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The New Internet Teaching Stars

On the Web, even a teacher can become a little bit rich and famous.
November 28, 2012

Who is Calvin Hollywood? In the world of Photoshop instruction in Germany, Hollywood’s name towers above the rest.

Gold star: Calvin Hollywood created a business teaching Photoshop tricks online.

A self-styled maverick of online Photoshop tutorials, Hollywood sticks to his strengths: retouching photographs, teaching others to do the same, and marketing himself. It’s an expansive and lucrative enterprise.

His business includes DVDs, live online webinars, and $30 downloadable courses that people can complete on their own time and schedules. To help generate Internet sales, Hollywood does appearances at shows like “Horror Nights,” a dance party frequented by people dressed as vampires and zombies. Hollywood says online teaching earns him as much as $16,000 a month.

The Web is starting to change education (see “The Most Important Educational Technology in 200 Years”) and perhaps nowhere are its transforming effects so apparent as among teachers. Teaching is among the worst paid professions in the U.S. (starting salaries are $30,377 a year). But the Web is rewriting the rules of supply and demand. For popular instructors like Hollywood, who reach beyond physical classrooms, teaching has never offered a greater chance to become rich and famous.

This effect of technology was dubbed the “Superstar Phenomenon” in a now canonical 1981 paper by the labor economist Sherwin Rosen. In his study, The Economics of Superstars, Rosen described mathematically how new media, like radio and TV, concentrated earnings among fewer performers or bestsellers. It did so by increasing the audience of stars, and because consumers flocked to the product they considered the best.

The Web, with its ability to broadcast video, live exercises, and interactive documents, is extending the superstar rule to teachers of everything from computer programming to probability analysis. One expected result, say economists, is that a small number of popular teachers could end up winning the vast share of teaching income. The Wall Street Journal, which discovered a guitar teacher streaming paid classes for 1,500 people from his basement computer, concluded that although we will always need teachers, we may need “fewer of them.”

Because teaching is a performance art, online education is favoring those like Hollywood, who has a flamboyant style, or others able to connect with their audience. Salman Khan, the stock-picker-turned-tutor whose YouTube math lessons have been viewed over 200 million times (see “Q&A: Salman Khan”), was recently judged by Yuri Milner, the Russian Internet investor, as the world’s “first superstar teacher.”

Now more teachers are looking for online outlets, including on commercial websites such like and Udemy, which act as digital adult-education catalogs. Udemy broadcasts classes; any teacher can join in exchange for a 30 percent cut of their revenue. The company’s most popular classes include courses like “Become a Web Developer from Scratch,” taught by Victor Bastos, a 32-year-old Spanish programmer living in Lisbon, Portugal.

Hollywood, who is 36, says he did not know how to use Photoshop until 2005. At the time, he was a boot camp instructor in Germany’s Air Force. But after seeing a friend stitch together two images using the program, Hollywood says, it was Liebe auf den ersten Blick, or “love at first sight.” He bought a DSLR camera, a Nikon D70, just so he could have pictures to retouch.

He began teaching Photoshop to Air Force colleagues, eventually branching out into DVDs and seminars, and taking on his stage name, Calvin Hollywood (he declined to reveal his real name). The first time he put a seminar online, he says, 100 spots sold out in 10 minutes. These days, he does most of his Web teaching during the winter. “September to March, where the weather is not good here in Germany,” says Hollywood. “People don’t like to travel.”

The Web’s new celebrity teachers don’t necessarily need any academic credentials. Hollywood says he never got further than middle school. What counts is personal style and knowledge to impart. In Hollywood’s case, what he teaches is an unusually heavy style of digital photo enhancement he calls “Calvinization.” He recalls how other Photoshop teachers scolded him: “You can’t do that. You don’t do that. Calvin Hollywood, ‘Oh my god you can’t do that!’”

Katrin Eismann, chair of the digital photography department at New York’s School of Visual Arts, hosted Hollywood on his first trip to the United States in 2008. She says he is part of a new generation of Photoshop teachers who are turning retouching into a form of illustration. That’s different than how Adobe’s image-editing program was used in the past, which was more about correction than creation, and not very glamorous.

Internet instruction has changed that, at least for Hollywood. “He has good energy, he’s fun, and he … doesn’t take himself too seriously,” says Eismann. “He even says that his way is not [necessarily] the right way. As an educator, I admire that.”

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