I first met Anjuli Gupta in her previous role at Coursera. When she moved to a new leadership role at Outlier.org, I asked her if she’d be willing to chat. Anjuli graciously agreed to answer my questions about her role at Outlier and the company’s approach to online learning.
Q1: You are in a new role as Head of Partnerships at Outlier.org. Can you help us understand what that role is all about, and your career path to get where you are now?
Absolutely! My job at Outlier.org is to build partnerships that will put our courses into the hands of as many students as possible. We’re on a mission to increase access to high-quality education while reducing student debt, and there are any number of partnerships we could build around our courses that would help to create new or accelerated pathways to degrees for students. We’re looking to expand our partnerships with universities, high schools, employers, and all kinds of organizations that provide student support. Since your audience is focused on higher ed, it might help to share that we partner with universities and colleges in three ways. Those are (1) articulation agreements so that our courses are pre-reviewed for credit transfer to a specific institution, (2) courseware partnerships that enable universities to use our courses to fill in gaps in their course schedules, provide catalog extensions, and help students catch up if they’ve missed or dropped a key course, and (3) a very small handful of school of record partnerships like the one we have with The University of Pittsburgh and its Johnstown campus to ensure that our courses are meeting the right academic standards.
How I got here is relatively simple. During my time at Coursera, I became increasingly concerned about the college completion and debt crises, and both fascinated and saddened by the tight correlation between family income and access to engaging and rigorous educational options. As we were building out our degree business, I did a lot of reading about the transition to college and early undergraduate outcomes, who students today are, etc. Over time, I became convinced that if we in online education were to solve those problems, we’d have to create courses that were engaging enough to inspire students to learn, and rigorous enough to open additional doors. I quickly realized that joining the team at Outlier.org was a rare opportunity to work on something that melds a personal passion with an outstanding product, and my existing network of forward-looking leaders in higher education.
Q2: When I think of Outlier.org, my first thought is “MasterClass for higher ed”. My second thought about Outlier.org is “super-high production value online classes”. How should I make sense of what Outlier.org is all about?
You are right that both MasterClass and Outlier.org offer ultra-high-quality productions, though ‘under the hood,’ the two companies and pedagogies are quite different. MasterClass is fundamentally about unearthing rare knowledge only available in one place. Outlier.org is about supporting a full understanding of introductory course material and increasing knowledge retention and synthesis through proven educational methodologies. Our production team is led by the brilliant Ava Plasse. She worked with Aaron Rasmussen, the founder and CEO of Outlier.org, at MasterClass, and her team invests a lot in cinematography (lighting, camera angles, editing, shoot location) to draw people in. These could be people who intend to major in the topic or are simply exploring the joys of many subjects as they fulfill breadth requirements. We cast for instructors and only bring on people who are prominent in their field, well-loved in the classroom, and compelling on camera. For our Calculus I course, that includes Hannah Fry, the famous mathematician and television host, and John Urschel, an MIT Ph.D. candidate and former NFL lineman. For Introduction to Psychology, we’ve recruited accomplished professors from Yale, Cornell, Columbia, Stanford, and New York University, including Paul Bloom and David Pizarro.
The reason I said that the cinematography is only part of the story is that students spend 140 hours per course with us on average, and perhaps 20% or 25% of that is in video lectures. Active learning, problem sets, and assessments make up the bulk of our courses, and that part of the experience depends on our investment in student success and our underlying learning platform.
Student success is our number one priority–if we don’t create good outcomes, nothing else matters. Our student success team enables us to achieve student outcomes that are on par with on-campus outcomes overall, helping students with everything from enrollment and platform questions, to referrals to tutoring, to making sure Slack discussion forums are working, and more. The student success team also equips prospective Outlier.org students with a transfer guide to take to their academic advisor so that students know where and how their Pitt credit will transfer before they start one of our courses.
To implement the best practices of educational psychology and learning science, Outlier.org created a new LMS from scratch. Our product team is led by Michael Astolfi who has a Master’s in the Design and Psychology of Video Games from NYU and worked with Aaron on an award-winning, all-audio ‘videogame’ several years ago. Michael and his team are leading innovators in higher education right now. They have reimagined a learning management system experience that’s seamless and immersive, with multiple learning modalities, from pre-tests to an active learning textbook, flashcards, and more. They use Bloom’s taxonomy and principles of learning from Make It Stick, then couple those with what they know of engaging people from designing video games. When you’re on our platform, it’s possible to lose track of time and get lost in thinking, learning, and testing new ideas. What they have is really special because it makes you feel like you are back in the library again, completely focused on learning.
All of this comes down to access. We’re making a big bet that beautiful lectures, strong student support, immersive learning, and a rigorous syllabus are going to help a greater diversity of students find new pathways to the college degree of their dreams.
Q3: I think I get why Outlier.org courses will be appealing to many learners, I’m not quite understanding how colleges and universities should think about Outlier.org. Why would we want to replace our faculty and our courses with Outlier.org faculty and courses? What is the role of colleges and universities in what Outlier.org is doing?
We’re not a replacement for faculty or universities, by any stretch. We will succeed when we find the right ‘use cases’ where we can help both universities and students. Outlier.org’s ultimate goal is not to replace the college curriculum, but rather to provide a high-quality, affordable and flexible option for each of the 20-30 largest introductory college courses. Many students will likely use it for a few courses to supplement their degrees at universities where they may not have been able to finish otherwise. We don’t have plans to be a bachelor’s degree replacement or create upper-division courses because those are so diverse and heterogeneous. Based on the experiences of many students, including our founder, Aaron Rasmussen, we know that having on-demand and rigorous options for prerequisites and breadth requirements will help students to stay on track for graduation and manage their debt load.
I’m inspired by the possibility that we can help students and universities alike by supporting retention and completion rates. From admissions decisions onward, higher education leaders are under a lot of pressure to help students graduate on time, and that often starts with summer preparation for incoming students. Once students have matriculated, it means ensuring that they can get into the right courses at the right times and that they have options if they need to be off-campus for a semester (family emergency, study abroad, co-op), or if they drop a course. So our conversations with universities are about those things–what’s going on with them, where are the challenges, what gaps can we help to fill. We’re talking to one partner about spinning up a summer Calculus I course for students who aren’t doing well during the current semester and want to stay on track. We’ve talked to other higher education institutions about how to serve handfuls of students who need courses that have been capped or are over-subscribed. One college came to us and said that their students get stuck on statistics and that’s where they envision us helping out. Universities also want to find new ways to identify students who are highly qualified but perhaps can’t manage eight semesters, on-campus, in sequence. We can help universities connect to a more diverse group of students through recruiting and articulation agreements.
Like I said earlier, our goal is not to replace the college curriculum, but rather, to provide a high-quality, affordable and flexible option that aids in making education accessible for everyone.