What got us here, won’t get us there.
The earliest education institutions looked nothing like today’s corporate forms of higher education.
Libraries, laboratories, and the vast systems of modern academia did not exist. Coffeehouses and salons offered the first outlets for intellectual experimentation. According to The Rise of Universities, the term ‘university’ simply refers to any group of people who came together for the purpose of learning. Curious individuals, learning together.
Over time, these learning communities began bundling education, community, and credentialing along with an ever expanding list functions in society. As “cost disease” set in, bloated administration forced endless tuition hikes and a disconnect from the realities of the job market started to cause a painful lack of career outcomes.
As thousands of students return to Zoom University this fall, a sense of diminishing return on investment is shared by many. We’ve watched this trend unfold in real time, and see that universities have failed to adapt to the needs of their own customers.
An opportunity exists to facilitate what comes next, and we are here for it.
The first wave: the unbundling of higher education
Over the last decade, many have tried to unbundle the university. Massive open online courses (“MOOCs”) unbundled the education component, accelerators and fellowships unbundled the network for certain careers, and companies like Github and Behance unbundled the credential for specific expertise areas.
But on the education front at least, MOOCs failed to live up to the hype.
Breathless commentators foresaw millions of students abandoning traditional education, flocking to online courses taught by top instructors offered by elite institutions, at little or no charge. Worldwide, tertiary education would be immeasurably improved. Both students and institutions would surely benefit.
But these programs failed to grasp a critical component of the learning process.
Learning is defined by who you learn with – the respect and perspective you develop among the camaraderie of the “classroom.”
The second wave: re-bundling curriculum and community
The core innovation at On Deck is not necessarily better education — our programming features world class guests, a growing content library and knowledge base and thriving Slack community, but we’re no MIT.
On Deck is special because it rebundles community with learning, and a commitment to outcomes.
We started by bringing together highly curated groups of talented people to undertake career transitions, navigating the uncertainty of leaving their jobs to start a company. Our slogan in the early days was “get the best people in the room, and get out of the way” — education was exclusively peer to peer knowledge transfer, facilitated through events, structured breakouts.
In the 16 months since the first On Deck Fellowship, nearly 15k people have applied for one of our programs; ~950 Fellows and alumni have started ~250 companies and raised a combined $150M+ of venture capital. As the world shifted “virtual” during COVID, we developed a full founder syllabus taught by the best investors and operators in the world.
Last week, we kicked off our Angel Fellowship in partnership with Village Global and AngelList, to remove bottlenecks for experienced operators becoming angel investors. We already have a full cohort of 150 for our first Writer Fellowship, kicking off next month in partnership with Substack.
And we aren’t stopping there.
The third wave: reimagining credentials
While technology enabled education and community to unbundle, then re-bundle — Universities have retained an unabashed monopoly over “credentialing.”
The best credentials are emergent, not transactional. When you consider the value of an “institutional” credential such as a Stanford degree, you’re viewing the ledger of “respect” society holds for that institution, generalized across every individual who participated in it.
Under the surface lies a web of millions of incredibly powerful peer to peer credentials—what you know about who you know: the best people from your class, favorite lab partners, most effective colleagues. These context-rich endorsements and skills-based qualifications are mostly opaque to the market today.
Our bet is that P2P Credentials will emerge as something that will supplement and unbundle the college credential. We’re planning something in this space, and would love to speak with anyone interested in working on these problems.
Today we’re announcing On Deck Labs: a sandbox for experiments in the future of education, and testing ground for our next 15-20 fellowships and community-orientated courses.
A small team of On Deckers– including Founder & Chairman Erik Torenberg, and team members specializing in education/curriculum development, recruiting and growth – will be testing and iterating on new programming, with a goal of seeding 15-20 new communities over the coming 6-12 months.
We’ll validate new opportunities with the following criteria:
- Do people consider this skill/sector/subject core to their identity? (the “twitter bio” test)
- Does the existence of this make our existing fellowships stronger? (e.g. collaborations with Founder Fellowship)
- Do we have an unfair advantage to build this because of those existing communities?
- Do we have the right team to test, experiment, and validate on how to make this fellowship an incredible experience?
Come Build With Us
We’re putting a call out for world-leading subject matter experts, community builders, and knowledge influencers to build and lead those communities.
Join as a “Program Director” or “Partner”, help us co-develop fellowships and courses around specific subjects, skills or passions, valuable in life and business.
You’ll have full autonomy, own an independent P&L, help define program values, curate and sign-off on applications, and be compensated generously as the community grows.
Behind the scenes at On Deck we’re building the operational infrastructure to run hundreds of programs in parallel, enabling thousands of learners to engage within small cohorts, and discover collaborators across the On Deck universe.
We’ll expand fellowship offerings into underserved markets, serve them with modern educational tools, ranging from resources for founders to tactical courses, with plans in the works for subjects including verticals such as Climate, Healthcare and Crypto; skills including Engineering, Design, YouTubing, and much more.