‘Ted Talks meets Airbnb’: Melbourne startup Peer Academy introduces new approach to professional development

- April 17, 2015 5 MIN READ

The popular belief is that universities prepares students for the workforce. Parents can certainly be blamed for conning their children into believing that studying hard at University for a few years will lead to a stable career and a comfortable life. The disparity between knowledge and work-based knowledge is not completely unsupported by universities, but is considerably large. If you’ve ever walked into a job on the first day as a fresh university graduate, you’ll know that feeling – nerves tacked onto an overabundance of gusto. But very quickly, graduates realise they’ve got little of the skills that employers actually want. Whether you want to be a cog in a wheel or start your own business, the real learning begins after university. A Melbourne-based startup Peer Academy has applied the collaborative consumption model into education to help people gain practical skills by learning from their peers.

Founded by Kylie Long and Onur Ekinci, Peer Academy has been designed for the next generation of tech-savvy professionals who prefer less regimented learning paths. Whereas old-fashioned modes of education employ a ‘top-down’ approach, where learners are taught how and what to think, Peer Academy’s hosts (teachers) share their knowledge while harnessing students’ ideas and skills. As such, the learning experience is collaborative.

“The collaborative economy is allowing more people to participate in the creation of ideas and innovation. People are demanding flexible, peer-to-peer learning. Peer Academy aims to become a destination for people to visit on a regular basis to engage with leading thinkers, while sharing their ideas and becoming part of a community of passionate learners,” said Ekinci.

Long said conventional approaches to professional development – like university courses and weekend seminars – are expensive and restrictive, failing to reflect change in our workplaces and careers. Peer Academy aims to provide a more agile system of education that empowers professionals to embrace continuous learning. People can select classes hosted by leaders in a range of fields including from leadership and management, innovation and digital, marketing and communications, and productivity. The cost of attending a class is also quite affordable, typically between $50 and $150.

So why type of classes are we talking about? Pretty much anything and everything that will equip individuals to be self-directed in their growth in an ever-evolving work landscape – whether they are entrepreneurs, leaders in organisations, or individuals starting out their careers. If you take one quick glance at Peer Academy and you will see classes like ‘Productivity Hacking with Asana’, ‘The Art of Strategic Questioning’, ‘From Vision to Result: How Prototyping Can Help’, ‘Creating a Culture of Innovation’ and ‘Grow Your Business through Powerful Partnerships’, among many more.

There are certainly other education platforms like Lynda.com, which is in the process of being acquired by LinkedIn for a $1.5 billion, as well as Coursera, General Assembly and Khan Academy, that can be used for professional development. And closer to home, there’s OpenLearning, BSchool and WeTeachMe. But Peer Academy claims to have its own unique style.

“There’s a peer review process as a way to benchmark quality, which is quite unique in the education space. We also teach people how to ‘host’ a class. And as far as professional development goes, we’re very different to anything that’s out there at the moment, particularly in respects to congregating some of the world’s best content around skills development and the overall cost-effectiveness,” said Long.

She added that it’s important for Peer Academy to be a self-organising entity: “it’s actually not about us, it’s about the community.” As such, Peer Academy’s marketing efforts will be centred around its community. Long said Peer Academy will profile hosts and other members of the community.

“We’ve been influenced by Humans of New York, so we’ve been doing regular features on our hosts and community in a similar style. That approach has proven to be really really popular,” said Long.

Peer Academy also teaches ‘hosts’ how to conduct a class. This is especially important for people in leadership roles, because no matter how skilled a person is in a particular area, they need to be able to relay that information in an engaging and effective manner so learners can take that information on board and apply it in their own work. Long said that Peer Academy is passionate about equipping people with the ability to deliver collaborative, experiential learning. The three-part ‘How to Host Training’ costs $150, though this is not compulsory and free resources are also available for aspiring hosts.

Peer Academy has thus far formed three venue partnerships in Melbourne – including NAB Village, Henley Club and the Foundation for Young Australians. The startup has plans to expand into other Australian cities and even internationally. In fact, Peer Academy has already received offers to expand to over ten cities, including New York, Amsterdam and Taiwan.

“Because we’re still in startup phase, what’s important for us is to set up a strong foundation in Melbourne and creating the right algorithm. Then it’s a simple process of launching in other areas. I’d say Peer Academy will be in Sydney and Brisbane quite early next year. We’re already forming the relationships to make that happen,” said Long.

For the time being, Peer Academy is going half-half with hosts in regards to revenue generated from ticket sales. But Long said that as Peer Academy grows, it will be looking to cut that down to 10 to 15 percent.

“Our interest is to create a scalable business; and we need as much revenue as we [reasonably can] to create the right culture and maintain quality as we scale,” said Long.

Long also said that they’re constantly doing market research, interviewing at least two or three people a day.

“We’re in a constant cycle of iteration. After a class, I ended up staying back and talking with a couple of girls and getting insight on how we can deliver topics that are of interest to them. Research is everything for us as what we’re pitching about is providing the very best user experience we can,” said Long.

As a two-sided marketplace, it’s important that Peer Academy is able to grow its ‘hosts’ and ‘students’ simultaneously. Long said getting initial hosts on board to teach classes hasn’t been difficult

“People can really see the vision of what we’re looking to do; and so where there’s a shared purpose, there’s a strong willingness,” said Long.

“I was talking to Will Dayble who is the founder of SquareWeave, who is absolutely extraordinary. He was really excited to come on and host with us on Peer Academy. We were talking about the difference between those at university and those leading their own development which is so central to entrepreneurialism. You can’t survive in this space without [continuous development] and that’s kind of what we’re seeking to support at Peer Academy.”

At the moment, there are people applying to host classes; and within the next couple of months or so, Long believes there will be enough awareness around Peer Academy that the founders won’t have to seek out hosts themselves.

Also, now that applications are coming through, Long said they will be doing quality control to ensure topics are appropriate.

“If we have people approaching us and saying that they want to deliver training on say, Excel spreadsheets, that’s a tool of the past and we’re not interested in that. If they say they want to deliver training on how to use Kumu, which is a really sophisticated visualisation tool for organisations, then we’d be very interested,” said Long.

There is also opportunity for Peer Academy to offer a multi-tiered subscription model to large corporates and government organisations, so that staff have access to classes and can contribute to corporate innovation.

More information on classes or how to host classes is available via peeracademy.org.