Coronavirus lockdowns spark boom in home schooling for grown-ups

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From her home in Portland, Ore., Peggy Dean perches her iPhone on a tripod and records five-minute lessons on subjects ranging from modern calligraphy to watercolor. Since the coronavirus struck, demand for her videos has soared, with viewing figures doubling from a year ago.

The business of selling skills online — from art to coding — has been booming during the pandemic. Online educators say adults are making time to learn during lockdown, joining millions of children and college students taking classes at home and adding to the raft of in-home activities gaining in popularity. Teachers say online learning was already growing, and lockdowns have accelerated that, but competition is coming from automated lessons powered by algorithms.

Ms. Dean, a former hair stylist, posts her videos along with roughly 6,000 other teachers to Skillshare Inc., a New York-based website that charges $99 a year for unlimited video classes. Ms. Dean, one of the site's most-watched teachers, said she makes six figures from teaching online.

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Daily viewers and time spent on Skillshare have more than tripled from last year, the company said. Revenue shared by teachers like Ms. Dean rose 12% between March and April, and the company expects it to rise again this month and next as free-trial users start paying up.

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Last month, the site's top teacher made $68,000 with videos about how to use Adobe software, said Skillshare, which has 500,000 paying subscribers. All teachers earn a cut of a royalty pool based on minutes watched, with the top 500 earning about $2,000 a month on average but most other teachers earning far less.

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Ms. Dean, 33 years old, said she regularly speaks to other teachers on the site who say they are also getting more viewers. "We're all seeing those minutes skyrocket," she said, adding that her numbers have doubled to 475,000 minutes in April from last year.

March 16 — just before California and New York implemented lockdowns — was "the day everything shot up," Skillshare Chief Executive Matt Cooper said. "It's roughly 50/50 for people coming for professional reasons versus passion and hobbies."

Enrollments for video courses on Udemy Inc., a San Francisco-based learning site, more than quadrupled between February and March as shelter-in-place orders started.

The company, which has about 57,000 instructors, said sign-ups surged for both professional certifications — topics like stock trading and software — and hobby skills like Pilates and ukulele, which grew 400% and 300%, respectively between February and March. The biggest rise, by more than 900%, was in technical drawing.

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A similar site, Coursera Inc., said 10 million people had signed up for its classes between mid-March and mid-May, a 600% annual increase. One-tenth of those people are paying for classes, with courses on well-being and programming the most popular.

Codecademy, owned by New York-based Ryzac Inc., offers automated coding lessons and said new subscribers have doubled since February.

Co-founder Zach Sims said he hired more support staff and lesson designers — many of them laid-off engineers — to cope with demand.

Online firms aren't the only beneficiaries of the recent growth. In New York, Mike Dunphy has taught article writing with Gotham Writers Workshop Inc. as a side job for the past six years. Since the coronavirus hit, he has been teaching two or three online classes a week instead of one, which he used to do in person.

"They seem more engaged," he said of his new crop of students, whom he teaches over Zoom in groups of 15. Students who came for physical lessons in Manhattan would often start off motivated, then stop traveling in after a few weeks. "It's easier to get to a Zoom class," Mr. Dunphy said.

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Overall, the writing school said revenue increased 36% in April, compared with last year, after pivoting its physical classes to Zoom. Its president, Alex Steele, said last month was the best in the company's 27-year history and that it plans to hire more teachers to meet demand. Most new students are trying to fulfill personal goals, such as writing a novel, though some are looking for professional enhancement.

"The big question is what will October or January 2021 look like," Mr. Steele said. "I don't know that we will sustain this."

Teachers might not always be necessary either, according to Codecademy's Mr. Sims. He said automated platforms like his will capture more online learners in the long run because they are more engaging. They use games and bots to give instant feedback, and can be personalized.

Trying to replicate the teacher-student experience over video often lacks a personal touch or interactivity, Mr. Sims argued. It can work fine for fitness classes, he added, but not so well with languages or computer science.

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Language-learning apps Duolingo Inc. and Babbel — operated by Lesson Nine GmbH — each said new registrations more than doubled in the U.S. in March. Both are largely automated.

But many people still gravitate to human teachers. In Madrid, 31-year-old Lucia Casimiro-Soriguer Esteva started taking English lessons with a teacher over WhatsApp, after lockdowns took effect and she left her job.

She said the one-hour lessons, done as video calls, have helped improve her employment prospects, and she will continue them after Spain's lockdowns lift. "It's a very good way to improve my English," she said, adding that video classes would save her the time of traveling to a physical class.

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Ms. Dean of Skillshare is optimistic she will retain many of her new students after the pandemic eases. She said new viewers tend to stick around and that she is relatable as a teacher, keeping bloopers in her videos.

"It's really important to show up authentically," she said.

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