Teaching That Sells

The Promise and Problems with Online Courses

Samantha Borges | Unsplash

Hello, Every readers! The online education industry is booming, worth $226 billion worldwide and rising as of 2020. But it's not all MasterClass and Khan Academy. There's a growing ecosystem of courses that are created, not by institutions or organizations, but by individuals. So what happens when your teacher is also a creator or even (gasp) an influencer?

Today, we're excited to bring you this piece from strategist, writer, and coach Sarah M. Chappell. Sarah not only creates online courses herself as part of her businessshe also coaches other entrepreneurs on how to do the same. In this piece, Sarah wrestles with some of the complexities of the online course space and what happens when education and the creator economy collide. We hope you enjoy it!

It happened something like this: circa 2016, I’m about to click over to my newly formed business page on Facebook, when I’m served an ad: “You didn’t start your business to work even more hours!”

I most certainly did not! I said to my screen, leaning in and reading on.

“Top service providers can easily work 10+ hours a day five (or more!) days a week, and for what? If you’re booked out with little to show for it, it’s time to revolutionize your business with one simple product: An online course.”

I clicked. I fell into a webinar funnel. I handed over my credit card.

I was going to create online courses. 

I was going to be an online course creator!

I was going to finally make enough money without working so much that I was sacrificing myself for pennies!

It’s impossible for me to say exactly how this went down, but down it went. I am an online course creator. I even help others with their course and membership sales strategy. And I’m not the only budding entrepreneur who found my way into this particular wonderland. 

Online education has become a fast-growing economic sector, rising to $226 billion globally in 2020 with no signs of stopping. The entire ecosystem of software, training, platforms, and course products themselves has changed thousands and thousands of lives. Online courses have brought new ideas and education to folks around the globe—without needing to be attached to a university or take out student loans.

On the surface, this is a win-win: experts can share their knowledge without being tied to traditional education models predicated on credentialism and gatekeeping, and consumers can invest in their curiosities or gain new skills with ease. 

But below the surface, there’s a more complicated story. Online course creators are frequently caught between goals that, too often, come into conflict: to teach and to sell. What happens when one gets in the way of the other? How do creators navigate the tricky waters of being both teacher and business owner? And do course creators actually know how to teach? 

I Make Online Courses And You Can Too!

Online Course Land has been through several iterations in only a few decades. We have the old-school Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, led by industry stalwarts like Udemy, Code Academy, and Coursera, all founded in the 2009-2012 boom. The first internet-based Learning Management Systems (LMS) appeared even earlier, in the 1990s, as way for businesses and universities to provide remote education or to supplement in-person classes.

But these platforms were largely designed for existing educational organizations to plug into the whole online thing. Aspiring online educators were bound to one of these platforms, which marketed and celebrated their own brands more than any individual teacher; or they were stuck finding someone with the know-how to code a custom site or maintain updates on Wordpress without getting hacked.

While these early online education platforms often traded on low-cost access to a wide library of programming, software like Teachable shifted the dynamic from platform as conferrer of legitimacy to the qualifications and performance of the teachers themselves. That shift encouraged cohort- and coaching-style programs that more closely replicate traditional classrooms, rather than the self-study approach at the center of MOOCs. 

Since then, many start-ups and venture-backed SaaS platforms have tapped into the online course space, riding the wave of democratized education and creator economy growth to provide software solutions for companies, brands, and individuals that are either tech-averse or just want it to be easy. This has made it as simple to launch a course as to start a blog, just a few clicks more than it takes to set up another secret Insta account. Almost anyone with a computer and internet access can do it. Easy.

Just as The Ad told me it would be.

It’s an alluring promise—particularly for solopreneurs running service-based businesses. Growing a small service-based business is extremely challenging. Even if it is something that can be done online, service models often require grueling hours, low pay, and the ever-elusive word of mouth to get over the baby business hump and into sustainability.

This is what made the idea of an online course so enticing: you make something once, and then sell it again and again. Instead of seeing five people a day five days a week and helping them all individually, now you teach them to help themselves!

The pay didn’t sound too bad, either. A quick Google search for “online course revenue” turns up endless results with page titles like, “How I Made $1,615,000 Selling Online Courses (So Far),” and, “How to Create Online Courses: These Make $1 Million a Year.”

Sounds good, right? A webcam, a Zoom subscription, some knowledge, a convenient SaaS that only makes money when you do by charging a hefty percentage fee on your revenue—we’ve got ourselves a business.

That’s exactly what is being sold here to small business owners, creators, and other folks who have never thought of themselves as teachers. The promise is a business, right out of the box: take what you know, share it with others, and make bank without working crazy hours just to make ends meet. It is accessible for the maker—something that is demonstrably not true in many other business models. It also unbundles success from attachment to a publication, institution, or company, which can confer legitimacy but also add restricting burdens. While running a successful course is not as simple as I initially thought (no, you cannot make something once and then sell it on autopilot, it’s a little more complicated than that), it’s not… not simple. The labor investment is relatively low, and due to the wonders of the internet, a single creator can impact thousands of customers. The model is, compared to in-person education, scalable.

Scalability is a key goal for most businesses. How can you get more customers and fulfill their orders without a proportional increase in resources? For small business owners, this is an ongoing challenge. Especially if you are a subject matter expert, or have advanced training in a modality or tool: your time quickly becomes the limiting factor.

But online courses solve this. Your time is put into an asset that can be leveraged. Your knowledge is taken out of your brain, recorded in some way, and then disseminated to as many people as possible, all while you retain ownership of your intellectual property. It’s like a self-published book that you can charge hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for. A total win.

And it’s a win for the people who buy online courses, too. You can learn how to do anything online. Knit. Code. Market. Tan deer hides. Anything from personal pursuits to new career skills. And you can learn not only through the uncurated and poorly edited wilds of YouTube, but through facilitated experiences that bring experts to your mobile device, no travel or degree-granting program required.

Sounds amazing, right? For customers, online courses have increased accessibility to education, expert teachers, new ideas, and new careers. You can learn how to do something from the very person who introduced you to a topic, or someone who feels more like a potential friend than an expert locked in an ivory tower—and for a fraction of the cost of a traditional education program. At a time of rising tuition, extreme debt (student loan debt has reached $1.7 billion), and an overall doubt of the efficacy of higher education as door-opener, retraining—or even just playing—through an online program is ever-more enticing. 

Online courses have become a crucial part of the creator, influencer, and thought leader economic ecosystem, especially as we know that creators are experiencing extremely high levels of burnout in their work. It’s hard to make a living from creator funds and tip jars. Online courses make it easy to monetize experience at scale. Again, a total win.

In my business, I have helped hundreds of solopreneurs create educational products online that directly impact their ability to feed their families, care for their communities, and keep doing their work. I have seen how powerful this model is, and how it can save burned-out small business owners from failure.

But are online course customers actually getting results?

When Teachers Are Business Owners

When I signed up to learn how to make an online course, there was one key piece missing: knowing how to teach. 

Programs that help people create online courses often overlook this, as if teaching is the same as sharing, and instructional design is a kind of pseudoscience rather than a direct response to the needs of students. If people want to pay to listen to what you have to say, then it’s all good. While the idea that everyone has something of value to share is beautiful, when paired with financial incentives, we begin to see a problem: creators are incentivized to present themselves as expert educators in order to make money—whether they are or not.

As an autodidact and general nerd, I have taught myself how to teach. Some of my most prized feedback has been from academics in my programs who have praised my pedagogy. But it’s not easy when exploring the online course business model to see through the implicit false promise that clicking on an ad makes you a teacher, or that making an online course inherently qualifies you to teach.

And if online courses are being marketed as a (often effective) solution to creator burnout, then the incentives for making them start with the creator’s needs, not with any strong desire to be a teacher—or the needs of students.

When I got served that ad, I shared those creator-focused incentives, and it worked. I have made the majority of my income for the past five years from online education. I have an active social media following which confers unearned authority on my work regardless of my actual qualifications, and I use that to make sales.

I am that teacher, and so am situated directly at the crossroads of profitability and ethics in the online education space. Every program I create and every dollar I make is tied to the desires and dreams of people around the world. Part of my job is to convince them that I can help make those dreams reality.

This is magnified by the intimacy in the online course space: instead of just reading a book or even listening to a podcast, you can learn from someone who actually responds to your Twitter messages, and might even give you personal feedback on your work.

For customers, the lack of formal training almost feels like a selling point. This creator is just like you! They did it, and you can too!

In fact, this is a primary way that courses are sold. The relatability of creators is used to shorten the gap between student and teacher, and what a given course will make possible. Customers feel more like they can actually achieve their goals because the teacher appears to be in a similar milieu. The proximity actually increases desire.

I’m not entirely sure this is a bad thing. The gatekeeping of education is counter to the spirit of learning, and if we can increase the feeling of accessibility by learning from someone just a few steps ahead on the path, there may be a very real experience of reduced risk and impostor syndrome for a student.

But this method pulls directly from the influencer playbook: see a purse on someone who feels like your internet friend, buy it. At the core of many online course models is a newer kind of power imbalance—one that differs from the professor-student relationship, but has a hierarchy all the same: parasocial relationships.

The influencer model of marketing and selling is predicated upon the parasocial. A parasocial relationship is largely imagined, one person believing they know and have a relationship with another person who is famous, or fictional, or public on the internet. The thesis is that customers will buy more from people who feel approachable, like holistic beings with full lives, than from a glossy ad.

This seems to be the case: the influencer marketing industry was worth $13.8 billion in 2021. If the core role of the influencer is to be approachable, then the creator is a natural extension: influencer as expert. 

The creator, whether conscious of it or not, is encouraged to exploit their parasocial relationships to make sales. This is at the heart of most social media marketing, but in online education it has a slightly more sinister flavor. Instead of selling a product, the course creator (and any revenue-driven school) is selling possibility. The more a customer believes that the course will help them achieve something, the more likely they are to buy it.

This cult of personality, then, is a primary driver in a marketplace not just of ideas but of potential, where students bet their bottom dollars on a new version of themselves that their guru of choice seems most likely to be able to facilitate for them. And these creator-teachers are not backed nor are their outcomes buffered by the large edutainment companies like Masterclass or universities like Harvard or even the local technical college. The creator themselves is now the solely responsible expert, educator, influencer, marketer—and liable business owner. 

Ah yes, teacher as business owner. Now we’re getting to the crux: if education is a business, then it needs to make money. And, whether it's a small business where the teacher is the primary owner, or a larger company, there is a need to get paid. 

In this for-profit online education model, the financial incentives are not tied to student outcomes, but rather to successful persuasion and social proof. It’s enough for a course to be popular; there’s no need for it to be good. 

I doubt many online educators, whether rising from social media influence or more hallowed halls, would say that they aim for this misalignment. But when profitability is a priority, it can be easy to make decisions that may undermine or exaggerate student results in order to keep feeding the business beast. To say you know how to teach. To share case studies that suggest that every student gets the new job, or the new relationship, or the new life.

And, of course, to charge accordingly.

Money, Please!

How much is it worth for someone to get a new job? To start a business? To find love? To finally get pregnant? To overcome their trauma?

All of these are common online course topics, and the answer is usually: anything. By prioritizing possibility over results and the parasocial over pedagogy, creators are able to tap into their customers’ deepest desires and make promises accordingly.

Honestly, I’m mostly fine with this. Showing someone that there is a way to get what they want is a good thing. It helps people! There are ways to sell possibility that are supportive and ways that are slimy, but overall, helping people find solutions to their problems is a net good and I see no issue with clearly demonstrating that you understand the student’s situation and desired outcome.

When it comes to the actual pricing for facilitating these outcomes, things can get dicey. The online course creators I support often fall on the underpaid side of the coin, and part of my job is to encourage them to raise their rates. But like any unregulated industry, who’s stopping you from charging whatever you want? As one sales adage goes, the price is what you can get someone to pay. If the market will bear it, then you should charge it, right?

The wide breadth of the type of online courses in the marketplace adds to the pricing confusion. You can find a course on a given topic that ranges from free to $20,000 depending on the depth, format, level of interaction or support, level of feedback, and more. It doesn’t help that a much-referenced and hard-to-pinpoint statistic states that online courses are only completed at a rate of 3%. That’s a scary stat for something you can do on your couch, considering that 6-year college graduation rates average 62%. That stat is referring to “massive open online courses” (MOOCs) on Coursera and its ilk, where courses are low-cost or free, and rarely include any accountability structure. However, that completion rate casts a disreputable pallor over the entire sector, which I believe makes many potential students concerned before they ever invest. Even though in my experience courses with a set time frame and high levels of coaching support have completion rates up to 70%, the fear that a course won’t work or is going to sit on the digital shelf makes potential students nervous. That nervousness can easily lead to a self-fulling prophecy: if everything about the course isn’t perfect, then it’s affirming the initial concern, and students will stop themselves from participating or taking action.

And after you, the consumer, have spent $100, $1,000, or $10,000 on a course, the sunk-cost fallacy starts to take over, and you want to make sure that no one thinks you were scammed. So if the program wasn’t good, or you didn’t get results, or they lied or cheated or stole or removed key aspects of the program during a cohort, or you just didn’t do the work, you may not want to admit that the program failed to fulfill its promises.

Because there is no governing body other than theory of price to dictate what to charge, people can (and will) price their online courses based on perceived value, desired income, a number they pulled out of a hat, or their goal for a third vacation home or a yacht or a Tesla to be shot into space, and there is no way for a potential customer to know how that price was decided on and what it actually means about the experience they will have in the program. Price transparency is not valued, and often if it does occur, the burden falls on small business owners to justify their rates while large companies and online celebrities get to leverage scale and prestige without addressing consumer pricing concerns at all.

Towards A New Online Education

So, online courses are awesome. They help small business owners, they help people learn, they increase accessibility, and are a booming industry. They also encourage exaggeration, prioritize profit over customer outcomes, and trade on parasocial relationships to make sales. 

What are we going to do with this?

First of all, we’re going to acknowledge it: online educators can be incentivized to prioritize sales over results or impact. And while there are some feedback loops that can encourage the quality of programs to meet expectations (for example, negative reviews and social proof), it is ultimately up to the creator to take responsibility for what they are providing.

In order to do so, we need to have a rather nuanced conversation about what exactly they are responsible for.

The creators I work with tend towards a kind of ethical perfection that extends their area of responsibility far beyond the bounds of their own agency. This becomes a nearly unimaginable burden that tests boundaries and challenges self-trust: is it actually your job to make everyone happy? What is your responsibility to students who don’t learn what you set out to teach? Are you liable for students who purchase but don’t show up?

Ultimately, education is the product of relationships, both between people and between people and environments. There is a responsibility to try to create supportive relationships. That starts with understanding the scope of what you, the teacher, can actually provide, and if that aligns with what the student actually needs in order to achieve the outcome they desire. 

If we start here, I think we might end up somewhere different than the current online course landscape. Individual actors are, due to their own financial needs and the realities of public education and student debt, taking on a collective responsibility to mold minds. And yet, in my experience, rarely are creators encouraged to honestly assess the scope of what they can offer. The online course space guides them to see dollar signs instead of students and their unique lives, encouraging would-be teachers to stretch far beyond their skill set to make wild promises that are unlikely for the format and experience on offer.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a self-study course, MOOC, or high-budget, low-interaction program like Masterclass or other venture-backed edutainment platforms. But there is something wrong with saying that a course without discussion or feedback is going to inevitably lead to outsized, life-changing outcomes. It’s not. Context matters, and if we’re going to charge premium prices that reflect our knowledge and expertise, then we need to craft programs that provide the community and feedback that increase the likelihood of student success.

The philosopher John Dewey, writing in Experience and Education, states that the teacher’s “ability to influence directly the experience of others and thereby the education they obtain places upon him [sic] the duty of determining that environment which will interact with the existing capacities and needs of those taught to create a worth-while experience.”

For Dewey, the role of the educator is largely to engage in the dance between the transference of critical information and the activation of personal agency in the student. And the best environment in which to do that is one where the student’s experience, background, history, and socioeconomic context are taken into account. He goes on: “Responsibility for selecting objective conditions carries with it, then, the responsibility for understanding the needs and capacities of the individuals who are learning at a given time.”

That sounds like a lot of work, and within Dewey’s framework, we can’t be surprised that the MOOCs of online course land essentially fail if completion is the success metric of choice.

It also sounds like work that isn’t extremely scalable, at least not to the degree that is sold by the course creators who teach creators to be course creators. That level of care requires a team, advanced software, and time to be actively engaged with students, even in a less robust course without personal feedback or coaching. 

I ran smack into this issue early in my online teaching career. The industry was focused on limitless growth, encouraging low interaction programs (the barren Facebook group remains a staple of online courses today) as the way to make more money and help more people. But, my students had questions. My teaching content, even though it was well-designed, still had gaps because I could not possibly account for every individual’s experience of the material. I found myself on the edge of closing my business multiple times because I did not have the systems in place to support a steady increase in students and their results without running myself into the ground. My online course business, if it actually cared about customer outcomes, was not actually as easy as The Ad had suggested.

In traditional education environments that adopt Dewey’s quite counter-cultural assertion, there is an entire team supporting these structures, administrators, and teachers working together towards this goal. It wasn’t until I started to decentralize my businesses' focus on me (which, of course, reduced the efficacy of parasocial selling) and started to grow a team of experts that I was truly able to craft programs that could reliably get students from a variety of situations and backgrounds to their desired results—and sustain my will to live. But this costs a lot more time and money than a passive course that runs on autopilot.

Education is a social responsibility, and if entrepreneurs are rising to fill the void that extreme student loans and predatory accreditation programs are leaving, we shouldn’t be surprised that profit is the emergent priority. And for small business owners, maybe we do need to reassess: your worth as a human is not predicated upon how much you charge for your online course, but you do need to be properly paid—well-paid—in order to keep helping people with your work.

So what kind of course would you create if both your financial and personal needs and the pedagogical needs of your students were taken into account?

What is required to achieve the result that your customer is seeking? 

What needs to happen for someone to learn the thing that you’re teaching? If it’s something that can truly be learned by the majority of people from reading it in a book, then a low or no feedback program can work. If it’s something where dialogue or feedback is required, then a program with more feedback is… required. This sounds simple, but if we only create courses out of the creator's need, we may not match the actual student need and risk creating an environment where their success is not likely.

This is also the tough love portion of our talk: it’s entirely possible that you are not qualified to teach what you want to teach—yet. You may not have the experience or knowledge to take your student all the way to their desired outcome. Recognizing this can be painful, but it’s not a bad thing. If you can honestly assess your skills both in your subject matter and as a teacher, then you can chart a path to improve them and be able to facilitate the life-changing programs you’re dreaming of. Your first course doesn’t have to be your unified field theory. It can be step one. It can be a sandbox. It can even be a place where you learn how to teach. All that requires is the ability to be honest: tell your potential students about the amazing expertise you’re bringing to the table, and let them know that you’re new to teaching. You’ll likely be surprised by how compassionate and excited your customers are to be on the ground floor of a new program with you.

How will you receive and process student feedback?

One of my strongest criticisms of online education is that, due to the parasocial relationship, it incentivizes students to be agreeable rather than honest about their needs. Creators do have a form of power online—often not as much as people think, but in the context of teaching, they certainly do. I would hope that most creators want to become better teachers, and the best way to do that is to make ample room for student feedback. While this is easy to do via feedback forms or other passive methods, my personal favorite is baking it into the relationship: telling students how to get help, and letting them know that you don't know everything. When there are no clear channels to seek support (which is a form of feedback, since questions are often pointing out a lack of clarity or an element not explored in the course material), the risk that a student will feel like they can’t say what they need to say is reduced. Additionally, admitting your own fallacious human nature can support students in understanding that if their needs are not being met it is not a personal failing. The trick here? Knowing which feedback to take. Feedback that crosses the boundaries or scope of the course is not to be weighed as heavily as feedback that fits within what the course purports to offer. Regardless of how you decide to manage this, healthier feedback loops emerge when a teacher can release ego in favor of collaboration. 

How will you assess student success?

Completion rate is often the metric referred to, but that’s not the only success rate. And what does “completion” even mean? That the student watched all of the videos? Or that they achieved the result of the program? One of the primary advantages to running an online course business is that you likely are not beholden to institutional definitions of success. Maybe watching a video is not success for your students. Maybe it is taking action, or trying something new even if it fails, or meeting new people in the program. Often, teachers define success based on what they think is most important (I am partial to action-taking myself!), but I think Dewey would be proud if we let students define success for themselves. 

How much will you charge?

Have you figured out how much money your business actually needs to make? For small business owners in the online space, the answer is often no. Low startup costs and comparatively low risk allow creators to avoid stepping fully into their role as business owners and do the damn math. The pricing of your course certainly can account for the value of your intellectual property and the result that you’re helping people to achieve, but it also needs to account for your financial needs. While overcharging is a big problem in this space, most of the business owners I support are vastly undercharging for their own financial needs. This can easily create resentment of both the course and the students; as much as I might like education to be offered freely and supported on a governmental level, there is nothing radical about undervaluing your own labor. Sit down and do the math: how many students at what rate do you need to pay yourself? To hire an assistant? To bring on a community manager? My guess is that the number is far higher than you think. And that’s okay: most creators with successful courses are able to make amazing free resources that help anyone who finds them while also helping people who want to go deeper into a topic or get more support for a result decide if this creator’s course is the right fit for them. 

Welcome to the Horizontal Classroom

The online course landscape is a powerful opportunity for small businesses to build the kind of educational systems they wish to see while being financially supported in a culture that massively undervalues teachers. If we try to balance the needs of the creator and the needs of a student, my guess is we might end up somewhere very different from the traditional school model. We might end up somewhere closer to a horizontal classroom, spread across the internet, facilitated by remarkable software that embraces Dewey’s “duty of determining [the] environment” to balance the needs of the educator and the student. As course creators are still in the early stages of what online education is going to be, let’s endeavor to actually increase the impact of learning, not just the reach of our influence.

Sarah M. Chappell is a strategist, coach, and writer guiding non-traditional founders to grow holistic businesses. As the founder of the Holistic Business Academy, Sarah has helped hundreds of small business owners start their companies without selling their souls. Her work and writing have been featured in USA Today, Cosmopolitan, and Healthline, amongst others.

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