School of Everything

28 Sep 2007 Comments
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Though not a Sociability project, School of Everything is where it all started, when five co-founders came together in 2006 to reorganise education for the 21st Century by building an “eBay for learning”.

A beautifully simple idea using the web to connect those who have something to teach with those who want to learn.


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?’


School of Everything is ready, like many other UK-based start-ups, to expand overseas to win access to a larger market.


 

The traditional education system was designed in the 19th Century to prepare people for entering the professions. In today’s rapidly-changing, highly-networked world, the old system of large institutions, rigid curricula and mass-production thinking is struggling to keep up. Inspired by stories of the Free-U, the Learning Exchange and many other self-organised learning experiments, we set out to enable people to teach and learn what they want, when, where and how they want, simply by connecting them through the power of the World Wide Web.

Five first-time entrepreneurs co-founded the School of Everything: Peter Brownell, Andy Gibson, Mary Harrington, Dougald Hine and Paul Miller. The project was backed by the Young Foundation, Channel 4, Esther Dyson, Tim Jackson, Sean Park, Rocco Pellegrinelli, JP Rangaswami, and is still running today. The lessons learnt from the successes – and failures – of School of Everything have informed much of Sociability’s work, and many of Team Everything continue to collaborate with Sociability on new projects to this day.

We decided that the best way to put our ideas into practice was to turn School of Everything (as it had become known) into a fully-fledged web start-up. We founded the company in September 2006 and launched our first website the following year, explaining our approach as follows:

Our current education system was designed in the industrial revolution to prepare people for factory work. The world has changed a lot since then – and the time has come to rethink education from the bottom to the top.

At School of Everything, we believe that learning is personal, and starts not with what you ‘should’ learn but with what you’re interested in. So we’re building a tool to help anyone in the world learn what they want, when, where and in a way which suits them. Putting people in touch with each other, not with institutions.

This isn’t about e-learning. There are lots of great online tools, but not much beats being in a room with someone who wants to teach you the thing you want to learn.

We don’t mind whether you teach for money or simply for the love of a subject – we think the world should be full of people sharing what they’re passionate about.

Millions of people already make a living as self-employed teachers. But that’s just the start: think of all the underused skills that exist in any neighbourhood. From active retired people, to teenage whizz-kids, to hobbyists in their garden sheds, there are people everywhere who could gain satisfaction, confidence – and maybe even a new career – from passing on what they know.

Our goal is to do for education what YouTube has done for television, or what eBay did for retail: to open up a huge and fertile space between the professional and the amateur. A space where people teach what they know and learn what they don’t.

It’s this vision of a bottom-up learning system that gets us excited. We’re still pretty new, but we’re growing quickly – and we’ve got big plans.

Big plans needed big funding, and we spent much of that year seeking funding for our new venture. Supported and hosted by the Young Foundation and backed by some experienced advisors and mentors, we secured £350,000 of angel funding in late 2007. We built the site in Drupal from our delightful offices in leafy Bethnal Green, and gained sufficient traction and user interest that we followed this with a second angel round of £275,000 in early 2009.

We set up the School of Everything as a for-profit venture, but the core goals of the project were social. Here’s how we explained our values in our first project blog site:

Everybody has something to teach. That old idea of a teacher being somebody who stands up at the front of a class in school is out of date. We want to uncover hidden teachers. We hope some of our first teachers will be young people learning from each other as peers.

Learning is personal. We think people learn best when they can choose what, when and how they learn – and when they can find the right people to learn with.

You can’t force someone to learn. Compulsory schooling often leaves people feeling that education is something that ‘happens to them’. This can create a sense of powerlessness and a ‘habit’ of disengagement. But people aren’t ‘disengaged’ in some abstract sense. Everyone’s interested in something. Start from what someone’s interested in and it’s surprising how fast they learn.

We like face-to-face. The internet’s great and all, but we’re not encouraging people to spend even more time in front of a screen. There are plenty of e-learning providers already. We want to help people organise real-time, face-to-face learning where, when and in the way that suits them.

Flexibility leads to accessibility. We’re not going to put restrictions on whether people use the School of Everything to organise institutional, private or informal learning – or whether or not people charge money. Users will be able to find or start anything, from lengthy fee-paying and accredited courses to book groups or one-to-one knowledge-sharing. And it will have room for plenty of other new kinds of learning groups we haven’t thought of yet.

Here’s Andy explaining the project to his Social by Social co-author David Wilcox:

To date the School of Everything has successfully matched thousands of learners and teachers, and continues to provide a service for independent teachers to advertise their services today.

Sadly, the project didn’t become the commercial success we’d all hoped, but we learnt a lot from our first start-up (ad)venture and many of the principles and lessons from School of Everything have informed many other projects, including Mindapples and Social Innovation Camp.

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