Meet the Crowdfunded Professor (CHE)

Meet the Crowdfunded Professor (CHE)

September 10, 2015
He’s left his tenured job and gone online, solo
Kevin deLaplante quit his job as a tenured professor at Iowa State University to make courses on his own, at his one-man online institution, Critical Thinker Academy. The courses are free, so to support himself and his family, he’s asking “patrons” to donate small amounts of money each month — like a one-man public-radio station running a pledge drive.

Mr. deLaplante, who until recently was an associate professor in Iowa State’s department of philosophy and religious studies, is not the only educator trying to make a living this way. Thanks to a service called Patreon, hundreds of educators are seeking streams of donations to support their online courses and educational videos. While it seems unlikely that many full-time professors will leave secure jobs for the patronage model, the platform could attract adjunct professors whose job security is already uncertain.

Patreon’s founders had no plans to disrupt education, or even to work with educators. The site was created by a musician, Jack Conte, to help artists make a living online. The idea developed out of his anger at the meager amounts he made from his music online, even after building a sizable fan base, he says. His music videos often draw a million views on YouTube (they feature robots playing synthesizers), but he says that adds up to only about $250 in ad revenue. “I don’t buy that my work and value to the world is properly being translated into dollars,” he thought. “There’s got to be a better equation.”

So he opened Patreon in 2013, on the theory that a crowd of supporters could be persuaded to pay artists they like on a continuing basis — either a small amount every time a new work was published (up to a given maximum) or a set monthly fee. That’s a departure from the typical crowdfunding model, pioneered by Kickstarter and other sites, which allows creators to raise money for a single project. As Mr. Conte puts it, the site is designed to give a steady stream of income to artists so they can focus on creative work.

More than 15,000 people are raising money on the platform, and though most of them work in visual arts or music, about 13 percent are in education, at all levels, says Mr. Conte. “And some of our highest earners on Patreon are educators,” he adds.

Could this utopian vision pan out? Early experiments show plenty of practical obstacles, but the effort does point out interesting possibilities for the future of online educational resources.