It’s safe to say that six years ago, we had no idea what we were doing.
Learn Liberty started with a pretty simple idea: let’s take the amazing faculty who teach at our in-person programs, and give them a larger platform.
Our organization, the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS), has been running educational programs about classical liberal/libertarian ideas since the early ‘70s. Hundreds of college students attend our weeklong seminars each summer, where they immerse themselves in lectures from a multi-disciplinary lineup of faculty and engage in discussion with their peers throughout the week. The goal is to introduce students to new ideas and provide a space for conversation and debate.
The professors who teach at our programs come from different universities and backgrounds, but they share a passion for teaching, a deep interest in ideas, and a concern about human freedom. Students rave about their lectures, and often express the wish that they had professors like this at their own schools. Indeed, that’s the reason we offer these free seminars to begin with: to give students the opportunity to learn about ideas they might not otherwise encounter in the classroom.
But there’s a limit to how many students we can pack inside a physical classroom. In 2010, we looked around at all the new opportunities for online education, and wondered how we could adapt our programs to reach a lot more people online.
Trial and Error (and Success!)
We had big ideas, and years of expertise in teaching students, but no experience with making videos. In late 2010, my colleague Scott Barton and I were tasked with launching an initial experiment by February 2011. Our challenge: “what if we could reach 10,000 students with a single video?” That sounded impressive back then.
In retrospect, it’s a wonderfully freeing thing to have no idea what you’re doing and very low expectations, because then there are no bad ideas. We tried it all — short and long videos, scripted and unscripted, animated and live-action.
Someone came up with the name Learn Liberty and stuck the word “beta” in the masthead, trying to embrace the Silicon Valley spirit of rapid experimentation and improvement.
In those busy days as the two of us rushed to make as many videos as possible, we were extremely fortunate in two things:
- The professors we worked with were phenomenal. They already knew how to teach concepts and make them engaging.
- We found talented filmmakers who were willing to take on contract work.
That combination produced some terrific videos, even in those early days. Which is not to say that all the videos turned out well — our inexperience also produced a number of quite boring and cringe-worthy videos — but we had far more successes than we expected.
Launch Day and Beyond
Less than a day before our launch, we tried our first upload to YouTube and discovered that the Internet connection in our office was too slow. The uploads kept timing out.
We scrambled to relocate to a friend’s apartment nearby, and for the next several days worked largely from his couch, uploading video after video, watching the little upload bars creep towards completion, generally just winging it.
On the day we launched, February 11, 2011, we didn’t know whether anyone would watch the videos. I was constantly watching the YouTube comments and view count, hungry for any kind of feedback. We were thrilled when views started climbing into the hundreds — bigger than any seminar audience we had ever reached.
In the first week, one of the videos we released on our first day ended up blowing away our expectations. “How Big is the U.S. Debt?” featuring Professor Antony Davies racked up more than 70,000 views in the first week, and more in the weeks thereafter. And suddenly our little experiment looked like it might be capable of big things.
In the years since then, our team has grown and Learn Liberty has released over 500 videos. We’ve reached millions of people on YouTube, Facebook, and other outlets. We’ve heard from students around the world who say the videos have made a huge impact on them. And we’ve continued to experiment, making some fantastic videos and some flops as well, and learning along the way.
For our 5th birthday last year, we made an updated version of our “How Big is the U.S. Debt?” video, and this year for our birthday we’ve created one in 360˚! Last year we also debuted the Learn Liberty blog and now reach 90,000 readers each month with written content.
I hope that in the past 6 years we’ve contributed meaningfully to the exploration of important ideas and, in doing so, made a difference in the world. It’s work that the team here at Learn Liberty plans to continue for many years to come.