“Mystery at the Dinosaur Museum Escape Room”
“Essay Writing for High School”
“The Magical World of Fungi Part 2”
“What’s in Your Brain?”
Above are a few of the classes found on Outschool.com, one of the leading online education platforms offering small, live, à la carte classes for children 3-18 years of age.
Launched in 2015, Outschool is one of many online learning vessels that have experienced a swell of popularity since pandemic times settled in. When our wee ones’ eyes went from 3D scenes to 2D screens, the Internet quickly became an invaluable, supplemental resource, if not, to the audible “sighs” of parents everywhere, a bit reluctantly.
Some sites, like Scholastic’s “Learn at Home”, offer multi-day curriculums that more closely mirror comprehensive units typically found in a classroom. Other sites, like PBS Kids, ABC Mouse, Khan Academy and National Geographic Kids, have answered the cry for content simply by beefing up their long-standing, cherished offerings.
And even good ol’ YouTube is an easy, free, go-to for story times with celebrities like Kristen Bell or drawing lessons from Mo Willems himself, beloved author of “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.”
But Outschool has outdone itself, hearing those reluctant “sighs” and solving for them by marketing diversity: Diversity of subjects, diversity of educators and diversity of students, all exemplified by the sheer number of class choices – 140,000 and counting. From Fortnite to fractions and cooking to coding, what better way to encourage independence and the joy of learning than by putting the reins in the hands of the end consumer: children.
Teachers and Classes
But what about the educators? This new genre of online learning allows teachers to teach the subjects they love to students who love them. The schedule is flexible, and the boggy paperwork is nonexistent. But that’s not to say teachers are void of accountability. On Outschool, each class has a public parent feedback section, and teachers are vetted for experience and expertise. You do not have to be a licensed educator, but you do need a provable passion and skill set for the topic you wish to teach.
The interface of Outschool allows patrons to filter class searches by age, day, time, subject, price and even language. It is free to join and free to browse with weekly and one-off classes ranging from as little as $5 per class to upward of $25. Private classes are considerably higher. There are also subscription-based courses that promote engagement with the same peers repeatedly. This fosters deeper relationship building between students at a time when school classrooms have been forced to foster separation.
Screen Time Challenge
However, changing the thought pattern from “screens are bad” to “screens provide access to essential education” was a tough switch. The struggle to maintain a certain amount of parental integrity while preaching the wavering mandate that screens are allowed for learning, but not for, say, gaming, is real.
But why can’t it be both? If you have kids whose main attraction to screens is for video games, now is the time to capitalize on that curiosity. There are several online companies equipped to teach children the basics of coding, the language that makes what we see and do on our devices amateurishly useable. Giving children a glimpse behind the curtain changes their engagement with the screen from reactive to proactive.
Scratch is a brainchild of the MIT Media Lab, a non-profit entity offering free coding lessons for those ages 8 to 16. It is “the world’s largest coding community for children and a coding language with a simple visual interface that allows young people to create digital stories, games and animations.” Similarly, ScratchJr, allows children ages 5-7 to “program their own interactive stories and games. In the process, they learn to solve problems, design projects, and express themselves creatively on the computer.”’
More Coding Options
Wonder Workshop, First Code Academy and CodeWizardsHQ are platforms with similar trajectories, all aimed at inspiring children to adopt and absorb the literacy of now and the foreseeable future. They all encourage the use of computational and technological thinking to strategically solve problems in a way that exhibits play. It’s visually engaging with fun, gratifying payoffs.
Ultimately computer programming is responsible for making our smart devices, well, smart. There should be no – at this point in the pandemic, familiar – parental guilt using video games as gateway pedagogy. Expanding on an existing foundation of interest can translate to an expertise in not only quickly advancing artificial intelligence, but also authentic intelligence, as well.
Who wouldn’t want to enroll in a “Drawing Dragons” class or learn how to program robotic LEGO monsters to attack each other? The next virtual virtuoso just may be sitting in the next room, ready to write code for tomorrow’s Sesame Street or perform open-heart surgery from another country. Every stroke of genius used to start with the stroke of the pencil. But learning looks different these days; indicating that the ability to adapt and succeed in ever-changing environments is perhaps the most important lesson of all.
Text by Nancy S. Moseley
Nancy S. Moseley is a freelance writer from Blacksburg whose 8-year-old son is a video game/technology junkie. So far it mostly comes in handy when she’s feeling dumb trouble-shooting hiccups on all her smart devices.