From Skillshare to Udemy, geared towards learners directly, to Google’s ‘Open Online Education’ platform for course builders, and software like Teachable aimed at course creators who want an ‘all-in-one’ audience-building tool, online teaching and online learning is only just gearing up to go global.
These are just a few of the names within the digital learning space. Udemy itself as enrolled and taught over 24 million students worldwide; MOOCs have managed four times as many. So the popularity of digital learning is not in question.
But what if you wanted to start an online teaching platform yourself?
Brands, businesses and even individual entrepreneurs looking to not just enter the space through a course but actually carve out their own space for their online teaching platform will be pleased to know that there are very few barriers to entry and certainly no ‘official’ or ‘traditional’ certifications required for actually establishing an online teaching platform.
While individual instructors may be asked for their own specific credentials within a teaching niche (English as a Second Language teaching, for example), or certain courses may have to present sufficient evidence of compliance to an external board if they’re hoping to offer students certification at the end of the course, there are no credentials or licenses required to actually set up an online teaching platform.
However, that’s not to say that there isn’t a tried-and-true structure and a significant process that platforms must create in order to launch successfully and actually attract a user base that is enthusiastic about using the platform.
Let’s take a look at these ‘must-haves’:
Start with a niche
When you’re thinking about a platform, it can be all too easy to overreach and plan to offer features that are general enough to attract a large number of uses, with the widest possible use.
But any software developer will tell you that trying to please too many is the fastest way to experience software failure. When getting off the ground, focus on one industry or even one use. Udemy, for example, bills itself as an online marketplace for courses and focuses on anyone who wants to start learning a skill. It also targets creators who want to create a course but don’t want to self-host or market their course.
Meanwhile, Teachable and Thinkific focus on course creation for audience building. This means they have internal tools geared towards course creators that allows them to track what ‘content’ within the course is being interacted with and what isn’t.
Your niche can be as simple as a subject matter within one geographical location. Consider Yelp: the food review platform started with reviews of restaurants in San Francisco and then slowly expanded from there.
Focus on one user base
Your main goal here is to build credibility with your customers because there are multiple platforms in any given space. The previous step asked you to narrow in on one major benefit, niche or feature your platform offers (and then expand from there).
This step asks you to focus in on who you’ll be serving and, from here, what this user group’s specific needs are. It’s based on these needs that you can plan for features of your online platform.
Large scale enterprises will benefit from a way to track the progress of hundreds or even thousands of users, who are also employees. This user base will also need ways to hook into global online training initiatives. And, finally, they will also need extended enterprise features that are either custom built or that allow them to integrate other channels like sales and marketing, into the mix of learning.
Small and medium-sized enterprises
This user base can benefit from LMSs that require fewer human resources and an easier onboarding time. Any features and tools offered within the platform should be adaptable enough to change to the trainees’ needs.
And, finally, those who operate ‘alone’ are also those who work with multiple clients. They often have a need to deliver on a diverse but cross-connected range of deliverables so the online learning platform should include features like suggestions on what to learn next, built-in remote collaboration and/or support tools, along with time-tracking.
Offer stand-alone value
The most important aspect of differentiation is to offer stand-alone value. This is what will help distinguish your platform from others out there as well as give your niche users a value-added benefit from using your platform.
Offering stand-alone value is often mistaken for, again, cramming a whole set of features into one platform. But this shouldn’t be the case. In fact, offering stand-alone value asks you to first examine which features are absolutely integral to all learners and then, from there, ask about which features are necessary for that specific niche of users.
For example, an online platform dedicated to teaching users how to become better coders or developers might include an integration or a feature for syncing up GitHub or Heroku to the course modules. This ‘stand-alone’ value is clearly geared towards that particular niche and doing so will help the right users choose it as a solution.
Decide on pricing plans that eliminate users’ up-front risk
There are usually ‘beta’ or ‘test’ releases of a platform that are rolled out to particular users, on an ongoing basis, in order to make sure all features are not just being used properly but are actually serving users.
Again, it’s all about building credibility with future users and a great way to build that for a new platform is to attract initial users.
To build credibility, let’s take a look at the precedent set by gaming console makers. Platforms work with ‘marquee’ contributors or developers to develop a game exclusively for that platform. Microsoft, for example, works with particular ‘influencers’ or developers for games that already have a fan base and who agree to provide a game specifically for Xbox, as long as Microsoft’s platform gives them the development capabilities they’re looking for.
This means that any consumer devoted to the developer must also buy the platform in order to get their game.
Marquee ‘customers’ are one of the most valuable forms of both marketing and platform advocacy. Not only do they raise awareness for the platform itself, but they also communicate with others, extolling the virtues of the platform without being ‘sponsored’.
Marquee customers can also provide very valuable feedback and insight as to what the platform can improve upon, faster, and at an earlier stage than when it is opened to the general user.
Essentially, exclusivity on a platform with a marquee comes with benefits that include:
- Providing the platform and its makers with credibility
- Referrals and relationship-building through word-of-mouth
- Marketing boost
- Invaluable testing insight and feedback
- Higher closing fees when closing new clients/users/marquees, based on the precedent of this particular marquee
Once the platform is more or less ‘tweaked’, online learning platform developers can charge users according to a number of payment models:
- Pay-as-you-go — Offering pay-as-you-go pricing is a useful way to get your platform’s payment model started. It reduces the risk for new users to try a ‘new’ platform and helps platform developers to smooth out payment kinks in the early stages
- Subscription —This is a ‘pay-per-use’ model that is perfect for SMEs; Users pay based on the number of active users that are using the platform to create courses
- Freemium — While basic features are free, the platform charges for access to the full set of features; They can also be tacked on as advanced functionalities or as an ‘add-on’ or ‘upgrade’
- Licensing — Usually intended for large companies or large-scale operations, users within one organisation or group are charged an annual fee that must be renewed every year or an upfront fee with future versions and upgrades extra
Features of a Successful Online Teaching Platform
Once you’ve handled the nuts and bolts, what other features do a successful online teaching platform include?
- Reporting and analytics: This is one of the most important components to any online learning platform. For course creators, the robustness of the data as well as how well it integrates with other software (think, automated reporting to your email inbox or a triggered automation for dripped course content) is prime when deciding what kinds of platforms to use. Course developers must be able to track student progress, monitor whether online training initiatives are actually effective, and how long learners take to complete a lesson, on average, amongst other key metrics.
- User- (and learner-) friendly design: User friendly design is all about whether or not an online training platform is accessible or not, how well it displays across multiple types of screens and how easy it is to actually learn and understand the platform (being onboarded); Does the platform itself call for a training (in which case, it might be too complicated?) or does it handle the conventions of user-friendly and intuitive design well in the delivery and access of digital courses?
- Built-in support services: This will depend greatly on your target audience; For example, the kinds of tools of support available for a novice user who is trying to learn about how to knit something using an online course is different than a course for developers of a mobile app, hosted on a learning platform
- Built-in gamification options: Are there features that actually allow course creators to provide incentives or systems of reward for individual learners to actually engage with each other and their learning, in the platform?
- Assessment tools: Assessing the effectiveness of the platform is also about assessing the learning progress of students. Every successful online learning platform gives course creators a way to periodically assess if a student is on track with learning objectives and to identify where there may be a gap
- Socialised learning support and environments: Learning management systems and course platforms that don’t provide the tools for collaboration are severely missing out; Not only do course creators now include group activities and peer sharing as a form of learning and evaluation, digital learning is its own kind of experience that only flourishes in an environment of collaboration. This includes video and chat support, integrated social media tools or a ‘News Feed’ for updates
- Compliance and certification support: Again, providing compliance and certification support has been, until now, a way to provide added value, an extra benefit or a perk. However, with an increasing number of corporate entities adding on learning incentives and supporting the ongoing development of their employees through corporate learning, this is quickly becoming a staple. Compliance is all about adhering to company policy and certification is all about being able to track individual skills and performance gaps.
Remember that, when developing an entirely new platform, it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. Nor do you have to reinvent the wheel from scratch. MOOCs and online learning have now been around for long enough — since 2010 — to have some very stable and core features that every student familiar with digital learning platforms and interfaces have come to expect.
Think of these like UI standards or best practices that you must incorporate and then design out from there. If you have to start from somewhere, we recommend taking everything in this guide as your foundation.