In many creative fields, the term "indie artist" conveys a musician or a film maker who creates art outside of the traditional, corporate structures of music labels and studios. I think the same concept should apply to teachers.
In this sense, independent teachers practice teaching outside of the traditional walls of universities and publishers.
Teachers have a calling driven by two passions. First, they have a passion to become a subject matter expert in a field of knowledge whether that is art history, accounting, or something else. Second, they have a passion to share their knowledge with others.
Traditionally, colleges and universities provide the platform for teachers to fulfill their callings. However, in the last twenty years, teachers have found it increasingly difficult to find a stable university home. The competition for full-time positions is particularly intense, and even finding part-time opportunities can be a challenge.
In the early 1990s when the Internet and World Wide Web were first emerging, I wrote about the potential of the Internet to democratize information. Historically, institutions such as universities and publishers controlled the dissemination of information because the required infrastructure like printing presses and classrooms were expensive to build. The Internet provided a path to remove these intermediaries and connect directly with an audience.
In the years since, the tools and opportunities have increased. In fact, many coaches advertise how anyone can write a book or teach a class...no advanced degree required. Anyone can play baseball too, but not everyone can play at the level of the big leagues. Teachers have the education and experience to be leaders in this new environment and raise the bar on the quality of what is available.
The independent teacher can create their own platform to share her/his knowledge directly with students.
A variety of systems are available online that allow anyone to become a teacher or publisher of information and knowledge products without having specialized technical skills or requiring buckets of money to invest.
What holds teachers back from declaring their independence?
In August 2017, I published a survey to gather career advice from professors. I was surprised by the level of frustration respondents expressed with their academic careers, especially the challenges of finding even part-time teaching opportunities.
At the same time, I was taking courses and following the sage counsel of a host of gurus around online entrepreneurship including selling online courses. None of these self-proclaimed experts had an academic background, but they were making mad money selling online courses. In fact, many were proud of the fact that they had no academic qualifications for teaching.
This contradiction hit me hard. On the one hand, we had qualified teachers who are challenged to make a basic living sharing their expertise through teaching. On the other hand, talented amateurs were charging ridiculous amounts of money for courses that lacked the quality I expect from online higher education.
To validate this concept, I did a follow-up survey to the respondents of the first survey. Of the 300 that I invited, 58 people generously shared their thoughts about offering courses as independent teachers outside of colleges and universities.
I asked about what topics they were interested in teaching:
- 10% were interested in academic skills like test prep, career and academic planning, life coaching
- 26% were interested in liberal arts subjects like English, mathematics, science, etc.
- 64% were interested in professional subjects in business, technology, and other fields
Most (74%) of respondents had taught at least one online course in the past. Respondents (91%) were comfortable with facilitating, and most (68%) also felt comfortable designing courses. Only 44% felt confident with the project management tasks associated with course development, while 42% expressed interest in training related to this activity.
I also asked what barriers people felt held them back from offering their own courses. Most of the 170 items listed were options presented in the survey including in order of popularity:
- Marketing and selling products and services (38)
- Raising capital to start a business (37)
- Managing back office processes like billing, accounting, and other administrative functions (26)
- Identifying an audience for my expertise (23)
- Working with technology to create a platform (15)
- Creating courses and other products and services (12)
I expected that marketing and back office processes would be high on the list since those are the functions that colleges provide for faculty. I was surprised that raising capital to start a business was so high because the truth is that such a business can be started with no capital at all. Sweat equity is unavoidable…but teachers are used to hard work. I have worked hard to get the starting investment down to about $70/year…but it could be done for free.
Becoming an independent teacher and course creator is not for everyone. For those who are willing, there are opportunities to share what they know and make some money at the same time.
What is the market for independent classes?
When students enroll in a class at a college, they are almost always enrolling because the class is a degree requirement. Students may select majors because they have a passion in literature or because they want a career in business, and sometimes students may selective electives for the same reason. Even then, though, the student is taking the course because it generates credits toward graduation.
For faculty looking to become independent teachers, the natural question is who is going to invest time and money in a class outside of the college where it does not generate credits. The answer depends on the subject being taught.
The most obvious subjects for independent courses are those that are aligned to a professional or business topic that individuals in that field have an interest in or need to learn. College degrees are often a poor option for someone who wants to learn a specific topic, because the degree requires so many other courses and classes are offered at limited times of the year. For example, if I want to learn how to do taxes, an accounting degree is going to require many more accounting classes just to take one class on taxes. Offering a course outside of a college has a built-in audience. In fact, a wide variety of courses are offered on a variety of topics online. Check out udemy.com for the biggest collection.
The course you offer might not be the same as what you teach for a college, but the subject could be related. The key is that you are offering learning for people who have a career-related need to learn this skill or topic.
The next major category of independent course creation is general personal development topics. One of the most popular MOOCs is about how to learn. Time management is another important topic. There is a widespread need for life skills and other topics. I would include within this area topics like resume writing and job search skills. A psychology teacher might offer courses on relationships. A marketing teacher might offer a course on how to get more connections on Tinder. The knowledge a teacher has developed through study and research does not need to be limited to a single discipline, and others might find significant value in the lessons.
The final category of courses are those topics that are very academic. While everyone needs to know how to write better, and that can be taught as either professional or personal development, American literature appeals only to a limited audience for personal interest. I have discussed this challenge with English and other teachers, and we have come up with a couple of approaches for courses.
First, courses that can help someone prepare for a CLEP or Dantes advanced placement test can help college students earn college credit. Three college credits can easily be over a $1000 in tuition. The exams cost less than $100. A prep course for even $500 is still a good deal for the student.
Second, staying with exams, some disciplines lend themselves to preparing for admissions exams like the LSAT, GRE, and MCAT. Students seeking to attend grad school have an interest in doing well on these exams, and courses that can help them prepare offer value.
Third, I think there is an opportunity for a new type of study resource for college students. Rather than re-create a 15-week American lit course, instead create 15 short courses that provide a tutorial on each of the topics typically covered in a course. For a student who missed lecture, or is struggling with a paper or essay, these short courses could provide a valuable lifeline. Few faculty hold office hours in the middle of the night when undergrads are doing homework. A mini-course on Thoreau could be useful. Because these are short courses, the price would need to be lower, maybe $20. If you sold each short course to ten students, that would be $3000. Veteran teachers that know where students struggle on a topic have the advantage of knowing what topics students need help with. I think of this as a digital study guide created by an expert.
In order to create a course that will sell, the course needs to solve a problem that someone has. Teachers have a great deal of experience in teaching people how to solve problems. Limiting teaching to institutions like schools and publishers limits access to that experience and increases the price that students must pay. An independent teacher can create value for students at less expense.
Can I make money with online classes? How?
Many people make money from teaching online courses, as can you. Here are a few of the business models for making money from online classes
Google makes most of their money from advertising, and this is certainly an option. By selling advertising on your course site, you can generate a revenue stream. However, it takes many eyeballs to generate enough revenue to make this worthwhile. Another option is sponsorship where one sponsor pays to advertise on the course. For example, a course on a specific product might be sponsored by that product.
The primary way to make money with online courses is to charge for access to the course. This can be a one-time charge or spread out in payments. A $1000 cost is easier to manage spread across 10 payments of $100. The charge can also be a subscription for access to a variety of courses. This can even be recurring. Lynda.com, for example, operates this way selling a subscription to learners to access a library of courses.
Pay walls and freemium models are closely related concepts that are important to this discussion. The idea of a “pay wall” comes from online media that give certain content away for free and lock-up other content behind a pay wall that requires payment. Some sites do this as on the basis of five articles for free and payment starting with the sixth. Another model is to give certain articles (or lessons or courses) for free and charge for “premium” content.
The freemium model is used for many web and mobile apps including games. Much of the content or service is given away for free, but users can pay to unlock additional features or content. The model is based on the idea that many people will try something for free and a few who pay will generate enough revenue to pay for everyone. Generally significant content is available for free, and the free content is not just a sample or trial product. The idea is that the free product offers value for the audience, making it easier to want to invest to unlock additional product.
These models can be used in a variety of ways with online courses. The first lesson in a course can be free, and additional content costs money. A common model in the MOOC world is to give away the content for free but charge for the assessment of student work.
Other Products (books, services, and more)
Another approach is to give away courses and use them as marketing for other products and services. For example, if you have a book or multiple books for sale, the course can be used as a marketing tool to direct people to buy the book. You can also use the online course as a way to promote your expertise for consulting or coaching or other services. For example, I give away my course on how to become a teacher, but I market to those students the option for coaching at a cost.
Affiliate Services (Amazon, Click Bank)
If you don’t have things of your own to sell, you can also sell other people’s stuff. One option is Amazon. You can sign up to be part of their affiliate program, and then advertise Amazon products on your web site. Every purchase made through your site nets you a commission. For example, you could have a class in creative writing that includes Amazon ad links to books and resources that you recommend.
Another option is Click Bank. Many companies set-up accounts with Click Bank as an ecommerce site with the option for affiliates to market the offerings. The commission on these sales can be as much as 50%. Individual businesses will also recruit affiliates to do marketing and sales on their behalf. The course becomes a way to build an audience that trusts you, and you use that connection to have people buy things where you earn a commission.
A Note about Free
An ongoing debate is whether people under value things that are free. The more you pay for something, there is a psychological feeling that it is worth the price paid. Free items are not always valued because they don’t have a price. I for one tend to collect a variety of free books and materials that someday I hope to read. If I had paid for those books, the assumption is I would be more likely to make the time. At the same time, there is an expectation on the Internet that many things are free. Wikipedia, for example, takes donations, but there is no cost to use it or any advertising. Google search and gmail are free, though there is advertising.
One approach to this is a “tripwire.” This is a low-cost option that makes it easy for someone to sign up for your course but it is also more than free, so someone will be more motivated to actually participate in the course. This can also be a stepping stone to a more expensive course option.
Pay What You Want
One innovative approach to pricing is to allow your students/readers set their own price. You can either set a minimum price or allow for free as the lowest price. You can and should provide a recommended price. This approach ensures that you will not turn away anyone because the price is too high, and in some cases people may pay more than you would have charged. The challenge is that few systems allow for this type of pricing.
Unless you already have other products or services to sell, the best starting strategy is to charge for your course. How much to charge depends on a variety of factors and there is not uniformity of thought on pricing strategy. In general, you need to find the sweet spot that maximizes your revenue while keeping courses affordable to your students.
How can I create an online class with no out-of-pocket expense?
Paul Simon teaches us there are 99 ways to leave your lover, and while I cannot think of that many ways to create and publish a course online for free, there are many options. I apologize in advance if I intentionally or unintentionally left an option out. If this really bothers you, please drop me an email and I will consider including your feedback in future editions. With your help, I believe we can find 99 ways.
By free, I mean with no out of pocket investment on your part. You can charge students for the course, and since you have no monetary investment, you can see an immediate return on the investment of your labor.
One of the factors in deciding between options is how you intend to deliver your course. Video is very popular. Text is old school but works. Discussion forums provide an easy way to add interactivity to a course. Learning management systems integrate all of these options and more.
This does not need to be you on screen…you can easily create voice over PowerPoint slides and turn this into a video. You can also shoot video with your phone. Or in a studio.
YouTube: Any video on your phone, tablet, or computer can be posted to YouTube. The challenge here is that you need significant volume to earn a return on your time and knowledge. The upside is that people can find your videos. The risk is whether or not your audience is looking for videos on your topic on YouTube.
In the beginning there was text. Words organized into sentences that form paragraphs that tell a story is a powerful medium. A course can be as simple as a sequence of documents. Think of this as a book that has been broken into digital chunks.
Email Course: If your content is text, you can send it out as a series of emails. This is a technically simple approach, and some email service providers will allow you to create a sequence of emails that are sent to subscribers on a pre-set schedule after the subscriber signs up. This type of course is typically used as a marketing strategy to build trust with an audience.
Blog Course: If your content is text, you can publish a series of blog posts (or just plain web pages). The options on how to do this are vast but this page is a nice summary: http://www.creativebloq.com/web-design/best-blogging-platforms-121413634
Discussion forums are one of the earliest innovations in online learning. Teachers and learners can interact either at the same time or more commonly at different times across multiple threads of conversation.
FaceBook and LinkedIn Groups: Both social media platforms allow you to create private (or public) groups. Within the groups you can share content, but more importantly, you and your audience can ask questions and share ideas.
Learning Management Systems
When you want to combine video, text, discussion forums, and other features into a structured course, you want to use a learning management system. These platforms include learner registration so you can assign learners to specific courses. Learners can track their progress as they move through a course. This is what people typically think of when they think of online learning.
Learning management systems can either be hosted by a provider or self-hosted on your own server. I have had many long arguments with myself on the virtues of hosted versus self-hosted options. I have a background in IT, and I created my own server to self-host learning management system. Over time, though, I found that the time involved in administering my own systems was not the best use of my time, and I switched back to a hosted option.
Udemy: Udemy is one of the largest sites for online courses. It does not cost anything to publish a course here, but there are some important issues to be aware of. First, Udemy requires that courses consist at least 30 minutes of video. While not a show stopper, it does limit your options in how you build your course. Second, Udemy will take a chunk of any money that you earn. While you can earn 97% of the revenue from courses that you generate the registration, Udemy will keep 50-75% if they attract the student. Most importantly Udemy limits the price you can charge for courses and they often run sales. This is great for learners, but it creates an expectation of paying $10 for a course. Udemy is its own brand, which makes it harder to establish your own platform. One strategy is to use Udemy for smaller courses to attract interest from Udemy users that you can then up sell to longer, more expensive courses. This page has an overview of other options like Udemy: https://www.learningrevolution.net/alternative-to-udemy/
Teachable and Thinkific: These two sites provide a platform for online course develops to develop and publish courses. Both have a free option. They have some differences in pricing models, user interface, and how they approach paying course developers, but in many respects they are very similar. Both have built in e-commerce solutions so your audience can pay cash money for access to your courses (if you want to charge.) The services will take a small cut for handling this service, but it is in line with the usual fee for these services. A free course does not cost anything. The sites make money when course developers upgrade to premium packages. While there is a monthly (or annual) fee, if you are successful at selling courses at the free level, you should be able to cover these costs. The free period is not time limited. You could in theory have a profitable online school without ever paying a monthly fee.
Self Hosted Solutions
WordPress: WordPress began as a blog publishing platform/software. Over time it has morphed into a more general content management system that is used for many web sites (with or without a blog). There are a galaxy of WordPress extensions. Most charge either a one time or recurring fee. Based on my research, one of the best options appears to be Learndash. A free option is Lifter LMS. I almost went in this direction for my own work. For completeness, I wanted to include WordPress as an option beyond simply using a blog as a class. With add-ins, you can create something much more.
Moodle: Moodle is one of the older online learning management systems used by universities, schools, and companies around the world. The software is open source, so it is not owned by anyone company and there is no cost to use the software. You will need a server though to host your Moodle installation. There are several companies that do this but not for free. If you are technical in nature, though, you can install Moodle on Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, or Google Web Services on their free tier. The advantage of this approach is that it offers more control than any other option. You control your own server and can make choices about how it is configured. I like the fact that Moodle has its own mobile app. Mobile access to learning via phones and tablets is the wave of today, and while any system can be accessed from a web browser on one of these devices, Moodle has its own native app which lends to a better user experience.
Canvas: Canvas is one of the most popular learning management systems. While they primarily market to institutions, they offer an option for individual faculty to create a course on the corporate site. This service is intended to get faculty excited to have the software installed at their institution, and it is not as full-featured as Teachable of Thinkific. Still, if your goal is to create and publish a course, these are options. (You can also install a version of Canvas on your own server for free. In my tests, I preferred Moodle for a variety of reasons.)
Open EdX: EdX is one of the major MOOC providers. They make their software available as OpenEdX. You have to install it on your own server, though. I tested it on a Microsoft Azure virtual server. I liked the course development process, but I could not find support for student registration and other functions that are available with Moodle.
What technology do you recommend for an expertise-based business?
My professional experience with technology goes back to the early days of the Web. To start my own business, I spent many hours researching and testing technology options. In the end, I wanted to be able to recommend a technology stack (fancy IT word for a collection of tools) that would work for others who wanted to build an expertise-based business with minimal expense and complexity.
Most people who start a business will fail, often because the cost and/or time commitment to get started is too much. The technologies recommended here are both inexpensive and simple to use.
Personal productivity software are used for your day-to-day activities like creating documents and email.
We all need software to create documents, presentations, spreadsheets, and related content. Most people already have an Office Suite, which will probably meet their needs. I use two.
G Suite (Google Docs): G Suite comes with a gmail account with support for a custom domain for $5/month. The word processor and presentation software works well, and everything is saved in the cloud so automatic back-ups. Google Forms replaces the need for survey software. Very easy to share files with others or embed them in web sites or courses.
Microsoft Office 365: For most purposes, G Suite is sufficient. Microsoft PowerPoint, though, allows you to create videos from your presentations with no additional software. You can add narration to the slides and then export it as a video which can be uploaded to YouTube or an online class. That one feature makes the suite worth the expense which is less than $10/month.
You need an email address that is your own and separate from work and personal uses.
Gmail (Option 1): Gmail is free and comes with G Suite.
Outlook (Option 2): For about $12.50/month you can get Office 365 and an Outlook account and a whole lot more from Microsoft.
In an expertise-based business, you need tools to create and publish content.
The blogging platform is an essential component of an expertise-based business. Your blog is where you can post articles and share content. It can help people discover you, and it also helps people get to know you and your expertise before investing money with your knowledge products and services.
Blogger: This is a Google product, and since I recommend Google for an office suite and email, you already have a Google account. Plus it is free.
Now, most people will recommend Word Press ideally your own hosted web site. I have done this too. Not only are you looking at expense for Word Press hosting, you also have to manage the server. The gurus will also tell you to pay for a theme and add many different plug-ins. This creates a huge time suck and distraction that you do not really need. Word Press is a popular platform (something like 25% of web sites run on it), which attracts hackers...so you have to make sure you are up-to-date on your installation. I like IT, and I don't want those hassles.
Blogger will provide everything you need for blogging. Really you just need a place to post your shorter writing. Blogger can do that. In technology, there is a tendency to get distracted by the features that you might need. Most of the time you never, ever use those features. So don't think you need software that don't really need.
Learning Management System
The primary way to share your expertise with an audience is through courses. The learning management system makes it easy to publish courses and if desired to collect money for those courses. I explore the different ways that you can publish a course in a separate post, but here I want to provide my recommendations:
Teachable (Option 1): Teachable is easy to use and free to start using. If you sell courses, you will have to pay Teachable a percentage plus a cost for payment processing. The percentage goes down if you pay for a monthly plan. This allows you to start offering courses and then as you start earning revenue, you can upgrade your Teachable plan. You can also use Teachable for a membership site. You can even use Teachable to sell coaching. You create a course for coaching, and your client can make the purchase through Teachable.
Thinkific (Option 2): Thinkific is a lot like Teachable. Many successful gurus use Thinkific, and the differences are mainly very small. I will be writing a comparison post at some point. For now, the major differences are that Thinkific does not support membership payments or payment plans in the free option. Teachable does. I think that is important for people who are just starting out in the free tier of service. Second, Thinkific requires that you set-up an account with a payment processor. This just adds an extra step to getting started. The benefit of this is the ability be paid sooner, but you also give up other benefits. Teachable will handle 30-day refunds automatically for you, plus you can have Teachable pay people who teach for you or who sell your course. Thinkific requires that you do this on your own. Third, in my opinion, Teachable has a nicer interface for teachers and students. Really I don't think you can go wrong with either one, and choosing between them was very hard.
What if you want to sell something other than courses like books? You can sell these trough Teachable and Thinkific, but I do want to identify two additional resources for e-commerce solutions.
Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP): Amazon makes it easy to publish a book for sale for the Kindle e-readers. If you are interested in writing and publishing a book, this is a must have approach. Being available on Amazon is great for your visibility and credibility.
Gumroad: If you want to sell digital or physical products, Gumroad is a great platform. First, they are free to use where you only pay a fee on sales. You can upgrade to a $10/month membership, which is still a great price. Unlike most e-commerce platforms, they offer "pay what you want" pricing for your audience. This allows you to put the burden on the purchaser to name a price. This can be especially valuable when you have an audience that does not have much money.
You can have the best products in the world and have no impact if you have no visibility. Marketing software helps you get the word out about what you have to offer.
While you can get by without your own custom Internet address, it is much more professional to have your own domain name for email and web sites including blogging. My strong recommendation is to use something tied to your name. This will help with your personal branding and be more memorable than trying to create something new. The best option is a domain ending in .com but others will work in a pinch.
GoDaddy: I use GoDaddy because I have used them for years. Prices are reasonable. The services work. You can get a domain for $10/year and then point that domain to gmail for mail and Blogger for a web site. You might be able to save a $1 or $2 with other services, but since I have not used them, I cannot recommend them.
You need a web site to include a few pages such as a list of products and services, links to blogs and courses, an about you page, and a contact form.
Blogger: One of the reasons to use blogger is that it allows you to create pages along with your blog. You don't need much technical skill. Yes, you do not have much option for design...but that is a good thing. Unless you are a designer and need to convince people about your design ability, you do not need or want a fancy design. It is a waste of time. Blogger can let you create something that looks good enough with minimal fuss and muss.
In addition to your own email address, you need a email marketing program to send emails to your list. In theory you can do this on your own from your own email, but an email marketing service provides several key functions. First, when you send many email messages at once, you can be labeled as a spammer and your emails will end up in spam boxes if they get to your audience at all. Email marketing systems wok hard to ensure that email is not treated as spam. Second, the U.S. government and the EU both have significant regulation on email marketing. Email marketing providers will help keep you on the right side of the law. Third, the systems will track what emails are opened and what links within your emails are clicked. This allows you to know how your email is working at reaching your audience. These systems offer other tools as well, but those are the big three that explain why you need such a tool.
Mailer Lite: There are several email marketing systems. Mailer Lite is not the best known or most widely used. I don't think they spend as much on marketing at their competitors, which is fine with me. They do what needs to be done, and their pricing is free for your first 1000 people in your list. They make sure the mail gets there. I also like that their branding is subdued. Their main competitor has a cartoon animal as a logo which is prominently pasted to all of your emails. This is not the type of branding I want.
The technologies described above are mainly pay as you earn services, so they do not require an upfront investment. This allows you to build and prove your business model with little financial investment. The only cash investments that you need are about $10/per year for a domain name and $60/year for G Suite for email and office applications.
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About the Author
Chris Davis, Ph.D.
Chris Davis, Ph.D. is an educator and entrepreneur. He writes, teaches, and coaches on how to leverage technology to achieve personal and professional goals. He has served as a faculty member and administrator in higher education since 1996 at institutions including Baker College, National Louis University, University of Liverpool, Colorado Technical University, and Western International University. His Ph.D. in Urban, Technological, and Environmental Planning is from the University of Michigan. He also has a Master’s of Science in Education from Capella University, a Master’s of Science in Psychology from Walden University, and an MBA in Accounting and Information Technology from Western International University.