The Seattle photographer upending online education

In the Seattle studios of CreativeLive, a modern sort of class is in session.

The classroom resembles a set from King 5, the NBC affiliate across the street. Professional lighting hangs from tall ceilings, and an array of cameras are manned by people in headsets. In a control room roughly 15 feet above, producers monitor sound levels and camera feeds. In place of a news anchor, a teacher paces in front of the room.

The lesson of this multi-day course: how to take better photos of people in their underwear. The instructor makes a living doing such work, and walks through the tricks of intimate “boudoir photography,” from using Photoshop to smooth wrinkles, to making subjects feel more comfortable, to netting new customers through social media.

Six aspiring photographers sit in front of him, scribbling notes. But this is only a fraction of the true audience. An average of 20,000 people watches each CreativeLive class. The current attendance record is roughly 150,000.

CreativeLive co-founder Chase Jarvis, 42, watches the class through a window above. “I think about those NBC studios across the street,” he says. “It’s funny. We have 12,000 square feet here. They probably have about 75,000. They have five satellite dishes and a helicopter.”  But they’re only reaching the Puget Sound. Last I checked, we had over two million students.”

NBC’s local studios may be larger than CreativeLive’s, but Jarvis is no underdog. The company has attracted nearly $30 million in funding since it started in 2010, with Google, major Hollywood talent agencies and venture capital firms supporting the endeavor.  Mika Salmi, former president of Global Digital Media at Viacom, is CEO and the CreativeLive team also includes the founder of Flickr, the chairwoman of Etsy and YouTube’s former Product Manager for Monetization.

The fruits of all that investment and talent are playing out in Jarvis’ classroom through a model he hopes will remake how people see online education.

The expression goes: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Jarvis has made undermining that adage the cornerstone of his career. And it’s what he hopes will drive CreativeLive to success. Jarvis is known mainly as a successful commercial photographer, whose clients have included Nike, Red Bull, Apple and Lady Gaga. With an easy-going, energetic style, he comes across as someone who spends his days surfing waves or boarding slopes. Don’t be fooled. However amiable he may appear, his success comes from doing things that pissed people off.

Jarvis dropped out of medical school and a PhD program at University of Washington to pursue photography, but breaking into the industry was very difficult, largely because trade secrets were carefully guarded.

“It’s hard for people to remember,” says Jarvis, “but even as recently as 2006, the freelancer economy was very closed. Info didn’t want to be free. Getting someone to teach you to do something was an instant threat to their livelihood, and no one wanted to help at all.”

Sensing an unmet need, Jarvis began spilling every trade secret he could, through a blog and online videos. Even as he rose in the industry, he continued to share behind-the-scenes details of a Nike shoot, tips on getting clients and more. This behavior enraged many professionals, says Jarvis, but it netted him tens of thousands of followers. He turned that fanbase into a launch audience for CreativeLive and mined his industry connections for the first crop of instructors, with initial classes focusing on photography.

CreativeLive’s offerings have since expanded to cover a wide range of topics, but the company’s philosophy has remained the same: recruit people who are already successful and get them to share what they know about their respective trades. Classes on breaking into the publishing industry are taught by a New York Times bestselling author, for example. A class on launching a tech startup is taught by LinkedIn co-founder Reed Hoffman.

The classes can be watched live for free — as they’re being filmed in CreativeLive’s Seattle and San Francisco studios — or bought after the fact for between $20 and $250. Students learn new skills from the best instructors, who often leave with paychecks as large as $100,000 for a session. A win-win.

Teaching CreativeLive classes can be so lucrative that Jarvis’s enterprise has caught the attention of major talent agencies. Creative Artists Agency and William Morris Endeavor both invested in the company last March, seeing it as a potential outlet for their clients.

“The agencies represent talent, not just movie stars,” says Jarvis. “They represent authors, and people behind the camera as well. These people could be valuable teachers, not just for money, but to pass things along. [Director Martin] Scorcese drops in and teaches film at USC. That reaches, what, 100 people? Wouldn’t he want to teach more people in future? We offer a seriously large stage for a good teacher.”

For nearly its entire existence, the Internet has been heralded as a game-changer for education, with little to show for it.

Last year the hype around online education was especially enthusiastic. Services connected to top universities launched in the first half of 2012, backed by a lot of Silicon Valley money. The internet was finally bringing the “Ivy League to the masses,” a Time magazine cover story crowed. Teenagers in the developing world would have access to the world’s best professors. Exorbitantly expensive four-year degrees would be reduced to a mere fraction of their current cost.

Web fever swept colleges and universities across the nation, and thousands now offer some classes online. For-profit services such as Udacity and Coursera — which partner with universities — have racked up millions of students. But the bloom has come off the rose in recent months.

Studies have shown extremely low completion rates and test scores for students across online programs. This month even Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun called for a fundamental reevaluation of how the Internet and higher ed work together. Support for online courses among college faculty has sunk to its lowest level since 2005.

Jarvis blames these failures on approaches that imitate outdated elements of college, while ignoring the parts that work.

For example, he said, most online courses consist of low-budget videos, with little chance for interaction with the instructor. This low-rent, canned experience leads to low engagement, because it neglects the critical live component of education. That’s why a small audience participates in most CreativeLive classes, asking questions and providing instructors a focus. Classes also feature moderators who bring up questions coming in from the live online audience.

That real-time engagement and the studio-slickness of the production lend classes a professional, engaging sheen, Jarvis said, even when viewed after airing live.

“If you look at other [online higher ed] efforts, they’re usually not that compelling for students,” said Jarvis. “But those programs are also hampered by requiring something to be accredited, to show completion. For the people that take our classes, the end goal is to show proficiency in something.”

CreativeLive has no interest in providing the “well-rounded education” that universities promise. Instead, they get comprehensive on narrow topics. How to use Photoshop. How to attract funding for your startup. How to code a website. Rather than overextend, Jarvis said online education could achieve more success aiming at particular niches. In their case, it’s those who want to get ahead in work, create a new career path, or hone a hobby.

“I don’t want someone operating on me who hasn’t graduated medical school,” said Jarvis. “I want my lawyer to have passed a board. Universities are there for some good reasons.”

“But for a lot of jobs, I think the criteria is becoming, ‘Can you do this?’ not ‘Where’s your degree from?’ Your portfolio and skills are your passport. A computer scientist used to have to go to Stanford for 4 years, then go to MIT to get a PhD. Now, the government is hiring 18 year old hackers to build incredibly complex systems.”

When it comes to getting a diploma, online education isn’t making a good case to replace colleges, Jarvis said. But the value of that diploma is becoming more of a question. Rising education costs are putting entire generations deeply in debt, something Jarvis calls one of the biggest hindrances to the national economy. How long until people start considering the alternatives more seriously?

“Education is the largest industry in world that has yet to be radically deconstructed and rebuilt,” said Jarvis. “Continuing education alone is a $100 billion business annually. There’s a lot of room to offer something new and better in that space. There’s a total revolution coming. We want to be a part of that.”

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