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The Masters Behind MasterClass

How two friends who wanted to learn acting from Dustin Hoffman might change education

At first, the promise of online education hub MasterClass can seem like a joke — one payment of $90 and you can learn how to act from Dustin Hoffman, how to sing from Christina Aguilera, how to play tennis from Serena Williams or how to be a pop star from Usher — all from the comfort of your home.

The typical MasterClass includes 15 or so video lessons, a class workbook (with notes, reading material and exercises) and something the company calls “Office House,” which promises one-on-one instruction. “Submit videos of your forehand for feedback from other students taking the class (and possibly Serena herself!),” the site says. (Due to the nature of the class, only a few lucky students get chosen to receive one-on-one feedback — while the rest of the class “looks” on.)

So is it a load of bullshit, or a better, cheaper alternative to grad school for mastering a given topic (without the accreditation)? For their part, MasterClass co-founders Aaron Rasmussen and David Rogier suggest that combining their tech and business backgrounds (respectively) is changing education. All that A-list star power certainly isn’t hurting.

How did MasterClass get started?
David and I met a few years ago. We got set up on a friend date, probably the first one I had ever been set up on. Our friends were like, “You guys are [both] creative with a respect for business. You’re both nice to a fault.” And we were like, What does that mean? We met in Santa Monica for coffee, and it was kind of awkward! It was like, I’ll be the guy in the sweater. But we totally hit it off. And we always knew that we wanted to work together on something, so we kept trying to recruit each other for our various projects.

David had talked to a lot of people with experience in education outside the normal school system. He found out that people just really, really want to learn. Before college and after college — unfortunately, at a lot of these [continuing education schools] people were getting ripped off. So we thought: What’s the best possible version of online education you could have? Well, you could learn acting from Dustin Hoffman, learning from the best person in the world at that thing. We were inexperienced enough in Hollywood that we thought we could just go out and get that together. But after seven months of pretty hard work, we filmed the James Patterson class.

Just because someone is great at something, doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be a great teacher.
: The instructors spend a lot of time figuring out how to best teach their craft. We also spend a lot of time thinking about how we can be involved. [Director] Jay Roach did Austin Powers and Meet the Parents and he’s worked with Dustin before, so that’s who Dustin wanted to help direct the videos for his class. These guys have devoted their lives to their craft, and as a result, they have advice and experience that often has never been shared before. And some of the instructors have coached or acted as mentors with other artists, athletes, actors — even if they haven’t taught in a classroom.

How do you work with these celebrities to find the time for them to teach?
What we’ve found is that the instructors really like to do these things. You know that situation in the classroom when someone raises their hand and asks a really good question? Not only do they get the benefit of the answer, but the whole class does — that’s what we’re looking to do in the one-on-one interactions. You think these instructors are running around and don’t have time for anything, but the real truth is that everything that they do, they want to do incredibly well.

Serena [Williams] teaches a class and she got sent a video from a student and she was basically like, “Oh my god, you are incredible. If you’re ever in Florida here is my personal contact information, I want to hit with you.”

People surely take the classes to get “noticed” by their favorite celebrities, right?
Rogier: I don’t know why that would be a bad thing. There are students in acting class that are there for the same thing. Part of acting is getting noticed. And the instructors really do want to notice exceptional students — they’re not like combing through everything, but they’re paying attention. Usher has mentored people for a while, and wants to do more.

He’s looking for a new Justin Bieber.
Rogier: I would be very amused, if it was related!

Have any teachers not been as dedicated to their class as you would’ve liked?
Rasmussen: Not yet, but we’re still early on. A lot of [the teachers] are coming to us. As soon as people saw that the content was good, and we would do right by them, we got a lot of inbound attention. I guess we’ll have to see after a year or two.

How many students do you currently have enrolled?
We can’t disclose that, but we’re doing really well.

What’s your dream MasterClass and teacher?
: That’s actually an interview question for anyone who wants to work here. I have a list of people who are deceased; historically, my dream would be Isaac Asimov for science fiction writing or the Wright Brothers. In the future, my dream classes would be Aaron Sorkin and Elon Musk.

Perhaps one day it could all be virtual reality.
We’ll soon see what VR can do in education. But we would absolutely love to do VR and probably have been considering the best place way to [integrate] it [into the courses] since the beginning.

What’s your dynamic like as partners?
We spend a lot of time together. When we started, David and I worked closely on everything. It would be him and I sitting there with James Patterson at a dinner table, going through the curriculum. Since then, we’ve divided and conquered a lot, which has been a little tough. But we’re a successful company now. We have a lot of employees; we’re scaling very quickly. One way we keep a line on stuff is every day at 3 p.m., we do a walk-and-talk.

No wonder you’re big Aaron Sorkin fans.
We’re nowhere near as clever as Sorkin. We do a walk around the block and go over whatever is in our mind. Sometimes it’s team stuff, big projects, or Hey, you said something that stepped on my toe a little bit—we make sure to get that shit out immediately.

Rogier: What’s really helped us is [knowing we both have] the best intentions. We’ve learned from each other. Aaron has a set of experiences and has a way his brain works that’s different than my experiences and how my brain works. Which pushed me. And I hope vice versa. So I think we’ve both grown as founders because of the fact that we work together.

Lindsey Weber is an editor at MEL. She last wrote about the many faces of John Travolta in People v. O.J. Simpson.

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