“What does it eat?” a small voice inquires through my earbuds.
“Pardon?” I ask, a little thrown off by the question. The learner in question is 8 years old. She has never really formally studied biology or ecology in depth, and she holds a picture of a brilliant pink bird she drew with a downward curve to its bill up to the camera for me to inspect.
“It’s evolved to be like a flamingo. Does it eat the same things flamingos do?”
I think about this for a minute before responding.
“Well, this is a different planet than Earth, so the same food won’t be available, but you are 100% correct that it will need something to eat with that bill,” I answer. Before I can assist any further, she has already taken one of the insects in our fictional world and started drawing its body in a microscopic, shrimplike form, but with a tiny, vestigial pair of insect wings.
“There! The earwig has evolved to be like a small shrimp!” she happily exclaims as her smile widens. She frowns. “Doesn’t the shrimp need to eat something? Can I evolve microscopic algae from the plants?”
“Of course!” I say, thrilled at her intuitively building a food web in her mind, without ever being formally taught about it.
This snapshot is from one of my most popular classes, the Creatures of Biosomnium, where learners collaborate on a “speculative evolution” project, using scientific principles and their own creativity to fill an empty world with life descended from a handful of Earth animals.
Little learning moments like this make it one of the most satisfying and happy corners of my Outschool schedule, and without Outschool’s ever-changing marketplace, I may never have found it.
I chose to share an anecdote from Creatures of Biosomnium and its evolution theme for a greater reason than simply the joy I take from running it: my (almost) 5 years running a full-time teaching business on Outschool has shown me the value of evolving what I teach and how I teach it as the marketplace itself has evolved with new products, services and opportunities.
Running a successful business on this platform can require the willingness to constantly pivot, which sounds exhausting, but these pivots can bring joy and success if we choose to embrace them.
A pivot is an opportunity to tap into creative areas one might never think to bring into their Outschool classroom. I wanted to share some of my experiences making these pivots, and hopefully inspire other educational entrepreneurs to tap into their unused creativity.
1. Pay attention to the data Outschool provides
This one can be a lot harder than it sounds. My first major awakening to this was in 2019 when Outschool launched the ongoing class format.
I had spent over a year and a half at that point building a vast network of 30 one-time classes and a set of 12 multi-week core biology classes, the only two formats available when I first joined in 2018. I dabbled with 2-3 ongoing classes, but stuck with my business model.
2019 stretched on, and Outschool began sharing how popular the ongoing model was. Then, Outschool gave some official guidance to offer ongoing classes as a more dependable source of income.
As 2020 came and changed everything dramatically, Outschool was practically screaming from the hilltops that users at the time preferred ongoing classes by an enormous degree. I did not listen because my multi-week curriculum was working.
Then, in July 2021, I checked my August enrollments and they had declined to below 2019 levels. That was when I finally swallowed my pride and started taking that ongoing model far more seriously.
Long story short, I have unlisted all those one-time classes and the multi-week curriculum. After a pivot that took nine months, I now have 4 one-time classes that feed into six different ongoing class groups and have enjoyed a far more stable income and learners that, in some cases, have been with me for over 3 years.
I often use data from my dashboard insights tab, particularly which classes are getting the most views, to make decisions about how to remix my classes. Surges in those class views are often a sign that Outschool is promoting the class as part of a campaign, and that is a perfect time to ride that wave and schedule more sections.
2. Use feedback from learners and families
As my following has grown on Outschool, I have found many families and learners that I consider to be creative partners, of sorts.
For example, the idea for a speculative evolution club came as a suggestion of a long-time learner in my Art of Paleontology ongoing class. A parent from an online community group helped me formulate (and populate) another ongoing class I began in January called Biology Beginnings, where I teach middle school biology to learners ages 8-11 that are ready and willing to learn more advanced science.
This parent helped me find a niche that wasn’t explicitly being served: while some educators do allow younger learners to enroll in advanced science classes, there wasn’t a class just for them. Always keeping one’s ear to the ground, observing what learners are passionate about, and thinking about the many class requests we see each week can lead to some great new class ideas.
3. Choose the path of least complication
This is a mantra I try to live by in every aspect of running my business, and sometimes I even succeed! When making decisions about new classes to add, it’s helpful to remember:
- A class library with fewer classes that are popular and well-branded can be a better business decision than dozens of classes with patchy popularity.
- Families may be more likely to enroll in classes if there are three or more schedule options available.
- Maxed out on teaching class for one age group? List it for another if you’re qualified to do so. Doing this early on can save a lot of time.
- The model of one-time funnel classes that lead into ongoing sections is a simple and good one. I have also seen some educators succeed with small libraries of only one-time classes that are designed to be taken over and over.
- Worried about getting bored? Encourage learners to help lead your classes, so the experience is always different.
And finally: remember that with class listings, it’s all about quality, not quantity.
4. Get creative
The best class experiences are those that lie at the intersection of passion and content knowledge.
My content knowledge in the areas of biology, zoology, and paleontology are quite deep after 16 years of teaching them, but my passion for drawing and making art has bled into my science teaching. Now, most of my ongoing classes incorporate art, sketch noting, and creativity.
This takes a burden off me for preparation, as the learners and their creativity pull so much of that weight! It also means a lot more ownership for the learners, and that keeps them subscribed, school year or summer.
Think of that hobby or passion, and consider how it could be blended into your Outschool classes (learn more about using life experience as teaching expertise here).
5. Exercise patience during transitions
Pivots do not happen overnight. It takes planning and a lot of patience to shift from one model of running an Outschool business to another. It takes a lot of looking down the chute at how sections are performing and making edits as needed.
My advice here is to pivot slowly, rather than all at once. For example, if one is seeking to change up their ongoing schedule, they can set sections to end in a staggered way, so the rosters aren’t all filling at the same time and therefore cutting into income as much.
For educators just starting out, they can fill their schedule with those one-time classes, and as more learners get into their ongoing classes, gradually adjust the ratio from mostly one-time to mostly ongoing. Teach those one-time classes with just one learner, because each learner that converts to an ongoing class may be likely to stay there a long time.
Above all, remember that there are countless factors that families consider when choosing to enroll: time zone, schedule, budget, etc., and no one factor is going to sink a class. Patience is key.
There are lots of other successful educators that have made pivots, but in speaking for myself, I would say the benefits have led me to embrace the pivot. I have better income that no longer fluctuates with the seasons, creative classes that allow me to make art while making a good living and teaching what I love, and less stress with fewer live hours.
Best of luck to all the educators out there pivoting their business and making it work.
Benjamin Corey has been teaching sciences since 2006 in numerous settings. He has been blending science and creativity as an educator on the Outschool platform since 2018.