If you drew a Venn diagram showing the best
ideas from TED Talks and the high-quality production value from the best
television of the past decade, the overlap would be MasterClass. MasterClass is
an on-demand learning service in the form of video lectures and demonstrations
from the very top talent in many fields. It is simultaneously binge-worthy,
educational, and thought-provoking. The quality alone leaves you whispering,
“How is this so good?”
The cast, or rather instructors, is a lineup of
A-list talent, no matter if the subject is basketball (Steph Curry) or culinary
arts (Alice Waters). Since we last reviewed MasterClass in 2019, the lineup of
instructors has grown to include more top talent who are women and people of
color, which was an area we previously called out for needing improvement. This
is a welcome development, and we hope it continues. MasterClass is an Editors’
Choice for online learning and gets our enthusiastic endorsement.
In the wake of COVID-19 and global attempts to
slow the spread of the virus, more people are working from home, and
disruptions to their routines may leave them worried about their personal
productivity. MasterClass and other online learning programs, such as LinkedIn
Learning, Skillshare, and Khan Academy, offer something much greater than mere
edutainment. Research has shown that people who pursue creative interests by trying
to master a skill, even when that skill has nothing to do with their job, have
on average better personal productivity outcomes than those who don’t. So
engage your brain and study something that interests you.
MasterClass offers two subscription options, one of which is an all-access pass that costs $180 per year. With an all-access pass,
you can watch the entire catalog of content at any time on any device. As of
this writing, the company includes in that price one additional all-access pass
to share with a friend.
You can also buy a pass for a single class,
which costs $90. A single class consists of several hours of video, plus
whatever workbooks and additional materials come with the class you choose.
Considering the cost, you’re highly incentivized to buy an all-access pass
rather than pay for classes individually.
Formerly the company sold a monthly subscription,
too, but that has been since discontinued.
Nonprofit organizations can apply for a grant to
get access to MasterClass materials for free. All the information is on the
website. There’s also a group-rate discount between 20% and 50% for other
organizations that buy 20 or more memberships at a time.
How Does the Pricing Compare?
What do other, similar, non-degree learning
courses cost? Unlike MasterClass, Skillshare has a free tier of service, with
limited content. You can upgrade to a Premium Skillshare
membership, which opens up the catalog to unlimited access, for $19 per month
or $99 per year. In terms of what it offers, Skillshare has everything. You can
learn to sew or how to write a memoir or how to create 4D scenes in After
LinkedIn Learning (formerly Lynda.com) gives you a month for free to try out the service. After that, it costs
$29.99 per month or $299.88 per year. LinkedIn Learning’s content ranges from
soft business skills, like management, to more technical ones.
The Great Courses sells its courses
individually, so prices vary. Many cost around $50, although others are in the
Academy is free, although it’s much more focused on
academics than any of the other sources I mentioned.
One more point about the price of an annual
MasterClass membership as it relates to value. If you were motivated, you could
work your way through the entire catalog in a year. There aren’t thousands of
classes but rather a few dozen. You can get through a lot of material in a few
weeks or months with an all-access pass.
What Makes MasterClass Different?
MasterClass has two defining characteristics
that set it apart from any other online learning system. First is the talent.
MasterClass recruits A-listers as its instructors. Steve Martin teaches comedy.
Natalie Portman teaches acting. Serena Williams teaches tennis. Frank Gehry
teaches design and architecture.
Second, the classes are supremely high quality
in both production value and course composition. You can tell that the team at
MasterClass spent significant time working with the instructors to create an
outline and sequence for each course to follow so that you, the learner, get
the right information at the right time. Concepts build on one another. You
can’t learn to blanch vegetables without first getting acquainted with the
tools of the kitchen. The quality of the sets, lighting, and audio are equally
high. When Christina Aguilera teaches you how to use different microphones
while singing, you can hear every example she makes with the mics without losing
your grasp on her normal speaking voice when she’s explaining what she’s doing.
Compared with other online learning sites,
MasterClass has fewer courses and a limited range of topics. Skillshare, for
instance, covers practically any skill you can think of. It also has recruited
a few big names, like Roxane Gay on creative nonfiction and Ashley C. Ford on
personal essays. You can also find people who teach much more specific or niche
skills: how to increase your presence as an Etsy seller, say. That said, there’s
no uniformity in the quality of the videos or structure of the class.
What (and Who) Is Inside
Inside MasterClass are nine categories:
- Business, Politics & Society
- Design, Photography & Fashion
- Culinary Arts
- Film & TV
- Music & Entertainment
- Science & Technology
- Sports & Games
As of this writing, Science & Technology
only has two classes. One is by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield on space
exploration. The other is Neil DeGrasse Tyson teaching scientific thinking and
communication. All the other categories have more than two.
The catalog showcases people at the top of their
fields. As mentioned, recognition in terms of diversity has improved some since
we last reviewed MasterClass. Simone Biles has been added as an expert in
gymnastics. Lynnette Marrero and Ryan Chetiyawardana teach mixology now. Anna
Wintour has a class on creativity and leadership. And who better to teach
self-expression and authenticity than Ru Paul? It’s still disappointing to not
see more women where there are plenty of women dominating the field, like
Writing (3 out of 12 at present) and Music & Entertainment (2 of 14).
Overall, it’s getting better, though. We’re happy that MasterClass is working on this, and we hope it continues!
Getting Started With MasterClass
When you start a course, you can read an overview
of everything it contains, including the number of videos and any supplemental
materials. You see a breakdown of the videos, each with a title and
How long are the videos? To see the runtime, you
have to expand the description in the preview. The runtimes really should be
more visible. I also wish I could quickly see in what year the course was
filmed. Most lessons are anywhere from six to 20 minutes long, and most courses
are at least 18 lessons long, though some are much longer. Some courses have
bonus content, too, such as David Lynch explaining transcendental meditation
for 17 minutes using diagrams he draws in Sharpie. If the question is
“What does David Lynch get to teach?” the answer is apparently, “Whatever he
The MasterClass Experience
I’ve watched a lot of MasterClass courses. I
started with Penn and Teller, who teach the art of magic. Johnny Thompson, who
passed away in 2019, also shows up for several lessons. He’s worth mentioning
because he was one of the most respected magicians of the last 100 years and a
longtime consultant and collaborator for the duo.
It’s a fun course that’s as much as about
storytelling and the meaning of truth as it is about sleight of hand. Plenty of
the other MasterClass classes have a similar meta-narrative. The instructors
often veer into a soliloquy about the meaning of their craft or the emotional
draw of it.
Penn and Teller invite magic students onto the
set to learn and practice alongside them. You see common mistakes that
beginners make and how the pros correct them, which is incredibly helpful. Some
videos in this particular series come with PDFs that summarize the lesson. For
other courses, you might find recipe PDFs or an entire course booklet.
Later videos in the course on magic bring in
more experienced performers, and you get to watch Penn, Teller, and Thompson
essentially workshop with them. Again, the benefit for you, the viewer, is to
see what kind of feedback the pros give and how they collaborate with the
performers. Finally, you get to watch a few acts from the Penn and Teller show.
It’s the payoff moment, when you see the craft, philosophical underpinnings,
and showmanship culminate on the stage. You can find versions of some of these
tricks on YouTube, usually taped for television, but on MasterClass you get the
full theatrical performance at its finest. Watching the craft at its most
refined, while understanding the practice and care that goes into it, is true
beauty. I gobbled up this course in two days.
From there I moved onto Alice Waters teaching
home cooking. Her course couldn’t be better for beginner cooks who are looking
for the confidence to feel comfortable in the kitchen. Waters insists on
filming in her home kitchen. She brings her daughter in for a few segments.
They talk about eating seasonally and share stories of different dishware and
cookware in their home. It’s a lot of “why” behind cooking. Why
choose this ingredient? Why pair these flavors? The course is warm and gentle,
through and through. I polished off this class in two days as well, though I
admit I watched some of the videos on 1.5 speed. If there had been a 1.25 speed
(Skillshare has that, MasterClass does not), I might have used it more, as
Waters speaks very slowly and diverges into stories or takes 20 minutes to wash
In addition to speeding up the playback, you can
also turn on closed captioning. It’s a saving grace for people who need it.
I watched Christina Aguilera warm up her vocal
cords, a course that comes with a neat range-finder app to help you track your
singing voice as your range expands. I learned from Thomas Keller that you can
tourne artichokes. I listened to Shonda Rhimes tell the joke, “In film,
the director fires the writer. In television, the writer fires the
director” as a way to explain the difference between writing for TV and
movies. Paul Krugman gave me some lessons on economic theory. Ru Paul shares
his ideas on self-expression and authenticity, which feel inseparable from his
philosophical and religious beliefs (he’s a Buddhist, though he doesn’t mention
it in the class) and years of therapy (which he does bring up).
MasterClass has a new section called Quick Lists
that pull together segments from a range of instructors that relate to a common
theme. They are fantastic, as they let the MasterClass editors curate a short
list of some of the best moments with most universal appeal. Plus, they are
much shorter than a full course.
A Quick List on leadership, for example, has
five videos that are roughly two-and-a-half-minutes long each. The whole set
clocks in at under 15 minutes. You hear filmmaker Werner Herzog talk about why
a good leader is a guinea pig, never letting the people who work with him do
something he wouldn’t do himself first. Shonda Rhimes talks about delegation.
Chris Hadfield shares stories of how hiking in the desert with his team
prepared them for leadership challenges on space missions.
These Quick List sets highlight some of the best
moments from different courses while also being a little bit motivational in
nature. They make for a nice break during a workday when you need to be
reminded where creativity originates or what’s a healthy amount of risk.
Community Features and
Since 2019, MasterClass has built up its
community features extensively. They now include online spaces for learners to
organize networking events and more robust messaging boards. Each class now has a dedicated community homepage with a message board and comments. Learners can also
still comment below each video to keep the discussion local to the content when
These community features vary in appeal and usefulness. Some of the threads seem to have
been planted by MasterClass staff: “Share Your Story: How Has Anna
Wintour’s Class Impacted You?” Other threads seem more typical of what you
expect from online commenters, unfortunately. One annoyed learner in the
economics course, for example, created the thread “Not Impressed” to
accuse Krugman of spouting leftist propaganda. (The commenter is upset, too,
that this course on economic history and theory doesn’t mention the status of
unions in the US). You can watch the course and judge for yourself.
From time to time, there are special live
broadcasted events, like a recent talk with author Dan Brown and poetry slams
every Friday in April.
MasterClass is a joy to watch. While reviewing
the service, I would play a video in the background while making notes or doing
other work, only to find myself drawn into it or pausing it until a time when I
could engage with it more fully. The question I kept asking myself is
“Could I find this content on YouTube if I really wanted it?” and the
answer was “No.”
I might be able to watch interviews with Reba
McEntire or Judd Apatow, but I’m not going to get a few hours’ worth of them
laying out their process of how they work in a clearly defined structure.
MasterClass could still stand to have more diversity among its talent and maybe tweak some of the community features, but those are solvable problems. The meat of it
is masterful, and it’s an Editors’ Choice for online learning.