January 12, 2022

How the pandemic created a new path forward for One Day University

The year One Day University was founded. The general idea behind the concept was this: Put on events that bring together a variety of university professors that are known for popular courses and have them present that course to regular people at single-day events. The company evolved away from this model into something fully online during the early weeks of the pandemic.

In this context, One Day University represents quite a success story.  Steven Schragis, the founder and director of the platform (and fun trivia fact for magazine fans: the onetime publishing director of the legendary SPY magazine), built the platform with the idea that people who may be decades removed from their schooling might want to continue learning.

What’s the benefit of doing so through this service over just watching a bunch of YouTube videos? Well, as the name implies, actual professors lead the discussion, which means that there’s a certain level of curation and vetting to the overall result that you won’t get from a random guy telling you how to fix your refrigerator.

“If someone is the most popular professor at a university in the United States, that’s a certain level of vetting right there,” he says.

One Day University is not the only game in town on this front. And what’s interesting about its competition is that it often represents distinct ideological differences in thinking about how such a platform is built, rather than a series of copycats.

Apart from the aforementioned YouTube, where literally anyone with a camera and an idea for a channel can become a “teacher,” you have things like MasterClass, which is designed around the idea that celebrities have the experience to be good teachers. Want to learn from former president Bill Clinton, learn chess from Garry Kasparov, or get an electric guitar lesson from Tom Morello or Carlos Santana? That’s MasterClass for you.

Schragis admits that MasterClass, while something of a direct competitor, is good at the niche it’s in, even if the challenge they ultimately have is that the people that are teaching the classes are ultimately (very famous) first-time teachers.

“They work pretty hard to make these things good. And they’re aware that telling someone, ‘Okay now, teach,’ no experience teaching, is a problem,” he says. “And if they get a bad reputation for what they do, it’s gonna hurt the company.” One Day University, by relying on popular educators, flips this model. Sure, a professor will likely not have the name recognition of Stephen Curry or Simone Biles. But on the other hand, they also know a lot about teaching a class.

“Our little niche, we are sort of lucky that if a professor at U of Michigan is about the most popular professor in the whole school, thousands of students keep wanting to take his or her classes, that tells me they know what they’re doing,” he says. “They don’t have to be coached.”

My conversation with Schragis, the man whose company made an impressive pivot into a new world seemingly overnight, made me realize how tactical I often am with my own learning process. I generally am always researching things, but I’m often doing so in service of trying to fill out this newsletter, or report out a bigger story.

One Day University isn’t really built around that kind of tactical learning. It’s for people who like learning just because it’s learning, and want to do more of it.

As a result, the types of things the company tends to focus on include historic figures or things with a fairly broad appeal. (For example, a couple of upcoming sessions include “Albert Einstein: The Man Behind the Math” and “Beyond Chocolate and Vanilla: The Delicious History of Ice Cream.”) The people that are leading the classes are experts on the things they teach—they’re professors, after all—but the topics generally tend to be the types of things you learn about because you have a mental itch you hope to scratch, not because you’re hoping to become an ice cream expert.

But what’s really intriguing is the idea that, down the line, I might be in a position to learn just because I want to, not because I have to, because there’s some underlying structure that’s pushing me in the direction of filling my brain with fresh information.

“People reach a point different times in their life where they start to be interested in other things, just because it’s interesting.” Schragis says. “They go, ‘You know what, I never took that art course in college and I always wanted to, and now I can.’”

The ability to learn something just for the sake of learning it, because we didn’t know it existed previously, is something our world doesn’t encourage enough—at least not in a well-structured, thoughtful way.

In a world full of bad information, maybe nurturing that natural curiosity is a great way to get back to the good stuff.

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