Re-learning to Learn

E-180 Takes Education Beyond the Classroom

  • E-180 launch attendees painted what they wanted to learn in light. Photo by Audrey-Anne Ross

A bunch of desks aligned facing a chalkboard under fluorescent lighting isn’t the only environment capable of facilitating learning.

Christine Renaud, CEO and co-founder of E-180 is sure of this—and would like to make sure others are as well.

“Education is not a synonym of schooling—education is a relationship,” said Renaud. “[I have been] going for beers or coffee with people to learn things all my life.”

E-180 is a web platform that connects people who have something to teach with others who have something to learn.

After a year of tweaks to its user-friendliness while in a French-language-only beta-private mode—and behind-the-scenes web-work by Alexandre Spaeth, E-180’s co-founder and technology director—the service is now available to the public, and in English.

New users will be entering the already substantial E-180 community, which boasts 1,200 members and has facilitated over 300 educational encounters thus far.

“[Learning] offers and demands range from entrepreneurship to home renovation, so it’s definitely not lacking in diversity,” French community manager Mélanie Mercuri announced at the website’s launch last Thursday at La Cenne, in Montreal’s Rosemont-Villeray neighbourhood.

Once a match is made, the two strangers generally set up an initial informal lesson over coffee.

Élodie Jobin Groulx was a participant in the first ever E-180 encounter. “I wanted to plan a trip to India, so I wanted to get advice from someone who already had the experience,” said Jobin Groulx. “Not just through a Lonely Planet article, but face to face.”

Of course, E-180’s platform is only useful if there is sufficient local participation and support. “It’s hard work to get people around the project; for a community of peer-sharing to have enough diversity,” said Renaud.

Community-building poses a very human challenge for the Montreal-based tech start-up. They rely on community “ambassadors” who are invested in the project and will help build awareness and support.

Véronique D’Amours took it upon herself to nurture an E-180 community in Quebec City.

“For me, all knowledge, no matter how simple, deserves to be shared,” she said. “I think we have a responsibility, when we’re experts, to share—I think that’s how the world evolves.”

The Many Forms of Education

Renaud first realized that education could surpass the boundaries of a classroom at the age of thirteen.

“[School] can be a very oppressive place to be. I discovered you can’t really question things,” she said. “[The culture] is very hierarchical. I rebelled.”

It seems Renaud never really stopped rebelling.

Through a master’s degree in education at Harvard—which Renaud called “not necessarily the best place to go in terms of radical thinking”—travels in Latin America that opened her eyes to educational inequalities and work experience as a social media expert in New York City, the CEO’s ideas regarding education had time to evolve and ripen.

“To promote the idea of a society without schooling is very irresponsible,” said Renaud. “In countries where it’s difficult for parents to send their kids to school, they’re in the streets—that’s not safe.”

Renaud also believes schools are “necessary for passing on values that unite a population.”

She says there’s value in shutting up and listening to somebody speak.

But, she emphasizes, that’s not the only way of doing things.

“The question is not whether we need schools or not, it’s more that we don’t all need schools the way they are now,” clarified Renaud. “They haven’t evolved at all in the past 100 years, and society has.”

Recognition of the many ways in which learning occurs is E-180’s central mission.

Renaud is working on an initiative with the Mozilla Open Badge project that would create a system for both “formal and informal learning paths” to be legitimized in mainstream society—a hot-button issue for today’s university students, who often feel increasingly alienated by the traditional schooling methods.

The Culture of Start-Ups

Though Renaud’s social mission may seem idealistic to some, E-180 actually models itself after a system that has a proven effective in bringing tricky projects to life—start-ups.

Start-up companies are known for taking high-risk initiatives that generally combine creativity, tech development and entrepreneurship.

Kyle Seaman, a start-up founder who has spent years immersed in the start-up scenes of Montreal and Silicon Valley, explains: “A start-up is designed to grow fast and affect millions of people. They’re often technology-based so that, with a small team, you can reach hundreds of millions of users.”

There is a mystique surrounding start-up culture, partially attributable to media coverage and pop culture—but also for their passion.

“A high level of interest in doing something big drives a lot of these people,” said Seaman. “People used to pretend to be in a band to get with girls. Now, they pretend they’re part of a start-up.”

The glamour belies a lot of hard work and steep learning curves. Of the many start-ups launched, very few make it the way Facebook or Google did. “There’s almost a belief that most will fail,” said Seaman.

The defining quality of start-ups is that they are built around business models that can scale very rapidly, meaning that the ideas that drive them have the potential to be very far-reaching. “The reason that people and venture capitalists will continue to invest is because when you win, you win big-time.”

The paradox of juggling humanist missions while sustaining financial growth is one many start-ups have to confront at some point in their development. E-180 is sticking to their core values.

“More and more what you hear is, ‘How much money did you raise?’ and ‘What’s your exit strategy?’” to which Renaud responds, “I’m not going anywhere! We’re not doing this to sell it to Google. We really want
to grow into an example of a start-up that doesn’t have an exit strategy and is building a community and movement we believe in.”

Perhaps part of the start-up appeal is also its relatable, scrappy underdog attitude. Renaud stresses that she still feels very much like an “outsider,” but there are signs that E-180 is making some headway.

E-180 is one of 300 start-ups—chosen from among 1,400—to present their work at the March 2013 SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, TX.

“It gives us a great opportunity for international visibility when we really need it,” said Renaud. “At that time I think we’ll be ready to spread to our first U.S. city.”

E-180 has come a long way from the first seed of inspiration, and it’s by sticking to its values that it will continue to grow. So it makes sense that, in keeping with E-180’s mission, Renaud imparted a grain of wisdom about entrepreneurship.

“Don’t wait to have the perfect thing to get out there and test your idea. Prototype as soon as you can. Make the simplest expression of that idea happen, build community around it and get comments.”

You can join the informal learning movement at e-180.com. If you’re interested in alternative education strategies, check back next week for our Special Education Issue.

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