The company is quick to point out that it’s not a get-rich-quick scheme: The average instructor on the site has earned more like $7,000 in total, and only a minority quit their day jobs. “You don’t start teaching purely for the money,” Udemy spokesman Dinesh Thiru told me. “You start teaching because you’re passionate about something.” That said, the site is set up to give top billing to its most highly rated classes, which means that popular instructors have a chance to reach large numbers of students—and reap the rewards. That open-marketplace model is in contrast to similar sites like Lynda.com, which produces its courses in-house and sells them via membership rather than a la carte.
When I first heard of Udemy, I mentally lumped it with the MOOCs—massive, open, online courses—that have sprung up in great numbers in the past two years. These include Coursera and Udacity, the rival for-profit startups launched by Stanford professors, and EdX, a nonprofit that started as a collaboration between Harvard and MIT. In fact, Udemy stands apart. The courses are not free, the teachers are not affiliated with universities, and the lectures and course materials are served on-demand, rather than by semester. If the MOOCs are disrupting higher education, as the cliché has it, Udemy is aiming to disrupt something less grandiose—night schools, perhaps.
In general, online lectures fall short of a full classroom experience, and I’ve argued in the past that the MOOCs are better seen as a replacement for textbooks than a replacement for college as a whole. By those lights, Udemy and its kin could be viewed as a 21st-century hybrid of the how-to book and the professional development seminar. Or maybe an Airbnb for career skills instead of accommodations.
Cynics might wonder if Udemy courses are a rip-off, since one can often find similar material for free elsewhere on the Web. Codecademy, for instance, offers a free interactive crash course for computer-programming newbies that covers some of the same ground as Bastos. On the other hand, Codecademy’s automated lessons lack the human touch of Bastos’ homespun lectures. And Bastos tells me he prides himself on promptly answering all his students’ questions, which is not something you’ll find on a free YouTube channel. Besides, the cost is hardly exorbitant, particularly given how valuable programming experience is these days.
If I have any concern with Udemy, it’s the risk that it may overpromise and underdeliver in some cases, not only for its students but for its teachers. Bastos may not have credentials, but he possesses both an extremely marketable knowledge base and an obvious knack for online teaching. Not everyone shares that combination, and those who don’t may find themselves overmatched and undercompensated if they try to replicate his success. Udemy will also need to make good on its pledges of quality control in order to assure students that their money won’t go to waste. Then again, the same could be said of professional development seminars—and Udemy has the advantage of a user-rating system to separate the good courses from the bad. “If the instructor isn’t up to snuff—if something fell through our gaps—it’s quickly pointed out by the students,” Thiru said, “and that course is not going to be very visible on Udemy in the future.”
Forget get-rich-quick, then. The opportunity that sites such as Udemy offer is better summed up as get-rich-if-you’re-really-good. It’s not such a novel concept in most fields—just rather unusual for education.