Photo: Courtesy of @outschool via Instagram
If you're on Facebook or Instagram and you're a parent, chances are your news feed is inundated with ads from Outschool. Like me, you probably scrolled by, glancing at it, but not giving it much thought. But a few weeks ago, as I thought about the summer break, the potential for lockdowns to continue, and my jam-packed work-from-home schedule, the concept started to sound more and more intriguing. So as the April school break approached and Toronto's weather was forecast to be cold and rainy that week, I decided to pull the trigger and see what Outschool is all about.
Founded in 2015, Outschool was designed to offer supplemental learning for homeschooled children. But with the pandemic in full swing, the educational platform has become a source of learning and social interaction for kids of all ages, in all types of schools.
The diverse selection of courses, classes, and groups are designed for kids from 3-17 and are managed by experienced and independent educators (or companies) via an interactive, live video platform. Those who wish to teach don't necessarily have to possess a teaching degree, but they must undergo a background check and be approved to teach via the platform based on their credentials and experience. Parents and kids leave reviews, providing valuable feedback and a level of accountability to do well. At present, there are more than 100,000 live online classes serving 174 countries.
The class topics are super broad. There are classes on drawing, dancing, singing, pets, mindfulness, chess, gaming, guitar and astronomy. Is your kid into Pokemon or Fortnite? They can learn how to play. Does your child need help with reading? Individualized sessions can be tailored to their age and reading level. You name it, there's very likely a class for it.
My son, who's nine, made a long list of classes he found interesting and we narrowed it down together, landing on four camps for the week: one on video-game design taught by a teacher from Vancouver-based UME Academy, one on chess tactics and strategies held by an accredited teacher and chess champion, and a stop-motion video class for beginners. For a fun Friday activity, we booked him in for an hour-long Minecraft-themed escape room where the kids solve puzzles. After I password-protected the main account, I gave my son the link to the child view to open on his Chromebook where he could access his schedule, required materials (if any), meeting links and other information in time for each class.
Outschool has one-off classes that last about hour, or ones that are held at the same hour every day for a week. There are also ongoing classes that take place over the course of several weeks, on the same day and time each week. Subscription-based classes are also held on a recurring basis. Usually, there are several time slots from which to choose, giving parents flexibility to select times that best fit the family's schedule.
Use the intuitive search filters to see classes by date and time, age range, price and/or subject. Each listing states the frequency, date and time options (usually in Eastern Standard Time), age range and price in U.S. dollars. Pricing can be as little as $9 for a 55-minute class to as high as $100 for five classes in a week (at $20 per class). In all, for 11 hours' worth of classes for the week, I spent about $200. I hope one day in the future they offer prices in Canadian dollars.
I was prepared to not be wowed, but I mostly was. During the signing up process, I loved that each class description included every detail you could possibly want to know, from what will be covered to a full bio on the teacher, what materials are required (e.g. a certain device, app, or software program), and the full time commitment. The classes themselves matched the descriptions to a tee.
When it came to customer service issues, any problem we encountered was quickly rectified, like a partial refund when my son couldn't make one class (he could still watch the recorded session after). Our experience was largely positive.
Keep in mind, however, that costs can add up quickly, especially when considering the exchange rate if you use a Canadian credit card. Based on the cost-to-time ratio, Outschool also isn't the virtual summer classroom of your dreams, serving as an all-day camp replacement. But there is value in the intimate and focused nature of small group classes. It's more like tutoring or extracurriculars than it is a replacement for school or all-day camp.
A relatively small sum of $14 for an hour of virtual socializing with kids who share similar interests is a small price to pay when the kids have no other option. But once they do, that $14 might be better spent hanging out with friends in real life.
Still, even when we return to some level of normalcy, I plan to sign my son up for a few summer Outschool classes, whether it's an hour every week to learn something new or one-off classes to explore interests and meet new friends. He's just as excited as I am to look through the options and find classes that interest him.
That said, I'll be setting a strict budget. Without one, Outschool can quickly make too big a dent on the credit card bill. But with a running tally and selecting just one or two subjects my kid is really passionate about, I think it'll be totally worth it.