Creating Technology for Social Change

Skillshare: An opportunity for codesign in the peer economy

Meet Margot Harrington. Five years ago, Margot worked for a design agency. Five years ago, that agency laid off two-thirds of its staff in one day. Margot now stitches together her income via her own design studio and speaking engagements. She moonlights through Aeolidia which always has a few projects for her and helps her stave off the feast-and-famine cycle of freelancing.

Photo by Lucy Hewett

Margot also blogs. At one point, Margot had to decide whether she was going to be known for her design writing or her design because there wasn’t enough time to bolster both. But this sort of networking has gotten her far, and she believes it’s how Ethan Bodnar from Skillshare knew to reach out to her.

Ethan connected me to Margot when I asked to speak with one of Skillshare’s online teachers. Skillshare focuses heavily on design and fashion education, and Margot teaches a class on contract writing for designers.

I knew Skillshare when it was shy of a year old. Last spring, I attended its tea parties, teacher training classes and general meetups. Back then, Skillshare only offered meetup classes. Any space could be a school, and anyone could be a teacher. In fall, they introduced another avenue: online classes. 

After a few iterations—scheduling classes as Google Hangouts to go-at-your-own-pace—Skillshare has a working template for its online classes (see above). But coming up on two years now, Skillshare’s teachers face similar challenges as some of their other peer economy counterparts: How do they file their taxes? All the teachers are technically independent contractors. In most states, income under $900 does not need to be reported. But if that income comes in random spurts of $20, unlabeled direct deposits to your account, how do you manage the book keeping (and is the income worth the time, worth hiring an accountant)?

“You can’t live this lifestyle without being self-motivated, self-actualized, ‘I-want-to-do-this, I’m-doing-it.’ You don’t have a cheerleader behind you everyday,” Margot said. Being self-reliant has politicized Margot. Buying is not just buying anymore; there’s a different human impact when purchasing from Target versus purchasing from a small business. And of course, healthcare issues have come to the forefront.

So when Margot spoke of how to improve her Skillshare efficacy, she often started with “I should do this, I should talk to that person.” Margot knows a few teachers from design circles outside of Skillshare, but she hesitates to cold-connect with teachers she hasn’t met. Skillshare HQ has their hands full iterating their platform. In inventing the wheel for a new income stream, Skillshare is in the same place as their teachers and counterparts when it comes to questions like taxes and recruiting students beyond existing networks: at Square One. 

One of the trends Skillshare follows is embedding social networking features into its platform. It has integrated Facebook Connect as sign-in and commenting options, and users can “follow” each other to get leads on new classes. While being a student is pretty straightforard, being a teacher is more nebulous. Outside of taxes, Margot wonders about how to improve the reach of her course. Contract writing for designers targets a very specific audience, and she has already tapped her main network across social media and in the design community. The challenge, she says, is to find new places to talk about the course so she can reach beyond her existing network. She wonders what other teachers are doing and whether there could be a network of teachers that help promote one another’s courses.

Margot and I brainstormed a sort of open forum in the context of the Skillshare platform. With a philosophy that every user is both a student and teacher, Skillshare reflects the spirit of transparency. Between teachers, emailing can be too formal, with many niceties in a thread before getting to the real question. And sometimes 140 characters on Twitter is just not enough to get the point across.

The funny thing about peer networks, they ease peer-to-peer, many-to-many interactions, but unless they build open communication between people, then the many-to-many is only true as a commercial interaction. While many peer economy startups are pioneering the way to new income and lowering the barrier to freelancing, all of the people involved are negotiating how to make the income and interactions work. Skillshare teachers, potential students-cum-teachers are go-getters and pioneers, too. They have tips, they need tips, and opening the sluice gate in between validates that they are equal partners in defining the space.

Special thanks to Ethan Bodnar (@ethanbodnar) for shedding light on the Skillshare internal workings.