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I tried Masterclass. Here's why it's worth it

MasterClass offers informative and useful talks from well-known figures in a range of fields. An early Black Friday two-for-one offer sweetens the deal.
Written by Sherin Shibu, Contributor on
Pros
  • Videos by well-known experts
  • Subtitles are offered in English, German, Spanish, and French
  • Several video quality and speed options
  • Full refund within 30 days of purchase (may not apply with some deals)
Cons
  • Full refund doesn't apply to the 2-for-1 Black Friday subscription deal

Welcome to MasterClass

What do household names like Madeleine Albright, R. L. Stine, Indra Nooyi, Dr. Jane Goodall, and Serena Williams have in common? They've all taught courses through MasterClass. It's a platform rich in credentials and saturated with inspiration.

Learning a skill is one thing, learning it from someone with demonstrable, experiential success in that area is another. When I scrolled through the course offerings, I couldn't help fangirling: "They're on MasterClass?"

I had a MasterClass subscription a few years ago and used it to take writing courses from Margaret Atwood, James Patterson, Judy Blume, and Neil Gaiman. (Instruction is in the form of recorded videos and downloadable guides; don't expect interaction with and feedback from instructors. Here's MasterClass' FAQ for more details.) 

It was a learning experience to soak in the prerecorded words of some of my idols and jot down the wisdom they had to share. And it was less distracting than absorbing YouTube videos with tons of ads and recommendations scattered through the platform. Watching MasterClass replaced streaming services like Hulu and Netflix for me for a time: MasterClass felt both relaxing and constructive.

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Since then MasterClass has added a hands-on format called Sessions, which has a structured 30-day curriculum with peer engagement and feedback from teaching assistants. The membership rate still feels very reasonable, starting at $180 per year, which would be $15 per month. Each class has a workbook, along with about 20 lessons that are 10 minutes long on average. MasterClass adds new classes every month that you can download and watch offline if you have the right plan. 

And there's currently a two-for-one MasterClass membership deal for Black Friday, where you pay for one membership and can give one as a gift for free. For this review, I purchased a membership for my own enjoyment, and gifted one. The fine print of this deal is that if you are unhappy with your membership and you want a refund, you can only request one if your free gift membership has not been sent out or redeemed. So you can't send out a free membership and then request a cancellation/refund on yours.  

How to get started with MasterClass on your phone

You can sign up via a web browser or on your phone; the process is similar. I chose to sign up on my iPhone 11 by selecting the two-for-one promotion.

First was a quick three-question survey asking my intentions, categories of interest, and intended hours of studying per week. Based on my selections, MasterClass suggested 125 classes to consider (out of about 180 offered). You're not limited to these, and will have access to the other categories. At the end of that survey, you can choose whether to sign up. You'll receive confirmation and be asked to upload a profile picture (under 1MB) -- I switched to desktop for this part and experienced no difficulty. 

MasterClass signup
Sherin Shibu/ZDNET

Pricing

There are three membership options: Individual, Duo, and Family. The Duo membership option is the one that's automatically selected when you come to that page, and it's a rate of $20 per month or $240 per year. 

I chose to go with the Individual membership, at $180 per year. This is listed as $15 per month, but be aware that if you cancel your membership after the 30-day refund period and before the end of the year, the remaining months won't be refunded.

The Individual plan supports one device for viewing MasterClass at a time and does not allow downloads of episodes for offline viewing. The Duo membership supports two devices at a time and does allow downloads for offline viewing, while the Family membership increases the number of possible simultaneous devices to six. All three plans have the full library of classes and Sessions. 

Classes can be played at 0.5x, 1x, 1.5x, and 2x speed. Subtitles are offered in English, German, Spanish, and French. The video quality options are Auto, 360p, 540p, 720p, and 1080p. 

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Sample class: John Douglas' 'Think Like an FBI Profiler'

MasterClass home page

  Here's what MasterClass looks like on desktop.

Sherin Shibu/ZDNET

Under "New to MasterClass" I saw the intriguing "Think Like an FBI Profiler" course taught by John Douglas.

Douglas pioneered criminal profiling, working on 5,000 violent cases for the FBI. In a series of MasterClass videos ranging from 8 minutes to 18 minutes, he breaks down criminal profiling to help the viewer understand how it works, and also hopefully to stay safe in their own lives. 

One question he addressed while talking about serial killer Ed Kemper was, "Are criminals born or made?" Douglas discussed how he approached a gruesome case, and shared what the process was like of going into a high-security prison to interview Kemper and how dangerous and stressful it was to talk to him. He even played chilling, never-before-heard tapes from his interactions with Kemper. Douglas also identified the key traits of manipulators to look out for in everyday life. 

I found the video quality top-notch and Douglas was a composed, well-spoken presenter. The information was from an expert but presented in a way that was accessible and fascinating to a wider audience.   

MasterClass Sessions

Sessions are a hands-on twist to MasterClass courses. You get projects and activities in a structured 30-day format and you can share your work with peers taking the course, and get feedback from TAs on what you submit. You can skip a day or two in the schedule if needed -- the lectures are prerecorded, so you can pick up where you left off whenever you'd like.

Here are some Sessions options that stood out to me:

I decided to try the viral video course presented by Marques Brownlee, who has 16.3 million YouTube subscribers. Sessions have a more goal-driven vibe than the regular courses on MasterClass. Brownlee's Session aims to give the viewer the skills they need to make high-quality videos, and he gives assignments along the way to keep viewers on track. 

The Sessions videos that I watched only had English subtitles, but the speed and the quality options were the same as for a regular course.

Brownlee mentioned that he would've appreciated having a course like this when he was first starting out. He offers valuable insight into his creative process, but also the technical aspects of making videos. The Session was more interactive and assignment-driven than a usual MasterClass, and that is its greatest strength. This part of MasterClass is one I'm going to revisit often.  

Bottom line 

MasterClass is a solid investment in self-development. It offers instructive video from well-known figures and it's pretty low-stakes to try out since it offers a 30-day full refund period. Keep in mind that the refund doesn't apply if you do the 2-for-1 Black Friday subscription deal and gift MasterClass to someone. 

Whether you use it on mobile or on your desktop, the viewing experience offers subtitles and many speeds and video quality levels. The more activity-oriented Sessions should be a good experience for goal-setters.

If you're looking to cut back on streaming services by focusing on high-quality experiences for your money, I recommend checking out MasterClass. 

Alternatives to consider 

Coursera is aimed at job seekers, with affordable degrees, certificates, and courses in high-paying fields. There are many free courses on the platform, but if you want to obtain a certificate, you'll probably have to pay for it on a course-by-course basis. Avid learners will enjoy Coursera Plus, a subscription service offering unlimited certificates and training for $59 per month.

Mindvalley offers courses with a message of life transformation that should resonate with the MasterClass target audience. It's currently $99 per month.

CLASS101+ offers plenty of courses in subjects like illustration, music, and photography for $19.99 per month.

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