5 Questions with James Rohrbach, CEO of Fluent City

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If you’re not keeping up with ETC’s 5 Questions series with some of the best and brightest leaders and innovators in education and edtech, you can catch up here:  This time, it’s our pleasure to chat with James Rohrback, the CEO at the really innovative learning community, Fluent City. It’s unlike anything we’ve seen in edtech. We asked about that, and more, below:

Q: Fluent City is a learning site but it’s a different kind of learning site – one with a different view of what learning is and what we can and should know. Does that approach underscore a view you have? Is learning about acquiring content or experience? Or something else entirely?

Great question!  The answer is “Yes” – Yes learning is about content, Yes learning is about experience, and Yes it is also about other things as well.  We have a fundamentally different point of view from most other educational providers and schools out there.  Our strong belief is that learning is as much about the context as the content, as much about the heart as the brain.  People learn when they are engaged, are people are engaged when they are having fun and when they collaborating with others.

To me this is the fundamental flaw in the initial premise of MOOCs.  The theory was that people were innately curious and so if you just gave them access to this great content online, everyone would be taking courses all the time.  But the reality is the only people succeeding on these platforms are doing so for professional or other high-stakes reasons.  Completion rates for the average student – someone who is just taking a course for fun – are abysmal.

That’s because the MOOCs left the heart out of the equation.  Curiosity only gets you so far – it gives you that initial motivation to sign up and get started.  But what keeps you going through the learning journey – which is almost invariably harder than you imagine when you start – is the fact that you are having a great time and that you feel inspired by and accountable to the other students with whom you are learning.

This is especially true for lifelong learners who are spending their discretionary time and income to learn, but the principle is true for learners of all types.  It’s fundamental to our nature as human beings.

Q: Maybe even that first question doesn’t convey how interesting and different Fluent City is from the other education platforms and experiences out there. In your words, how is your approach and space different?

Thanks!  We take the theory that I’ve just outlined above and make it real.  Our “True North” is to be 100% focused on what our students want and need – not what they “should” want or what we are “supposed to” do.  This is a radically different approach from most education providers, and has powerful implications for both what we teach and how we teach it.

In terms of what we teach, our mission is to the reinvigorate the Liberal Arts for our time.  To do that, you have to go back to first principles.  What are the Liberal Arts?  Historically, they have been, “the things you need to know to be a well-rounded person.”  That is the literal source of the term, which dates back to classical civilization – the Liberal Arts were the things you learned not for your job but to be a free and well-informed citizen.

So we ask ourselves, “what does it mean to be a well-rounded person in 2016?”  And it means something totally different than what it did 20 or 50 years ago.  Now, it means knowing how to cook, how to take a great photo, how to read a wine menu or make a great cocktail, that you are well-traveled and globally-minded, that you have visual literacy and are a thoughtful curator of what you choose to own.  So that’s what we teach.  We don’t care that those subjects aren’t part of the “traditional” Liberal Arts curriculum – our job is to serve our students not adhere to obsolete assumptions and norms.

In terms of what how we teach, this goes back to my answer to your first question.  Since the heart matters in learning as much as the mind, we focus on both in equal measure.  Our courses are radically more experiential than anything else out there – that’s why we call them Immersions.  We design experiences at this unique intersection of education, entertainment, and hospitality.  Our goal is for the experience of our courses to be on par with, for example, a terrific restaurant or night out, but to also have a strong learning component.  That is a tremendously powerful combination.

Q: We’re in love with the idea of a cocktail class as a learning experience. Why are those types of things working as learning opportunities and for Fluent City?

Our program works because we teach relevant topics in a highly differentiated, powerfully immersive way.

You know, the zeitgeist of our time is all about living your best life.  People want to be always learning.  I strongly believe that the way to fully catalyze that desire at scale is to do what we are doing.

Q: You’ve founded a few different companies. Tell us about that entrepreneurial journey and how those experiences have impacted what you’re doing at Fluent City?

I have been working at the intersection of Education, Technology, and Culture my whole career.  My own Liberal Arts education (both formally in school – I studied English Literature (with a heavy dose of Art History on the side) – and informally in museums, theaters, etc.) has profoundly shaped my identity and enhanced my life.  I’m so grateful for that, and from my first startup Gulliver to Noodle to Semester Online to today, I have been focused on providing access to this same education to others – to broadening horizons and connecting people more deeply to the world around them.  That’s where my deepest passion is and how I believe I can best contribute to our world.

I think this is also an increasingly urgent mission.  We live in a time when the reputation of the Liberal Arts has been severely damaged.  It’s the scapegoat for unrelated ills: dismal STEM education, parasitic student loans, etc.  And we live in a time of rapidly rising, increasingly dangerous close-mindedness.  These two trends are related and mutually reinforcing – we have to combat that death spiral.

 Q: What’s the response been like – in terms of users, customers and even casual feedback? And where do you see Fluent City going? When you dream big for it, what do you see? 

It’s been terrific.  I think at this point we’ve served something like 24,000 students already – we’ve clearly struck a vein of deep consumer interest.  Our feedback scores are also exceptionally high – while I can’t share the specifics, our student satisfaction numbers are much higher than what is normal for a consumer services business.

In terms of where we are going, our vision is to reinvigorate the entire category of lifelong learning.  10 years from now, I want Fluent City to be a global brand that is synonymous with the very concept of self-enrichment.  No matter who you are or where you live, if you want to live your best life, explore your deepest passions, or engage with a community of likeminded learners, you’ll come to Fluent City.