When I first took an course on edX, I was struck by the power of online education. There I was, learning Ruby on Rails for free, taking the same curriculum from the same professors as a group of students at Berkeley. I watched videos from the instructors, took quizzes, completed assignments, and tracked my progress along the way.
The next wave of online education, I believe, will come from individual experts marketing online courses. Sean McCabe is a prime example. He holds a unique skill, hand lettering, and successfully marketed a course teaching others how to master the skill and build a business from it.
The first challenge to teaching online is, of course, developing content. Another is finding a place to host and sell that content.
This guide highlights tools available for hosting and selling online courses, aiming to at least cover the different categories available to course creators. The guide is aimed toward robust online courses that may include video, written material, quizzes, and discussion. (Simpler courses – containing eBooks and other static, downloadable content – could be sold through services like Gumroad, with no need for robust courseware.)
First, it’s important to highlight how tools differ.
Branding independence (B)
Does the author retain control of the his or her brand within the course? This is particularly important to those who use their courses to sell other products, like consulting, or who plan to create a related suite of courses.
Content ownership (C)
Does the course author maintain full ownership over content, including the ability to pull it from the tool and/or publish it elsewhere?
Course design (D)
Can the author easily design a robust course, without custom code or advanced customization? This allows independent authors to focus on content, not technology.
Infrastructure control (I)
Does the author retain control of content and users regardless of the uptime of external service providers? Does the course continue to exist if a service provider goes out of business?
Price control (P)
Can the author set and control the price of the course? Can others discount the price without asking the author?
User control (U)
Can the author reach out directly to course participants, on his or her own terms (assuming the course participants have agreed to such outreach)?
Now, for the tools…
Core features: C-, D, P-, U-
Udemy and Skillshare are two examples of marketplaces. They allow anyone to set up and sell a course. They ask for no upfront fees from authors, host all course materials, and promote courses to a wide community of users. In exchange for these services, they take a cut of course revenue.
Marketplaces provide limited content ownership, price control, and user control. To find economy of scale, the services need to take something away from each of those elements. They’re centrally hosted and thus provide no infrastructure control. They take on the brand of the marketplace, so offer you no branding independence.
Authors maintain control over course content and retain ownership, but give up control over pricing. Both services apply their own discounts to courses (though may provide a way for authors to opt out), impacting revenue.
Sean McCabe shared his experiences with one such provider, in this podcast worth listening to if you are comparing your options. In short, he lost control over his content and pricing.
Core features: D
Subscription communities like Lynda, Treehouse, and Learnable bundle courses into subscriptions. They provide the course author with no content, price, user, infrastructure, or branding control, but do provide rich course design tools. In exchange, they provide guaranteed payment to course authors.
The author receives an upfront payment and commissions based on the number of people who take the course (and often other factors).
Core features: C, P, U, B-, D
Thinkific and similar tools provide full content, price, user control, and course design tools, but no infrastructure control. They generally charge monthly and transaction fees to course authors, their only revenue source.
They provide limited branding control, allowing you to place your own logo and styles on your course. Generally, though, it is somewhat clear that the course is hosted on their platform.
Self-hosted WordPress plugins
Core features: B, C, P, I-, U
WordPress has a number of plugins that allow people to sell content online. MemberMouse and Wishlist Member are two examples. These tools live on your own WordPress site, not on the service provider’s platform.
They provide full content, price, and user control. They provide full branding control, as you can customize your WordPress site to your heart’s content.
They do not provide complete infrastructure control. MemberMouse charges course authors a monthly fee, and phones home to ensure it’s collected. It’s not entirely clear what happens if that home goes away (i.e. MemberMouse goes out of business). MemberMouse also handles a few things on its own servers, like recurring billing.
Importantly, such tools are not courseware, per se. They take care of the business side of running an online course – that is, allowing people to purchase courses on a subscription or one-time basis – but do not provide the user interface for the course itself. It is up to the author to create the course within WordPress.
Core features: C, P, U, I, B, D
There’s no beating the control you get with custom development, but it’s expensive. It’s worth listening to Sean McCabe’s take on what he went through to build his own platform, and the rewards he gained.
Solid open-source tools for selling online courseware don’t really exist, from what I’ve seen.
There is a gap in the market for solid, affordable self-hosted solutions that would deliver all of the elements first identified in this article. In the mean time, authors are left to choose custom development or consider tools like those listed above.