I mentioned a few weeks ago that I signed up for a music course at LearnMonthly.com. The course was taught by Andrew Huang, who is one of my favorite YouTube creators. The class ended today. I’ve turned in my final project and I want to talk about what I learned, what I made, and what I think about the LearnMonthly service. (But not in that order.) If you stick around long enough, I’ll inflict some of my music on you.
For those of you who are new to the site: I’ve been dabbling in music for a few years. It all started with my Bad and Wrong Music lessons back in 2014. I make music digitally and I don’t play any real instruments. I’m entirely self-taught. Music is a side hobby and I have no plans – or potential – to do anything with it professionally. Even after all this time, I’m still very amateurish in my work. Maybe this means I don’t have any aptitude for music. Maybe it means I do have some aptitude but it takes a long time to get good. Maybe I’ve hit a plateau due to odd gaps in my knowledge.
In any case, I signed up for this class because I really loved the introductory lecture on YouTube and I wanted to fill in some of those knowledge gaps. As far as that goes, I got what I wanted out of the course. I’m going to complain about the website here, but I want to make it clear up front that I don’t have any problems with Huang’s lectures.
First up, let’s talk about…
I don’t know what to make of Monthly. Their website has no corporate information, no contact info, no About page, and no information on leadership. They don’t even have a mailing addressThis is interesting. What happens when you need to sue a company like this? I suppose you could track them down via payment information?. The only thing you can do is create an account to sign up for classes. As of this writing, they have just six classes. Three are for creating music, two are focused on drawing / painting, and one is on filmmaking. The business plan seems to be to partner with creative influencers to create an online course. The creator provides video lectures and Monthly provides the classroom framework.
Obnoxiously, the site obfuscates prices and curriculum until after you’ve created an account. For the curious, the music class I took was $280 for a 30 day course. The course consisted of about 14 hours of lightly editedThis isn’t the meandering ramble of a livestream, but it’s also not as tight as Huang’s typical YouTube videos. Overall I’d say the videos are pretty good in terms of information density. lecture videos, walking students through the process of creating 3 different music tracks.
I’m going to take a wild guess and assume that Monthly is a new startup and the team is still building the website and figuring out how everything needs to work. I’m also going to assume that one of the company goals is to add value to the creator’s lectures. There are already plenty of ways that a famous person can put video content behind a paywall, so it seems reasonable that Monthly ought to be aiming to do more than just host videos and process payment information.
The best thing Monthly could offer besides a paywall is a set of tools for facilitating communication between students. It seems like this is the intent, but the features are either missing or underdeveloped.
There’s no way to know how many other people were taking the course. I’m going to assume it’s in the hundreds. The system divides students into classrooms, which are called “peer groups”. My group had 23 people. This seems like a good idea, but there’s nothing in the system to support these groups. You can go to the page for your peer group and see a feed of posts from other students, but those posts come from the general student pool and not just your peer group.
Imagine you’re at a wedding and there are hundreds of people standing around. You’re informed that a dozen of these people are at the same “table” as you, except there aren’t actually any tables. Your group is scattered among the crowd and there’s no way to tell if someone is at your virtual table except to look at their nametag and then consult the list of names for your group and see if they’re on it.
After a while you’re going to start wondering why anyone bothered assigning people to imaginary tables, since they have no bearing on behavior or organization.
Some random observations on how the site functions:
- The only way to see what other people are doing is to look at the classroom feed. This feed is supposedly for your peer group, but it shows content from all students mixed together.
- There’s no marker beside names to flag them as your “peers”. Again, what is this feature for?
- The profile icons – which in this context is analogous to the “face” of a student – are very small, which doesn’t help when you’re trying to remember who’s who in a large group.
- It’s literally impossible to collaborate because there is no way to directly message anyone. If you wanted to team up, you’d need to solicit in front of everyone, exchange contact info in public, and then go off-site to communicate with your collaborator. This may be intentional – a feature that allows direct messaging also allows harassment / trouble-making. However, these people paid almost $300USD to get in here. This isn’t 4chan and you don’t need to worry about creepy anonymous weirdos causing trouble with disposable sock puppet accounts.
- You can’t have a thread attached to a lecture video, which seems like the most important and obvious thing that students might want to talk about. People could ask questions and ask for clarifications, and other students could respond. The stronger students could help the weaker ones and you’d have a better learning experience all around.
- The only way to talk to other students is to upload content. When you create a post, you can only do so by selecting an audio, video, or image file to upload. The design of the system makes it clear that you’re only supposed to post to share your work. There’s no way to just ask a question in general like, “Does anyone have any tips on setting up sidechain compression in Ableton?” or “What are some good keys / chord progressions for musical genre X?” Sure, you COULD just upload a random image as a way to make a general postI actually did this. Huang made a love song called “Eternal September” and so I felt the need to point out that the term used to mean something very different., but it’s clear that’s not what the feature is for.
This entire system seems to be designed to discourage or even inhibit interactions between students. This is the one thing Monthly could bring to the table, and the system seems to be going out of its way to prevent it???
The User Interface
I have the same gripe with Monthly that I have with Patreon and PayPal: The site is putting aesthetics above usability in a way that’s harmful. Look at this monstrosity:
So many scrollbars! The only reason those exist is so the pretentious UI designer can bathe the site in whitespace. I realize that large blank spaces make the site more attractive, but I’m trying to get work done here, do you mind? If you’re designing the front page of Monthly, then by all means spread the text out with as many square miles of whitespace as you like. But once we get to the business end of the site, you need to let go of your precious whitespace so people can communicate. We’re using the entire screen here, and yet somehow we barely have room for just two tiny single-paragraph posts. The most important items – the text of the posts and my reply box – are criminally small.
The whole classroom is an infinite-scroll feed like we’re browsing Pinterest or something. Do you have an ongoing exchange with MusicDave505 on the track he posted two days ago? Well, the only way to check that post is to come to this page and scroll down until you find it, and then scroll down in the sub-post box until you see if there are any new replies at the bottom.
The site actually enforces user interactions. There are several assignments that are nothing more than “Comment on these three randomly assigned uploads from other students”This is the ONLY time your peer group comes into play.. That would be fine if the system actually facilitated conversations, but this design makes everything short and ephemeral. There’s no room to read anything and even less room for writing.
The interface is sending the user a clear message: “Keep your reply short and simple. No complex discussion or feedback here”. Which means that 90% of all user interactions look like this:
Great track! Love the vibe!
Nice track. Love the bassline.
Great track. Cool synth!
Neat track. That breakdown is amazing.
Now, that’s nice for encouragement. But I don’t think students are paying $280USD for “encouragement”. I paid it because I wanted to learn stuff, and this UI makes it very difficult to have productive conversations on technical topics.
The system even sends you emails like, “Barbara Songsinger just commented on your post!” But it doesn’t tell you which post! And if you click on the link, it just dumps you at the top of the page. From there you have to scroll down through the endless spew of activity from all other students until you find your post, then check the comments to see if the new one from Barbara is there. If not, keep scrolling down the page to find your second-most recent post, and so on. In a class with hundreds of people, your stuff is going to be really buried. Sending a user an email notification that they need to manually search through the entire post history of the class is a feature that borders on griefing.
I know I saw one or two semi-useful exchanges between students over the last month, but without the ability to track and link individual posts, those discussions are lost in the noise. I can’t refer back to them a month from now for a refresher or revisit that one track where a student described their production workflow.
Monthly is in a terrible spot, market-wise. If you want to learn things on the cheap, then Skillshare has orders of magnitude more material for a fraction of the cost. It’s true that the Skillshare instructors aren’t witty smooth-talking presenters like Andrew Huang and the classes can be a bit dry, but it’s a far better value for the money. At the other extreme, if you’re looking for celebrity-led instruction from professionals then Masterclass has bigger names and slicker production values. Masterclass has classes from people like Gordon Ramsey, Deadmau5, Steve Martin, Aaron Sorkin, and Ron Howard. You can get access to instruction from any of those superstars for just $90USD – about a third of what Monthly is asking! For $180, you can get access to all of the celebrity courses at once.
Monthly is way too expensive to compete in the low end of the instructional market, and it doesn’t have the star power to compete with the high end. Don’t get me wrong, I love Andrew Huang. He’s made of pure talent, he worked hard on this course, and his lectures were solid. But he’s no Deadmau5, so $280 is a pretty big ask. I feel his work was good, but the Monthly site isn’t really adding value or pulling its weight in the partnership.
The one strength Monthly has over other platforms is that the classes are built around active instruction rather than passive lectures. You get assignments with due dates and you turn them in with other students. That’s a really good idea! But then the Monthly interface is almost deliberately designed to negate all the benefits of that approach by making communication as cumbersome and ephemeral as possible.
Is Monthly new? Since they don’t have a proper “About” page, I have no idea. Maybe we’re looking at the alpha version of a site that’s about to grow and expand. Or maybe Monthly is happy with their platform and this is as good as it’s going to get. I will say that I do not recommend the site as it exists now in November 2019. Andrew Huang’s ‘s lectures were good, but Monthly’s position in the market makes no sense. The company needs to either make a proper classroom platform or drop its prices to match competing platforms. As it stands now you can go elsewhere to learn more, from bigger names, for way less money.
My guess is that Monthly is a pre-IPO startup and the terrible UI is the result of wanting to make the site look sexy for potential investors who can’t appraise usability but they can tell if something looks sufficiently “Web 2.0”. The other explanation is that something is out of whack with the company priorities and they have a web designer run amok.
That’s it for the Monthly platform. Next time I’ll talk a bit about what I learned from the class.
 This is interesting. What happens when you need to sue a company like this? I suppose you could track them down via payment information?
 This isn’t the meandering ramble of a livestream, but it’s also not as tight as Huang’s typical YouTube videos. Overall I’d say the videos are pretty good in terms of information density.
 I actually did this. Huang made a love song called “Eternal September” and so I felt the need to point out that the term used to mean something very different.
 This is the ONLY time your peer group comes into play.
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