ReadWriteBuilders is a series of interviews with developers, designers and other architects of the programmable future.
Lynda Weinman could be considered the pioneer of online education.
She founded the online training site Lynda.com with her husband Bruce Heavin in 1995. Four million students, 2200 courses and 100,000 videos later, it has become one of the most popular education platforms on the Internet—one that long predates the current wave of online classes known as MOOCs, or massive open online courses.
When Weinman founded the site in 1995, she was a former Hollywood digital animator and special-effects designer who taught courses in digital media and motion graphics. Almost 20 years later, Lynda.com is still technology-focused, including courses on software, programming, and design; but now students can also take a variety of business-related courses.
Although many education technology entrepreneurs think inexpensive online learning could revolutionize academia to the point that we won’t need classrooms anymore, Weinman disagrees. About 40 percent of all colleges and universities have multi-user accounts on Lynda.com, and many of their on-campus courses incorporate the site's online video instruction as part of the curriculum.
ReadWrite: What was the genesis of Lynda.com?
Lynda Weinman: It started as a website to teach myself design. The website started in 1995, and at that time I was teaching at the Art Center College, so I was already a teacher, but I wanted my students to know how to do Web design.
I ended up teaching myself and writing a book about Web design and using my site Lynda.com as my own personal sandbox. I wrote the book and eventually it became very successful, and gave my husband and myself the ability to buy our first house and we decided to move to Ojai, California, which is very remote.
Because I missed teaching a lot, he had the idea to open a school on Web design, and so we did that, which was very successful for about three years. Then with the dot-com crash and 9/11, people stopped wanting to travel. That’s when we decided to put our lessons online and that was a much bigger idea.
RW: So originally you were teaching in person, and just marketing online?
LW: Yes I suppose you could say that. It was before social media, before online marketing was a term. It’s funny that you say that because there was nothing called online marketing at that point in time. That is how we were using it to some degree— it was in the book, and a lot of people were reading my book, and it sold hundreds of thousands of copies, so they found out about Lynda.com that way.
RW: You’ve been doing this for almost 20 years, and it seems like just now there has been a revolution of online education between MOOCs and different online platforms. Why did 2012 become, as the New York Times put it, “the year of the MOOC”?
LW: Online has transformed every industry that we know, and I think both education and healthcare are the last two to be transformed. They’re very ripe to be transformed, I’m not sure why they’re both so late to the game. To your point, we’ve been doing it for almost 20 years. We saw an opportunity with the Internet as a distribution medium for information, way at the beginning of the Internet.
I think for a lot of schools it’s threatening, so it hasn’t necessarily been something embraced right out of the gate. But I will tell you that Lynda.com is definitely embraced by higher education and K through 12, and we have a lot of adoption. We view it as a complement to in-person education, we don’t view it as threatening to in-person education.
I think that the technology is finally there to do education online, and it’s an obvious candidate to be disrupted.
Staying Current In A Changing Market
RW: What are the most significant challenges that you’ve had to overcome?
LW: I think what was most significant was probably scaling. One of the things that people who aspire to start businesses hope for is that the business will take off, but few people experience fast growth and high growth, so it’s always a series of decisions around how to stay on top of that and be preemptive of what that can potentially bring.
I would say that the two hardest things have been to scale both in people and in technology, and the other would be probably when we moved from being a traditional classroom to being an online education company.
RW: Because you’ve been through the dot-com boom, the rise of the Internet and the online education movement, do you think you’ve had an advantage being focused specifically on technological education and advancement to be able to grow and change with the trends?
LW: Probably. That’s a really good question. Because my area of expertise when I started as a teacher was digital design and filmmaking and interactive design and ultimately Web design, I think all those all gave me some advantages to understand the power and importance of the Internet and the importance of design and user experience. Having that specific area of interest was probably a great advantage.
Also another advantage was having been a classroom college teacher. A lot of people see education, especially the ed-tech space, with dollar signs in their minds. But Lynda.com started in a very authentic way. I was a teacher and I loved teaching, so it was a vehicle to be able to teach differently and teach more people. So I think that was also a big benefit.
The Economics Of Education
RW: You say other sites have “dollar signs in their eyes.” Your model has a set introductory price of $25 a month and it has since its inception. How do you maintain that price?
LW: We just have never talked about changing our prices because the prices have worked for so long. Part of what was hard for us in the beginning was to change from selling a la carte, to selling class by class, because we used to sell VHS video tapes. So going from that to giving everything for $25 a month just seemed like it was going to be unsustainable. But as we grew in membership and adoption, it made it easier to stay at a low price point. Because we reach critical mass and we’re able to fund all our initiatives.
I mean, we’ve been a self-funded company almost our entire existence, which is not true for a lot of ed-tech companies. Very few companies period. So I think that it has been the right price point and a price point that people have found they get a lot of value from.
RW: A lot of pundits harp on the low completion rates for online courses. Does charging for courses make people more apt to complete them?
LW: I don’t think so. Possibly, I mean I suppose if you pay for something, you might want to get your money’s worth if you paid for it, but I think this idea of completion is actually the wrong way to measure the success of online education.
When you decide to go to college, you understand that’s a four-year commitment, it’s quit your job, go to school. When you take a MOOC, you may not understand how much time is required, what’s really going to be asked of you.
It’s not necessarily the MOOC itself is bad, or the fact that it’s free is bad. I don’t think that has anything to do with it. I think it’s just that people have a difficult time carving out time to commit to something. Also, you don’t know what you’re getting, so you don’t know for sure if it’s something that you’re going to want to continue with. I think that’s more the reason for the lack of completion.
On Lynda.com, we really don’t value someone more if they complete or don’t complete. The whole idea of a library is that you can pick and choose the amount of time that you have, you can make it work in a flexible way. A lot of people might just need to get the answer and have to do something in Excel, or just want a little business tip, and the fact that they didn’t finish the course isn’t necessarily a judgment.
RW: What do you think about other competitors who are providing similar services for free, like Code Academy, Udemy or Coursera? Do you feel Lynda.com is a better option?
LW: I don’t know that I would go so far as to say that we’re always the better option. I believe in choice, that there are tons of different learning objectives out there, tons of different reasons to come to a service, and I don’t think that any one company can dominate and always be the right answer for everybody.
But I will say that having an affordable price for something of great value allows us to be a self-sustaining, profitable company and that means we can pay our teachers, our employees, and grow our library and our company.
It’s very difficult to do that when you’re free. You either have to live on investor money or pick up charitable donations or advertising, so if I had to choose how I’d want to be sustained, I think the way that we’re doing it is working great.
RW: Sebastian Thrun of Udacity has recently come out and said that MOOCs and free, open online education isn’t necessarily sustainable or beneficial to everyone in the long run. What do you have to say to that?
LW: I think that MOOCs are great for people who cannot afford or find the time to go to a college course. For many people, they want the guided structure and it works great for them. The sustainability of the business model is what perhaps is more the question.
I really don’t understand how something can exist in the long-run for free, unless you are charitable, which Udacity is not, then that could work. I think that it’s a wonderful thing to offer free education, and the only thing that’s wrong with it is that it might be hard to make a sustainable business on that model.
I’m a big believer in free education as a U.S. citizen’s right. It isn’t that it doesn’t cost money; the government spends trillions of dollars on education. But, it does mean that people don’t have to pay for it. I think that is a very noble thing: education being accessible to everyone.
I think that by throwing the baby out with the bathwater, which is sort of what [Thrun’s] article did, by saying that MOOCs don’t work by being free, I think that’s going a little far. Whether he wants to change the business model for his company for obvious reasons, that makes more sense to me than to make it high and mighty that a free MOOC doesn’t work.
Education Isn't Just About Passing A Test
RW: Do you think it’s possible for people to get a well-rounded education using only online courses?
LW: I do not. I think there is huge value in face-to-face education. If you don’t have the choice, if you’re living in a third-world country or living in poverty or whatever the reason might be, where you don’t have the choice and you have to cobble together an online education, I think it is wonderful that it’s out there and available.
But in general, I think that there are multiple sides to education. It’s not just about facts and knowledge, it’s about experiences, it’s about learning social skills, it’s about learning how to collaborate with real people and problem solve and conflict resolve. All of those skills that you need in life and in business that are very difficult to get online.
I would say to the person who can’t afford an in-person education, at least participate and do things with real people. There are plenty of examples, like book clubs, garden clubs, organizations like Toastmasters where you can practice public speaking, and writing groups, but I really think it’s very important to work with people and experience that as part of an education.
A person who is just online isn’t going to be a well-rounded person who is necessarily going to be successful. Maybe if you’re coding and you’re working on a remote team it’s going to work well for you, but I still think those critical communication skills are needed in every industry for every person.
RW: In terms of career advancement, do you think companies, especially highly technical companies, look at online programs as a supplement to traditional education or look at it as a way for people to further their careers?
LW: I don’t think it’s the end-all again, I think it’s just one example of something that you can do to enhance your attractiveness to potential employers. But [it’s also important to have] a portfolio and body of work, references that actually work out, showing that you had success in the past.
I don’t think it’s only about your education, whether it be your education or college degree, or online certificates, there’s a lot more that a recruiter has to look at.
RW: You mentioned you work with a number of colleges and universities. Do you think that supplementing the online coursework adds to the success for the students in the courses?
LW: Yes, I think it’s very helpful because when you’re in a class, you’re having a synchronous learning experience where everybody’s having the same experience. What’s really nice about online is it can be anytime, day or night, if you didn’t understand a concept to go over it, review it.
I can tell you a story of a teacher who wrote to me and said he had one student who had multiple sclerosis (MS), and she had a hard time because it was going too fast, and she came in to thank him because Lynda.com helped her at her own pace to learn the same materials being taught in class. In general, the advantages to online is that everyone can have their own personal learning path that isn’t a shared experience, it’s an individualized experience.
RW: What do you think online platforms like Lynda.com will have to do to show colleges and universities that online education isn’t a threat but more of a supplement to learning?
LW: I don’t know, I think it’s more of a question of the universities seeing what works for them. I don’t know if it’s anything we can do to convince anybody.
What’s happening with Lynda.com is a lot of students use us when a university doesn’t provide it. We’ve proven that we have a great product and anybody who has adopted it in their schools have been very pleased with the results and adoption.
RW: I remember hearing a statistic that it takes 10 years for curriculum to make its way into a college course, so skills that are needed right now, like iOS development, would take several years to circulate into classrooms. Is this something that Lynda.com hopes to balance? And work with colleges to be more successful?
LW: Yeah, I think that’s why we’ve been adopted so widely. It’s hard for, frankly, anyone to stay on top of technology. It’s changing really quickly.
If that isn’t your particular function in life then its great to have a library of resources that you can depend on that’s credible and that’s high quality. I’ll take UCLA for example. They have a film school, and they have started making our Final Cut classes a prerequisite before anyone can take the editing classes.
The teachers are also very encumbered by having to stay on top of software that’s constantly changing.
Especially now, as a lot of software is moving to be Software As A Service (SAAS), changing, and being updated far more frequently than when it was boxed software. So if you're a Final Cut trainer and that’s your profession, of course you’re going to want to stay on top, but if you’re trying to teach filmmaking, that might not be your particular area of focus, so it’s very helpful to have an outside library that can help round out all the different skills.
RW: How quickly do new skills or courses get posted on Lynda.com, and how do you stay up-to-date with what’s trending in technology?
LW: We publish to the library every work day, five days a week. By the end of this year it will be over 750 courses that we’ve published and over 1500 hours of edited videos. We have teams of people that work on making the instructional videos and we employ a lot of domain experts who are responsible for building out a category on Lynda.com. The person that leads our iOS development is an iOS developer, and the person that leads our photography group is a credible photographer.
They can look at the search data of what people are looking for, and what our customers are asking from us and make decisions with the data. There’s also the importance of being able to predict what’s coming next, and not just rely on what people are already asking for.
For example, we knew Adobe Creative Cloud was coming out long before the public, so we’re able to not only react to what people are looking for, but we’re also able to be predictive. That’s a combination of looking backwards and forwards that keeps us up-to-date.
RW: So what are you anticipating as the future of online education? What do you think we can expect in the next five years as far as online education goes?
LW: It’s going to be a lot more respected than it has been, and less of a controversial idea. I think it’s come of age, where it’s not necessarily considered a substitute for an in-person education but it’s definitely a respectable way to spend time. It’s going to continue to improve in terms of what’s possible technologically, the way that it’s currently delivered.
We’re delivering videos, which is a huge improvement over just text-based PowerPoint. Online learning 20 years ago was “Answer some questions and maybe branch and maybe you can go to the next set of questions.” It was very rudimentary, more like taking a survey. Being able to add to the richness of the media whether that’s with video, interactivity, and two-way communication—I would love to see two-way video.
I’m a big believer that there’s a whole different experience when you can actually see something. One of our big lines in terms of how we make our training is we say, “Show me, don’t tell me.” So much is about being visual and really helping people understand concepts. I think that a lot of us just assume that school means textbooks and reading; even though reading is great, it’s not necessarily the best delivery for some subject matter. I would love to see more rich media.
RW: When I was in college (fairly recently), university online classes were taught with PowerPoints and surveys. Do you think that because of the surge of online education, traits like video and “show don’t tell” will trickle into Web-based university classrooms as well?
LW: I do, I think that’s already happening. I think that we’re going to see a lot more of it. A lot of universities are trying to figure out how to adapt to online. Some of them are creating MOOCs, and some of them are creating internal intranets of information.
There are lots of learning management systems that universities can deploy to bring together disparate sources of libraries. Like, they could include our library with some internal teachers’ recordings.
I think we’re going to continue to see a lot of mashing of different sources, but also a lot of internal creations. There’s a big “flipped classroom” movement. That idea is that teachers memorialize their lectures and give lectures as homework but in class have more interactive conversations and projects. I think that’s a really exciting shift, as the role of the teacher and how that’s going to change.
For me, I think we’re all looking for human connection, all looking to find those mentors in life who are going to help us get further. I’m excited to see the role of the teacher being more directed to that than delivering the same rote lecture semester after semester.
RW: Since you have a teaching background, I know this is something very important to you, the interpersonal communications and having that mentor to look up to and learn from. Will some of these personal anecdotes be included in the book that you're working on?
LW: Absolutely. I think it’s important as a cofounder of a leading online education company that I’m an advocate for teachers and an advocate for classroom learning.
There’s always the sort of idea that something comes along and completely eliminates a whole category. I don’t see it that way. I do see that the role of a teacher can and should change, for the better actually. The way we’ve been focused on education especially for the last decade with No Child Left Behind and the Race To The Top, and even a little bit with the Common Core now, I think there’s just this over-obsession around testing and rankings and grades, and so much of learning has absolutely nothing to do with that. It’s a tragedy that we’ve focused so heavily on those things, so that’s a lot of what my book will talk about.
RW: What has changed for teachers over the last two decades? Do you think there are challenges as far as incorporating the online education curriculum into a traditional classroom, or do you think teaching has always been, just, teaching.
LW: There are unfortunately two different classes of teachers. I think when you’re K through 12, you’re a lot more limited by state regulations, and the way that schools are measured and rewarded. But if you’re a university teacher, you have way more freedom in terms of developing your own curriculum with much less scrutiny.
I think that it should change; the idea that we don’t remember phone numbers anymore, they’re all stored in our phones, we don’t really have to know all of math because we have a calculator. There is that reality that certain things are in the cloud, certain things are on devices that mean that they aren’t things we have to store anymore ourselves.
A lot of the premise of rote memorization and rote testing is just a very antiquated way that we have to learn, and it shouldn’t be. If it would go away it would be a wonderful thing because it would embrace the idea that everyone is different, everyone has a different aptitude.
I have listened to teachers who are supposed to be teaching the common core curriculum and have kids that are autistic and don’t understand where they’re supposed to be according to the rules. It really inhibits the ability for teachers to be effective to that autistic student.
The idea that we’re all the same, we all learn the same, we all should know the same information is a misnomer. It’s a very antiquated idea that is no longer true.
It may have been true before the advent of the computer age, but I don’t think it’s true today.