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CreativeLive: Streaming Free Educational Classes to the Masses

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Since last December, CreativeLive has been live all day and night on five channels, each focusing on a different skill. The channels are Photo & Video, Art & Design, Music & Audio, Maker & Craft, and Business & Money. Jarvis says the business channel ties it all together because it “gives the people in all the other channels the opportunity to tap into business skills and the entrepreneurial side of themselves, and gives people the real opportunity to live the life they want” by making their passion a career.

When a live class isn’t underway, a prerecorded class gets played back “like live” to the channel. Viewers watching the “like live” classes can still watch for free and participate in real-time chat. Ustream introduced a way to schedule live playlists last year, but CreativeLive needed a more robust solution and built its own.

A typical television station might have its own master control room and operator managing the on-air and recorded playlist content. CreativeLIVE’s custom software solution doesn’t require a separate room or a full-time operator to program the channels. Just like a TV station going to commercial break, when a class takes a break, videos are programmed to promote upcoming or past classes.

Another key differentiator for CreativeLive is the quality of its instructors. Their lineup of teachers has included New York Times best-selling authors such as Tim Ferriss, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Vincent Laforet, and Gale Tattersall, the director of photography on the TV series House M.D. Jarvis says many of the instructors are looking to give back to the community, and it’s easy for them to do it on the their platform, which eliminates typical educational constraints such as access, geography, and cost for students. The company also treats instructors well and has paid out more than $3.5 million to its teachers.

An Alternative to MOOCs

The online education field has seen great hype but also a lot of disappointment recently. The New York Times declared 2012 as “The Year of the MOOC.” (MOOC is shorthand for massive open online course.) But the man known as the godfather of MOOCs, Sebastian Thrun, admitted that the courses his company, Udacity, had offered were a “lousy product.” An online course at San Jose State University was canceled after more than half the students failed their final exams. Udacity has announced it’s pivoting toward more vocational-focused learning.

There are a number of reasons why CreativeLive’s business model is working while others are struggling. First, CreativeLive is live. Jarvis says, “[T]o have people get together for a live event is a real interesting way to learn, it’s powerful.” By using technology to create human interactions in real time, they create a better learning platform than students get from watching a recorded video by themselves.

There is a bit of irony there, because CreativeLive only makes money when students pay to watch or download the recordings. There are some special benefits to the recording, though, such as the ability to pause and replay parts you might want to watch again.

Jarvis says another reason CreativeLive succeeds is because its classes are organized around creativity. Jarvis believes “creativity is the new literacy,” and his classes are tapping into really hot subject matter that students really want to learn. The motivation to watch a CreativeLive class is not to earn what Jarvis has called a “bloated degree.” Instead, it’s to learn skills to help you with your career or hobby and perhaps turn your passion into a day job, just as it did for Jarvis.

This approach seems to be working, as the average class size is more than 20,000 students and the average watch time is more than 3 hours.

CreativeLive classes feature in-studio students who ask instructors questions and act as a proxy for the home viewers. 

CreativeLive makes it very easy to watch a class. In fact, there’s no friction to get started. Students don’t even need to enroll. They just select a live class and start watching. However, if they want to take advantage of the live chat and community, they need to create an account with a username and password.

While CreativeLive operates on a freemium model, it has been profitable since it launched. At the end of 2013, it raised another round of capital, bringing its funding total to nearly $30 million.

Jarvis says advances in streaming and video technology have made it all possible. That includes the big drop in the cost of high-quality video cameras and switchers. Another factor is the availability of a low-cost streaming infrastructure, which just wasn’t available when he started in photography.

The CreativeLive studios in Seattle happen to be just across the street from one of the local network affiliate stations. Jarvis notes that while the TV station has a much larger studio and all the bells and whistles such as helicopters and satellite dishes, it only reaches a local audience. But CreativeLive is reaching people in more than 200 countries. Jarvis says it really highlights the difference of what scalable technology can do and what’s possible with technology today.

This article appears in the 2014 Streaming Media Sourcebook as "Inside CreativeLive." 

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