Knowledge When You Need It: and the Rise of Online Education

Xconomy National — 

Did you think that graduating from high school or college meant your education was finished? Think again. Even assuming that you were paying attention in every class—and who among us really was?—you probably weren’t being taught the skills you need to succeed in a modern workplace, understand complex business issues, or excel at a high-tech hobby.

I’m talking about things like accounting and finance, digital photography, game design, social media marketing, video editing, or Web graphics. For help mastering these kinds of subjects, your options were always pretty limited. You could get a friend to teach you, or you could take an extension or community-college class, or you could buy one of the “For Dummies” books. That was about it.

But that’s all changing fast. Thanks to the spread of broadband Internet access and a huge drop in the costs of video production, more and more schools, scholars, startups, and individual authors are putting instructional video online. You can access much of it for free at sites like Khan Academy, YouTube’s science and education channels, or MIT’s OpenCourseWare site. Many more materials are available for a per-course or subscription fee. Logo
Founded: 1995
Executive Team: Bruce Heavin, co-founder and chief creative officer; Lynda Weinman, co-founder and executive chair; Eric Robison, president and chief executive officer
Mission: “To help you learn the skills you need to achieve your full potential.”
Funding: $103 million Series A Round, January 2013, from Accel Partners, Spectrum Equity, and Meritech Capital Partners
Pricing: Individual memberships $25/month or $250/year, Premium membership $37.50/month or $375/year

As you might expect, some of the new video-based courses are painfully bad—no one wants to listen to someone narrating a bunch of PowerPoint slides. But some of them are very good indeed. It all depends on the production values, and—just as in a real-world classroom—on the skill of the teacher.

Lately, I’ve been getting to know the folks at, one of the pioneering companies in online video instruction. In fact, I recently hosted co-founders Lynda Weinman and Bruce Heavin and CEO Eric Robison at my San Francisco office, and we had a long conversation about the different ways people use’s library of 92,000 videos, which are recorded by expert teachers, and are heavy on software how-to courses. At a higher level, we also talked how the Internet is changing the way we learn.

At the time of their visit, Weinman and her crew had just released a big piece of news: after 17 years without any outside investment, the Carpinteria, CA-based company had raised a whopping $103 million in venture financing. That means they’ll be able to branch out into more subjects, deepen existing courses, expand internationally, and—crucially—brace for increasing competition.

“I do think we are at an inflection point where a lot more people are open to the idea of online education,” Weinman says. “There are a lot of assumptions about education, which are very rooted in the 20th century, that are being challenged today.”

She’s got that right. Perhaps the biggest assumption being turned upside down is the idea that students and teachers need to be in the same room—or even the same hemisphere. Through platforms like Coursera, edX, and Udacity, dozens of universities are putting lecture videos, tests and quizzes, and other course materials online and throwing them open to learners everywhere. These so-called “Massive Open Online Courses” (MOOCs) often include community sites where remote learners can interact with instructors and rate one another’s progress.

The philosophy behind MOOCs is that the power of the Internet can open up the rich intellectual resources of the world’s top universities to everyone. But it’s unclear so far how many Internet users complete the courses, or what practical knowledge they gain. And one thing most MOOCs don’t yet provide is formal degree credit, meaning auditors do a lot of the same work as tuition-paying university students, but without any formal reward.

There’s another set of e-learning sites where the material isn’t geared toward would-be university students, but rather toward self-motivated, mid-career learners who want to update their job skills, open up a new career path, or explore a new pastime. At these sites, the courses are usually designed expressly for online audiences—in other words, there’s no real-world class listening to each “lecture.” This is the category that belongs to, along with competitors like Codecademy, Khan Academy, Treehouse, and Udemy. (Until recently I would have counted Austrian startup video2brain among the competition, but acquired it in February.)

Browsing Courses on the iPad

Browsing Courses on the iPad’s history dates back to the earliest days of the Web in the mid-1990s, when Weinman wrote one of the first books on designing graphics for websites and opened a digital arts training center in Ojai, CA. After the dot-com crash and 9/11 killed Web companies’ travel and training budgets, Weinman and Heavin decided to try something different: they’d put videos from the training center online and offer access by subscription.

Success in the online video business didn’t come overnight. A decade ago, no one had broadband, YouTube didn’t exist, and most people accessed the Internet on crummy, low-resolution monitors. The company’s radical decision to put its whole training library online for $25 per month (still the basic price today) cannibalized its CD and DVD sales, and “sent us into the desert” for nearly four years, according to the story Heavin tells in one company video.

But on a hunch that the distribution technology would improve, Heavin and Weinman stuck to it, and their persistence paid off: today has 2 million members, and it surpassed $100 million in revenue in 2012. It’s adding 400 new courses each year, on everything from 3D animation to word processing, and the videos are now viewable from any Web browser, or on your smartphone or tablet. Michael Ninness, the company’s senior vice president of product and content, calls the library a source of “continuous learning in your pocket.”

One of the key things to know about is that it really is set up like a library. The individual videos are short—usually less than 5 minutes long—and although they’re organized into courses, you can watch them in any order, or dip in and out to learn just what you need.

Survey Course: A Few of the Options in Online Training and Education
Online CoursewareCasual/Self-directed Learning
Carnegie Mellon UniversityCode School
Duke UniversityCreative Live
edXDigital Tutors
Harvard University5 Minute Media
iTunes UKelby Training
Marginal Revolution UniversityKhan Academy
MIT OpenCourseWareLearnStreet
Stanford UniversityLearnable
University of California, BerkeleyPluralSight
Yale UniversityTotal Training

“It’s not about what grade you’re in, it’s not about certification,” Weinman says. “It’s really about needing knowledge and having a resource that will give you that knowledge exactly the way you need it, wherever, whenever, on any device.”

Unlike Khan Academy, where nearly all of the lessons are recorded by founder Sal Khan, builds its videos around paid experts in each field—usually people who have been teaching their subject for a while. One of the courses I’m viewing right now is about Final Cut Pro X, Apple’s professional-level video editing program, and is taught by Ashley Kennedy, the digital media instructor at Columbia College Chicago. Another is on composition in black-and-white photography and is taught by Ben Long, a San Francisco-based photographer who’s written dozens of books, contributed to Macworld magazine, and lectured at Apple. Both instructors are warm, insightful, and fun to listen to.

And their courses are amazingly granular, often dwelling on minute details such as how to use the audio equalization tools to remove background noise in Final Cut Pro X or how to use shadow as “negative space” in a photographic composition. When a course is about a software tool like Final Cut Pro, you’ll barely see the instructor—most of the screen time is devoted to hands-on walk-throughs of specific features in the software interface. In Long’s course, which is more about a discipline or way of thinking than it is about specific tools, you’ll see Long behind a lectern, or sharing photographs, even in physical settings such as hills around the Quartz Mountain Resort in Oklahoma, where he teaches real-world courses.

A premium subscription to ($37.50 per month) gets you access to additional course materials, including, in many cases, “exercise files” that help you follow along at home. In the case of the Final Cut Pro X course, for example, the exercise files include the raw footage Kennedy uses to put together a documentary video. If you import the files into your own copy of the software, it transforms the whole course into a hands-on experience. “We are very committed to this idea of see it, do it, learn it,” says Weinman.

Bruce Heavin and Lynda Weinman, co-founders of

A husband-and-wife team, Bruce Heavin and Lynda Weinman co-founded in 1995.

But there’s no set, prescribed way to use If you want to lean back and watch an entire course without doing a single exercise, that’s fine. “I’m the defender of not making assumptions about how people are going to use our service,” Weinman says. “I think it’s just as valid [to use] at 2:00 in the morning, when you have to add something to your presentation for work tomorrow and you watch a 5-minute movie and you get it done, as it is to spend 20 hours learning something from scratch.”

Weinman acknowledges that the library may not be for everybody. If you’re like me, for example, you may often prefer to dive into a new software application and figure it out as you go, even if it means banging your head against various problems. “Some people are very adept at teaching themselves and would never thinking about reading a manual or watching a video,” Weinman says. “Other people really appreciate having some visual instruction.”

And there’s more to most of the courses, she points out, than simply explaining the nuts and bolts of a process or a piece of software. “You can teach yourself how to operate a camera, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn something from a great photographer, who could teach you about light or composition or storytelling,” Weinman says (which captures my own reason for viewing Ben Long’s course).

If you’re lucky enough to be a student at a school like the University of Southern California, which has licensed’s library for academic use, then you have full access to the site on top of all of your school’s other resources. At some of those places, an interesting “flipped classroom” dynamic is evolving, according to Robison,’s CEO. Students at the USC Film School, for example, watch the videos outside of class to learn the ins and outs of the editing tools they’ll be using, then work with instructors on creative projects in class.

Robison says he sees options like, Khan Academy, YouTube, and live classroom instruction as complementary, and he thinks they will all coexist as technology continues to sweep through the education business. But as long as can keep producing up-to-the-minute instructional videos that help people get a job, keep a job, advance in a career, or pursue the hobbies they love, it will have paying customers who are long past their school days.

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6 responses to “Knowledge When You Need It: and the Rise of Online Ed”

  1. Jason Peterson says:

    Honestly,’s radical idea to charge $25 a month was not hers. She is certainly soaking up plenty of the credit for that though. was the first to offer this format. Granted did a better job producing better stuff.

    Her cost is out of whack though. I was a member of Video2Brain, that didn’t have as much in the library, but I didn’t need it. I used to pay $20 a month for that service. Now I have to pay $37.50 to get the files. Not happy about that. My training costs are the same as my Creative Cloud costs. Boo.

    Treehouse is in a similar boat, charging more than Lynda for less stuff??? in 2 years time will eat a huge portion of Lynda’s marketshare if you ask me. Equal quality, better in some ways, for $9.99 a month, with the course files.

  2. Pluralsight ( is such a better comparison yet somehow overlooked in pieces like this that list other players in the sapce. Seems to indicate a lack of research or a reliance on previous (stale) articles covering the space.

  3. Frank Renolds says:

    Interesting article. I do wonder what’s going to happen with all these different sites. Obviously some will go away, while others will be around. I imagine some more consolidation will be in order. Looking at the other comments pluralsight seems to be a big player. At least they raised quite a bit of capital, more so than some of the other businesses here. I never heard of before, but nice site for the price. Funny, I can see pluralsight with their fresh round of funding to gobble up a site like to combat It seems like that will fill missing content within their library. Of course their focus seems to be more on the developer. We shall see, seems like an interesting space at them moment.

  4. Volatile Molotov says:

    Hmm. $37.50 a month to have access to professionally done videos taught by professionals so I can be an in-demand professional? I’ll pay it. And I have, since I started as a print designer coming back to the field 6 years ago to learn web design and technology. Since then Lynda videos have fast-tracked my career from working as a basic temp at a tiny firm to a Sr. position at a major fortune 500 company…and I’m not done yet. If you have trouble paying the $37.50 then you can do the $25 a month quite easily w/o the exercise files. Either way…both pricepoints are a small price to pay for the knowledge you’ll receive. You have the potential to be earning serious money all through the courses Lynda carries. My advice….go without something so you can pay for Lynda…and get a better job with better pay because of it.

  5. Mike says:

    Just the best value for money it’s possible to get!

  6. Tamiran Irwan says:

    Thank you for the invaluable links. Lots to learn!

    I checked out all your links. By the way, Trainsignal is now pluralsight. Check it out