If you drew a Venn diagram showing the best ideas from TED Talks and the high-quality production values from the best television of the past decade, the overlap would be MasterClass. MasterClass is an online learning service that takes the form of video lectures and demonstrations from 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 the instructors, consists of a lineup of A-list talent, whether the subject is basketball (Steph Curry) or culinary arts (Alice Waters). In the last two years, the lineup of instructors has grown to include more women and people of color who are the top talent in their fields, an area we had previously called out for needing improvement. This is a welcome development, and we hope it continues. MasterClass also changed its prices recently to now offer a more affordable option for a single account. MasterClass is an Editors’ Choice winner for online learning, and it gets our enthusiastic endorsement.
MasterClass offers three plan types: Individual ($180 per year), Duo ($240 per year), and Family ($276 per year). All plans require full payment for a year upfront. There are no monthly options.
With the Individual plan, you get all of MasterClass’s content without restriction. The limitations are 1) you can only stream MasterClass on one device at a time and 2) you must stream because you cannot download lessons to watch offline.
The Duo account that costs $240 per year effectively lets two people share one account. You can stream MasterClass to two devices at a time, and you can create other user profiles so that the other person on the account doesn’t mix up their list of classes with yours. With Duo, you can download lessons to watch offline, too.
The Family plan is similar to the Duo account, but you can stream on up to six devices at a time. So, you can effectively share this account with up to five other people.
Nonprofit organizations can apply for a grant to get access to MasterClass for free. There are also group-rate discounts for organizations that buy five or more memberships at a time.
MasterClass does not offer a free trial, but there is a way you can try it if you know someone with a MasterClass account. Ask them if they have any trial codes that they can give you to sign up for the service for a week without charge. Note that the signup requires a credit card, and you will be charged after seven days unless you cancel first.
MasterClass also has a 30-day money-back guarantee, meaning if you sign up and pay for an account and decide that you are unsatisfied, you can request a refund within 30 days of purchase. Note that in this scenario, you do pay upfront, but you can get refunded later.
For what MasterClass offers, we think the price is reasonable, though it’s certainly not an impulse-buy. Other similar non-degree learning courses are priced all over the map.
Skillshare, for example, 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 $167.88 per year. In terms of what it offers, Skillshare has a little of everything but tends to focus on the skills either in or adjacent to the arts. You can learn to sew, write a memoir, create special effects in After Effects, or build an Etsy store.
LinkedIn Learning (formerly Lynda.com) gives you a month for free to try out the service. After that, it costs $39.99 per month or $239.88 per year. LinkedIn Learning’s content ranges from soft business skills, like management, to more technical ones. A lot of the lessons from the days when it was Lynda.com expertly cover software skills, especially photo and image editing, graphic design, and such.
Wondrium (formerly The Great Courses) starts at $20 per month or $150 per year, and the majority of the content is along the lines of what you’d expect from educational television. Khan Academy is free, and it’s tightly focused on academics.
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. It’s an awe-inspiring lineup.
Second, the classes are supremely high quality in both production value and course composition. You can tell the team at MasterClass spends significant time working with the instructors to create an outline and sequence for each course so you, the learner, get the right information at the right time. Concepts build on one another. For example, 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.
For in-depth descriptions of some of the best content from MasterClass, see PCMag’s list of the best MasterClass Courses.
Compared with other online learning sites, MasterClass has fewer courses and a limited range of topics, though courses often are much longer and more in-depth than what you get elsewhere. Skillshare, for instance, covers practically any skill you can think of. It also has recruited a few big names, like Ashley C. Ford on personal essays and Mary Karr on memoir writing. On Skillshare, you can also find people who teach much more specific or niche skills, say, how to increase your presence as an Etsy seller or how to draw succulents and cacti. That said, there’s no uniformity in the quality, length, or structure of the class.
Inside MasterClass are eleven categories:
Some sections have a slim roster of courses. As of this writing, the Science and Tech category has just five. Community and Government was light not long ago but has been growing steadily, now with courses by Malala Yousafzai, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Cornel West, and others. Some courses are booked in more than one category. For example, all the Food courses are also listed in Home and Lifestyle.
The catalog showcases people at the top of their fields and as mentioned earlier, is better now at recognizing women and people of color than at the time when MasterClass first debuted. Simone Biles is the face of expertise in gymnastics, as she rightly deserves to be. LeVar Burton teaches The Power of Storytelling. Timbaland has a course on music production and beat-making. Niki Nakayama explains the depths of modern Japanese cooking.
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 description.
How long are the videos? The run times appear on thumbnails of the video inside the course. What you don’t see is what year the course was filmed, which would be nice to know.
Most lessons are anywhere from 6 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 with a Sharpie.
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.
The course is fun, and it’s as much 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, or what from their early experiences in life shaped who they are today.
Penn and Teller invite magic students onto the set to learn and practice alongside them. You see common mistakes beginners make and how the pros correct them, which is incredibly helpful. Some videos in this series come with PDFs summarizing the lesson. For other courses, you might find recipe PDFs or an entire course booklet.
Later videos in the magic course 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 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. 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 on to 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. You learn a lot of the “why” behind cooking. Why choose this ingredient? Why pair these flavors? 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 slowly and easily gets sidetracked by a story she wants to tell or takes 20 minutes to wash lettuce.
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 tournée artichokes. I listened to Shonda Rhimes tell the joke, “In film, the director fires the writer. In television, the writer fires the director” to explain the difference between writing for TV and movies. Paul Krugman gave me some lessons on economic theory. Ron Finley encouraged me to upcycle household items into planters. Simone Biles tumbles, Steph Curry dribbles, Judd Apatow explains comedy writing—the topics are varied and the insight and reflection you get from these A-listers is rich.
In 2021, MasterClass added a few new features, including My Notes, articles, and bookmarks.
My Notes is a note-taking tool that appears to the side of any video you’re watching, when you aren’t in full-screen viewing mode. Whatever you write gets saved in your account, and it’s associated with the course and video chapter you’re watching. That way, you can easily review key concepts and rewatch relevant segments.
Articles are what they sound like—written articles. MasterClass has articles on some of the same topics covered by its courses. In addition to reading them, you can bookmark them as content you want to return to another time, and they get saved to a page you can access by choosing Bookmarks from the Menu.
Bookmarks also work for video lessons, but confusingly, when you bookmark a video, it saves to My Progress rather than Bookmarks.
Sometime in 2021, MasterClass did away with community features. Previously, MasterClass had message boards, a space for subscriber comments, and even areas where subscribers could organize networking events—which have all been removed. Good riddance—many of these interactive features were either underutilized or utilized exactly as you might expect by cranky complainers who added no value.
If you don’t want to watch the same person on the same topic for hours on end, you can turn to curated playlists instead. Playlists are selected videos from different presenters that share a similar theme. Formerly these playlists were called Quick Lists, but they now simply appear as suggested content. Each playlist has a name that highlights the theme, such as A Healthy Amount of Risk, Dialogue for Screen and Stage, Leadership, and Understanding Ingredients.
The playlists are fantastic, as they let the MasterClass editors pull together some of the best moments from courses that have the most universal appeal. Plus, they are much shorter than a full course. They also may lead you to get interested in a course that might have not captured your attention when browsing through the MasterClass content in other ways.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, MasterClass hosted several live online events with a few of its instructors. Paying members were invited to join the live conversation and participate virtually.
The events were recorded, and they are available to the public for free. Look for the link to them hidden in the footer content of the MasterClass homepage, or on YouTube. While some of these hour-long sessions can give you insight into a particular MasterClass instructor, they aren’t at all representative of the quality of the courses you get from the paid membership. Those videos are highly organized and produced, whereas the MasterClass Live content is off-the-cuff and informal.
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 online for free if I really wanted it?” and the answer is always “no.” I might be able to watch interviews with Reba McEntire or astronaut Chris Hadfield on YouTube or catch a glimpse of insight from a celebrity on TikTok or Instagram, but I’m not going to get hours’ worth, and they won’t lay out the process of how they work in a clearly defined structure.
The meat of MasterClass is masterful, and it’s an Editors’ Choice winner for online learning.
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