Even pre-pandemic, the decline of traditional education was already underway. With exorbitant costs and a focus on standardized test scores, the industrial education model has become increasingly disconnected from the needs of both students and employers. Worse, little attention goes toward encouraging the skills and mentality needed for lifelong learning.
As the cofounder of an education startup, I don’t think it has to be this way. A recent Harvard study showed that students actually learn more when education is built on “active learning,” which promotes working collaboratively on projects. And now, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the disruption of education as kids and young adults have been forced to learn from home. In the collective reckoning on what learning should look like going forward, I’ve found that the social media platform TikTok offers some surprising insights.
Over the last few years, TikTok has become one of the largest learning platforms in the world: It’s available in over 150 markets and is one of the most downloaded apps in 40-plus countries. On the app, which is available in 75 languages, creators make a variety of short-form videos on everything from cooking hacks to dance moves to crafts and math skills. The hashtag #LearnOnTikTok currently has more than seven billion views.
Why has TikTok become such a popular learning platform? It embodies the following trends:
Creators are empowered: Traditional education has been focused on institutions that limit and control access to teachers, regulating their relationship with their students. In contrast, TikTok is designed to make it easy for anyone to be a video creator, to share information, and to find an audience.
It also empowers teachers of all kinds by giving them a platform independent from their institutions and a new way to meet their students where they are. For instance, @Iamthatenglishteacher began posting TikTok grammar lessons to help her middle-school students overcome common mistakes. She now has 1.5 million followers.
Influence is the new accreditation: The top creators on TikTok aren’t there because of the school they went to or the certificate they have. It’s their skills and ability to embody what they are teaching in a compelling way that gives them their authority and influence. It’s a trend across the learning sector: People are looking for demonstrated mastery or recognition versus traditional institutional credentials.
Learning is fun, and learners are actively engaged: Entrepreneur Seth Godin famously said that the focus of modern education can be summed up with one question: “Will this be on the test?” He believes that what’s missing at the core of this mentality is “enrollment”—this is the idea that students are there because they want to be. TikTok captures this concept: It’s fun, engaging, and people are showing up by choice, sparked by a love of the subject matter and not for a certificate or course credit.
The future of learning will be social: TikTok is a powerful tool for education because it is both a learning platform and a social network. People find their friends, scroll through content, and along the way find new groups with shared interests. TikTok’s 500 million active users now put it ahead of better-known social sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, and Snapchat.
But while TikTok illuminates many of the trends defining the future of learning, it also has its clear limitations. The maximum video length it supports is 60 seconds, which makes a full education or deeper skills training impossible on the platform.
TikTok also doesn’t provide live connection or accountability—two essential components that were also missing from the first generation of online learning. When online classes got their start, they mostly provided access to educational content, but struggled with follow-through: On average, only 4% of people will complete an online class, mostly because online classes lack a community. And it’s the community that provides the accountability and peer pressure that helps keep people going.
Still, TikTok is valuable for educators right now because it provides exposure. But it’s not a sustainable revenue source.
“TikTok lets me capture and share these profound moments that showcase my work,” says Rachel Weinstock, a TikTok creator, coach, educator, and activist who offers cohort-based courses and coaching (where she makes her revenue). “TikTok is the surface area tool—letting me spread my message—but it doesn’t offer an income source. Increasingly, I use it to invite users into my paid and deeper programs.”
Educators and creators such as Rachel need more than TikTok can offer. A business-in-a-box solution could make it easy to build educational experiences that create sustainable income streams without needing millions of followers.
This becomes possible when educational content goes deeper than what a platform like TikTok offers while still retaining some of that social, engaging ethos that people naturally gravitate to. In a live, online, cohort-based course, for instance, groups learn together; they give and receive feedback and are held accountable. Compared to the previous generation of solo, self-paced online learning, this model can create a true sense of belonging.
These are the educational experiences that work best for the teacher and learner and which can bring us into a golden age of learning—one that is accessible from anywhere, led by passionate creators and educators, and grounded in a connected community.
Candice Faktor is the cofounder of Disco, a platform for creators to build and monetize live cohort-based courses and learning communities.