If you want to sell online courses, you’re going to need technology that allows you to host course material such as videos, text and images. Many subject matter experts find the thought of choosing, installing and maintaining their own server software intimidating. Sites like Udemy or Skillshare are well known solutions for online instructors who do not want to deal with technology. However, the terms and conditions of these platforms limit your freedom as an online instructor. Luckily, there are alternatives. This article presents a selection of platforms for selling online courses that won’t limit your freedom while being very easy to use.
If you’re still hungry for information after reading this article, my free course hosting platform guide has you covered.
There are literally hundreds of online course platforms available, with similar feature-sets and yet, subtle differences and varying target groups. What may be the best platform for a university may not work at all for a big corporation, and the ideal platform for a big corporation will be complete overkill for a solopreneur.
In this article, you’ll find a structured selection for a clearly defined target audience: Bootstrappers, solopreneurs and small businesses. We’ll be looking for low-cost, low-risk, high-automation solutions for publishing and selling courses.
Who ISN’T This Article For?
- Big organizations with a big budget and very specific requirements.
- Organizations opposed to cloud solutions who want to keep their data behind their firewalls and do not want to sell courses online
- Techies who want to build their own platform
- Control freaks that need endless customization options.
Hosting Online Courses
If you talk to training experts, many will recommend what they know without taking your circumstances into account. They may not even be aware of the differences between the feature set you actually need and the feature set of their preferred solution. Learn what you need to know to make your own decisions:
Corporations often use learning management systems (LMS). LMS are similar to content management systems, but instead of articles and pages, they manage courses and learners.
There are hundreds of LMS available (it’s a rapidly growing market), but most LMS will not stand up to the requirements of bootstrappers. LMS are often complex, and require a lot of resources to set up, maintain and customize. Many of them are also quite expensive, creating a prohibitive entry barrier.
I work with LMS on a professional basis and trust me when I tell you: As a solopreneur course creator, chances are you really don’t need them.
WordPress LMS Plugins
There are plugins for WordPress that offer LMS functionality. They’re not a bad solution and work fine for many. It’s just that with LMS plugins, you’ll still be dealing with technology directly. While often cheaper than traditional LMS, administration and maintenance of LMS plugins will take time. You’ll also need to go through the usual WordPress puzzle of figuring out which plugins work together. In addition to the LMS plugin, you’ll probably need:
- A theme
- A membership plugin
- Plugins for payment providers/eCommerce plugins (that are compatible with your membership plugin)
And often more than that.
We won’t be investigating LMS plugins in this article.
Course Marketplaces and Course Hosting Platforms
Course hosting services do not have the toolbox approach of traditional learning management systems where you spend months choosing and setting up your toolchain. Instead, they provide a limited feature-set in exchange for ease-of-use.
They are the best choice for most solopreneur online instructors as they allow you to get started extremely fast. You’ll focus on course creation and marketing instead of technology set-up and maintenance. In the world of course hosting services, there are two broad groups:
- Course hosting platforms and
- Course marketplaces
What is a Course Hosting Platform?
Course hosting platforms hosts courses on behalf of online instructors, but don’t sell them. Course hosting platforms are technology providers only. Learners often buy from the instructor directly, not from the platform Marketing, finding an audience and selling is the instructor’s job. In this article, we’ll be discussing course hosting platforms. If you’re not yet sure what you need, here’s a short summary of how they’re different from course marketplaces.
Course marketplaces (Sites like Udemy) don’t just offer technology to host courses – they also participate in selling courses. Sites like Udemy have a customer base of their own that they market courses to. You’ll be competing with many other instructors for the attention of this customer base. When teaching on marketplaces, you will have less responsibilities, more rules and less freedom than on course hosting platforms. This can be both an advantage and a disadvantage.
This article will tell you whether a course hosting platform or a course marketplace is preferable depending on what position you’re in with your business.
- Few rules and regulations
- No dependency on the platform
- Customers are your own – if you ever want to switch platforms, you’ll take your customers with you.
- No customer base provided by the platform
- Visibility of your course is up to you
- You do all your marketing
Below, I’ll present cloud-based, lightweight online course hosting platforms for solopreneurs and bootstrappers that will let you remain independent. If independence and flexibility isn’t a major concern for you, you may prefer online course marketplaces instead.
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Platforms for Teaching Online Courses
Zenler is one of my favourite platforms. It’s an evolving platform that really seems to care about its users.
Zenler is about simplicity and customer service. They have exactly one pricing option, which is a percentage. No up-sells or additional features you can buy (except for an optional, free or reasonably priced authoring tool). The website features are extensive, eliminating the need to run a separate website unless you want to run a blog or sell other products as well.
The only real shortcoming is the missing native quizzing functionality (it’s being built). Everything you need to get started is offered. Even advanced features like having multiple trainers are there.
The interface is simple and works well. Courses use a pop-up viewer which you may or may not like. Used to import from Udemy automatically. SCORM-compatible if you need it.
Teachable is one of the more established course hosting platforms out there. They are comparable to Zenler for the most part, but do not offer a custom domain in their free plan. On the other hand, they offer integrated quizzes which Zenler does not. Everything else you need is included. Same as Zenler, the website features eliminate the need to run a separate website. Teachable even includes blogging functionality. Video hosting is handled by Wistia, which should be solid.
Teachable used to be able to import from Udemy, but was asked to remove this feature (like Zenler). You need a paid to get a custom domain.
VAT handling was added during 2016, but this was a slow and painful process with a lot of uncertainty for instructors. Generally, Teachable’s reputation concerning support has suffered as a result of refusing to clearly spell things out for their customers.
Thinkific feels very professional and like an established platform. Their course interface is excellent, and they offer a complete feature-set – which comes at a price. The free plan does not give you all the features, and if you’re on a budget, you may be better off with Teachable and (esp.) Zenler. If you’re looking at the $30-$100 range though, Thinkific is a serious competitor, but please do factor in the cost of VAT handling, which requires another service (Quaderno; $29/month, Thinkific gets you 50% off) for Thinkific.
The website features are minimal, Thinkific is clearly focused on the course interface. If you run your own landing pages using WordPress, this won’t bother you.
Learnworlds focuses on creating social learning spaces, and unlike other platforms, it pulls that mission off quite well. An entire social network, discussions and gamification are built in and feel like a solid package. In courses, in addition to a complete set of standard features, you can create interactive eBooks and even make videos interactive, giving you easy access to levels of interactions you’ll need to use 3rd party tools for on other platforms. The course interface looks clean and mature. A work pad allows you take notes, highlight texts and review your notes later.
Website features are powerful as well, with visual editors and very high quality templates allowing you to create custom pages in minutes. 24/7 monitoring, daily backups, instant upgrades underline the suitability for professional training providers, and with 5 payment gateways, the platform is versatile.
On the downside, the UI doesn’t seem to have caught up with the number of features yet, and at times I was struggling to find a feature I had already used previously, or even orient myself. The financial investment required is also a little higher than on other platforms, and I would like to see further mailing list providers integrated.
If you’re planning a lot of interaction with your students and feel that you will need social features, this is a platform which feels like it can deliver on its promises.
Nuvola offers a lot of nice features including some that you don’t find elsewhere. The creators are clearly going for cutting-edge instead of imitation. Nuvola comes with Easygenerator integrated: An in-browser authoring tool which allows wizard-based course creation. Easygenerator also allows you to create interactive elements without any 3rd party tool. This is a unique feature that will make it a lot easier to create engaging content.
Courses include a scratchpad to take notes and you may define learning paths.
Scorm compatibility allows you to use 3rd party authoring tools if you wish to do so.
On the downside, the interface feels a little unfinished and I came across a few bugs while testing. Courses are always online and public, even if you just started building a course.
I’m sure these kinks will be ironed out and with a little polishing, Nuvola academy could become a great product.
Compared to the previous platforms, Pathwright takes a bit longer to warm up to. Once you’ve gotten used to it, it shows its potential. For a solopreneur, it is a step down in terms of feature completeness. Instead of uploading videos to the platform, you’re working with embed codes here. You, therefore, need to host your content elsewhere, and you need to be ready to handle invoicing and taxes by yourself. The course building interface is fine once you’ve gotten used to it, but others are more intuitive. Pathwright is a little closer to traditional LMSs than other platforms.
On the other hand, Pathwright allows for blended learning as it can integrate event attendance into course curriculums and groups participants into classes. You may also create timed and project-based courses, were you grade submissions at predefined times. The course interface is simple, discussions are automatically integrated, and students can take notes in classes. A good choice if you’re going to have real-world classes integrated with online courses. Online-only schools are run on Pathwright successfully as well, but due to some features being more easily available on other platforms, I’d try those first.
You may get started for free, but this will not give you exportable email addresses or video hosting, and you’ll only be able to create free courses. Therefore, I believe you’ll want to choose the “pro plan”. The free plan is sufficient to understand the interface before making a choice.
Text and picture worked fine, but videos failed to play during my test. Discussions are integrated in every lesson. Courses can contain text, video, audio, quizzes, (SlideShare-)presentations, polls, eBooks (all major eBook formats) and discussions. Course setup is very easy, the platform guides you through all necessary steps in a wizard-like way. If you want to modify a course after publishing, it becomes a little confusing though. The course viewer is clean and effective with a blog-like style (instead of the prevalent app-like style of many other platforms).
Siminars acts as a reseller which takes a lot of handling off your hands, and they also integrate with ClickBank, thereby giving you easy access to a big marketplace.
Analytics are lacking in lower tier plans and the lack of mailing list integration hurts. The last blog post was on December 9, 2015 (time of writing: March 25, 2016), so more activity wouldn’t hurt.
Entrepreneurs who enjoy a clean interface with a reduced feature-set and want to grow together with a startup might want to consider Kunerango.
Kunerango looks like it could become a very nice alternative from the Adriatic coast. While the existing feature-set is well executed, and the UI is clean, I feel that some features (such as mailing list and analytics integration) should be added soon, as they will otherwise prevent many instructors from considering Kunerango. There is also no documentation available at the moment.
If all you want to do is publish a video course and you don’t need website customization and integrations with other platforms, you may appreciate the simplicity and ease of use that comes with a reduced feature-set.
Coursecraft feels like a budget solution for course hosting – not necessarily a bad thing, just different. There is one basic pricing option (9% of sales), with a possible upgrade of $49 (one-time) to get custom domains, unlimited users, and unlimited uploads. Without the upgrade, uploads are limited to 1GB, and users are limited to 100. Signup widgets for your website are provided, and mailing lists can be integrated (MailChimp, AWeber, Campaign Monitor, Constant Contact).
The course interface is blog-like, there is no progress tracking, but there are discussions within lessons. If you don’t need quizzes and fancy features and instead want to maximize profit, this may be the platform for you.
There is no perfect platform and you should not attempt to find it – you’ll still be looking in a year instead of creating courses.
There is no single best course hosting platform. This forces you to make a choice based on your requirements and the specific advantages of each platform.
Whichever platform you choose, I wish you best of luck in your endeavours, and don’t forget: It’s not the platform that makes a great course – the instructor does that.
This article may use affiliate links to link to some platforms. If you sign up for a platform after following such a link, I will receive a small commission at no disadvantage to you.