'Collaborative Education' Offers Inexpensive Courses Taught by Impassioned Amateurs

Those who can't, teach

The first time that the Brooklyn Brainery—an "accessible, community-driven, crowd-sourced education" hub in Carroll Gardens—hosted an ice cream-making class, it didn't go well. "The ice cream didn't freeze," explains co-founder Jonathan Soma.

And when the Brainery ran a course on hot drinks, the brown ale for the wassail began to foam uncontrollably, soiling the floor of the school's rented space. But students drank the wassail anyway. Then there was the class on obscure card games that transformed into a weekly card-playing get-together and the seminar on karaoke that finished with a late-night discussion section at the neighborhood bar.

Nearly two years old, the Brainery is one of the friendlier examples of a new movement in continuing education, often called "collaborative education." Throughout the city, these start-ups—Brooklyn Skillshare, the Public School, Trade School, and others—offer popular courses, often suggested by prospective students themselves, for low or no cost. Typically, teachers rely more on passionate amateurism than degreed expertise, and students come ready to contribute their own experiences and opinions. Without the fixed semester schedules and certificate programs that are offered at more traditional centers of continuing education, these collaborative institutions work toward different objectives: anti-authoritarian goals, community engagement, or foamy-ale-fueled fun.

The phenomenon isn't limited to New York City. The Public School operates in Helsinki, Berlin, San Juan, Brussels, and three other U.S. cities. Trade School has opened in Charlottesville and Milan and will soon expand to London and Delhi. Skillshare students meet from California all the way to Dublin.

Administrators at Pratt Institute, which has offered continuing education courses for more than 30 years, say collaborative institutions are a complement to traditional models, not a replacement for them. "They're serving a necessary niche," says Chuck Münster, Pratt's director of continuing education. "We service adults for the most part who are coming back either to get a credential so that they can move forward in their career or study in an area so that they might be able to change careers. We offer very comprehensive courses, and we hire industry professionals to teach them." University-based continuing education, he says, has evolved throughout the years to favor professional training over personal enrichment.

It was that evolution that originally inspired Soma, a freelance Web developer, to co-found the Brainery with his friend Jen Messier, who worked in the development office of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Both enjoyed taking classes—welding, cobbling, surfing—but came to realize they'd settled on an expensive hobby, particularly as they were studying for pleasure rather than professional advancement. "If I take a shoemaking class at FIT, I'm not taking it to become a cobbler," Soma says. "I'm taking it because, hey, it sounds kind of interesting. But the price I'm paying is the price someone would pay if they were doing this as an investment in their future." Soma says that he and Messier began the Brainery so that "we could explore topics without being burdened with incredible tuition fees."

Most of the students these collaborative courses attract are, like the centers' founders, college-educated, working professionals in their twenties and thirties, the same audience that most forms of continuing education at universities draw from. If collaborative institutions even offer some of the same classes—like the Brainery's classes on playwriting, digital photography, and music theory—what distinguishes them besides a low cost?

Meg Wachter, who heads Brooklyn Skillshare, points to a different ethos. "There is lack of pretension or intimidation in having a peer teach versus someone you've paid to teach you," Wachter explains in an e-mail.

"It's not the model of education where there's an expert who just dumps all of their education on people who have nothing to give and who are just naïve," says Caroline Woolard, who helped to found Trade School, where students barter goods—whether research time, running shoes, or fresh produce—for instruction. "You're entering into a more democratic learning environment where everyone has something to give, and everyone is invested in each other's success."

Melissa Anderson, who has taken classes on such subjects as dinosaurs and Web development, enjoys the camaraderie that collaborative education centers offer. "You're taking classes with other people who like learning new things," she says. "No one is there because they have to fulfill some credit requirement for school."

Virginia Wang, who has taken more than a dozen classes at the Brainery, from "Tomatoes!" to "Making a Documentary from Scratch," says that she favors courses there not only for the low cost and "mellow atmosphere," but also for the approachability of its teachers. "There's no stuffiness or artificial distance," she says. "They're just real people who love whatever they're teaching about."

Of course, there are trade-offs. At Pratt, NYU, or one of the CUNY schools, students are assured that their instructor is a fully credentialed industry professional. Conversely, these newer institutions favor willingness and enthusiasm. Sean Dockray, who worked to initiate the New York version of the Public School, explains, "We have experts, frauds, enthusiasts, and combinations of the above who facilitate the classes. There's really no standardized format." Sometimes, he notes, "an instructor can't be found, and a group still meets anyway, usually doing just fine."

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