HK: The press release tells me that other features of the course include “1-on-1 tutoring, AI-proctored assessments, dynamically-generated problem sets, and cutting-edge, active learning techniques.” Did Outlier partner with any other companies or organizations to deliver those features? And if so, whom?

AM: While our core system was designed in-house, we have excellent components we’ve licensed like Desmos for our graphing display, Examity for proctoring, and many others.  

HK: What are some lessons learned from MasterClass that are at work in Outlier?

AM: The biggest lessons I learned form MasterClass were about how to get and keep someone’s attention for extraordinarily long periods of time, something online courses have struggled with in the past. In many cases it can be summed up as, “Yes, it really is worth it to work hard to attain perfection. The customer notices, and cares.”

I also learned a lot about what makes an instructor great on screen. That’s part of why I called as many of the top 200 calculus professors in the US as would talk to me. I was researching the best teaching methodologies, and also looking for someone that had that special something. And that’s how I found Tim Chartier.

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