The Best Online Course Platforms of 2021
Learn how to evaluate online course platforms, what features to look for, and the best platforms to choose from in 2021.
Creating an online course is one of the most energizing ways of growing or expanding your online business with digital products or services today.
Right now, we’re seeing a huge uptick in interest in online courses due to the global pandemic. Many are seeking out new ways that they can learn new skills, have new experiences, and connect with new people.
Online course platforms are an exciting place for creators, coaches, and online entrepreneurs who are ready to level up their business.
While deciding on the topic of the course that you want to create is 80% of the battle, there are a few things to know upfront about the technical side of picking an online course creation platform that will make your life MUCH easier once you’re ready to go.
How should you evaluate your online course platform? Let’s start with the not-so-obvious basics.
Why should you use an online course platform?
Using an online course platform to create an online course is easier than trying to build everything by yourself.
In the past, you had to start with a number of parts and pieces to get an online course off the ground. This included the need for web hosting, website design, content and video hosting, quiz and survey tools, payment gateways, and integrations with your email, site, and social channels, and more.
Then, there’s the community side of things. It turns out that bringing people together around your course content is the most important part of the whole experience. The community you build will be what keeps everyone engaged.
The best online course creation platforms provide you with powerful tools to build out all of the features listed above. This includes integrating an online community into your online course.
An Ideal Online Course Platform Puts Your Brand and Your “WHY” Front and Center
Your “why” is bigger than the goal to monetize. It’s the area of people’s life where your expertise can help them master something interesting they can’t master on their own.
Your online course creation platform needs to give you the chance to put your motivation in front of people, so they know why they’d join. Then you’ve got to deliver on that “why” throughout your course by showing concrete results.
You may be wondering what your “why”is. Maybe you want members to have a better, more successful career, a better understanding of themselves, or a meaningful spiritual practice. Maybe you want them to make healthier decisions and navigate stress differently. Ultimately, you want them to get unstuck, achieve their goals, and live the life they want to live. This is why you do what you do.
But how does an online course help you guide others to results and transformation?
Online courses are a better way to share content. Turn your expertise into a guide for other people. Building a course gives you a way to bring people on a journey to master something interesting together. All of your insights on that topic will be in one place, where you can integrate articles, videos, and infographics, showing how it all relates and ties together.
Online courses are a better way to monetize your content. A course creates a marketable package for your expertise. You’re not just selling articles, videos, and quizzes to people. You’re selling the results and transformation people can have in their lives as a result of their hard work. You’re creating an immersive experience made up of your expertise, practices, and guidance for your students to take into their own lives and achieve bigger goals or experience a transformation they haven’t been able to find on their own.
Online courses are the best learning environment for your following. Your best content is scattered across a range of channels in a variety of forms. When you use an online platform for courses you can gather all those insights in one place where your audience can get a curated experience with clear results. By having all of your work in one place, your people can achieve results and transformation.
Online courses are the best way to foster a community where people motivate and learn from each other. Online courses create a clear focus for people to come together around the same “‘why.” Your members can connect with each other as they work through modules together. Studies show that people learn, change, and grow better when they are not alone. There is power when your members are working together, in the same direction, and have a direct, shared experience. This is why it’s so important not to let your online course community start as an afterthought.
How Online Course Platforms Work
E-learning platforms aren’t new. In their earliest inception, they took the form of Moodle courses you may have used in school, and there are specialty Learning Management Systems (LMS) that serve the wider training and education needs of corporations and schools.
But in the past few years, new online learning platforms have emerged that serve creators with a more entrepreneurial aim. The rest of this article is focused on the best online course platforms that benefit individual creators like you looking to create recurring business income by selling their expertise packaged as an online course.
Hosted Solutions for Online Course Platforms
Are you intimidated already by the tech of your online business? Then you’re going to want to look at a “hosted” solution for your online course.
These platforms come with the infrastructure and tools that let you sell your course from your own website without having to worry about updates, security, hosting, and maintenance.
You can focus on creating content and selling rather than managing a website. While even the best online course platforms don’t offer everything, you can get most of what you need no problem. A key benefit of hosted solutions is avoiding all the headaches that come from developing your own technology and security systems. Most of our recommendations for online course creation platforms will fall into this category.
Marketplace Solutions for Online Course Platforms
The earliest online course platforms for creators were marketplaces like Udemy and Skillshare. These marketplaces allow you to list your course on their platform and find students for your courses who showed up looking for an online course.
These marketplace solutions continue to be very popular, but with more creators launching online courses with their own social media followings or email lists, the economics of a marketplace may or may not make as much sense.
See, while you’ll benefit from a marketplace’s topical indexes, organic search traffic, and promotional dollars, you also have to pay them a significant fee or a percentage of your sales, which doesn’t happen with hosted or LMS platforms. You also surrender your ability to collect email addresses and contact info for the people who take your course. So while new people might find you, you’re unable to add them to your network if this is your only course sales channel.
What You Need in an Online Course Platform
A fast and clear way to create and organize lessons. The best online learning today is an immersive, yet organized multimedia event! You need creation software that supports video, audio, PDFs, images, and some type of feedback loop like a quiz or a conversation thread. You also need a way to do live instruction and scheduled webinar events, as well as offer self-paced materials outside of the main course material.
You need to be able to charge for your course and securely collect payments from your customers. When you launch an online course, you’re not just charging for content. You’re creating a community powered by the topic of the course, and your people need to be able to buy your online courses, groups, and community seamlessly in the same place.
A way to support multiple business models as you evolve. You want an online course platform that can scale with you, whether you’re just starting out or you’re looking to level up and improve what you already have. You also want an online course platform that can offer more than payment for a single online course alone. You want to be able to offer bundles of courses and communities or packages of paid mastermind groups fueled by free courses. You want the opportunity to experiment with different combinations and should choose a white label course platform that makes this possible.
A way to smoothly integrate the marketing and delivery of your course. The success of your course depends on promotion: Does your online course platform play nice with your email channel? Your social channels? It’s 2021! You shouldn’t have to duplicate your efforts across your channels and you shouldn’t have to cobble something together with workarounds that can easily break.
A way to connect your students to complete courses and grow faster. You need to be able to interact with your students in real-time, but the most important asset to the success of your audience and growth beyond your first members is their ability to interact with each other. When your community is thriving, you don’t need to spam your social channels or email list to sell more online courses.
The conversations between members will encourage learning and growth much more than your videos or course content. It’s pretty simple. The more your community connects to each other, the more valuable your course becomes, and the faster you will grow from there.
A way to access your online courses and course community on mobile. Increasingly, the only reliable platform for delivering engagement and course completion is on native mobile apps, such as an iPhone, iPad, or Android smartphone. Checking to see if your online course platform is available on native mobile apps will be important.
The Best Online Course Platforms for 2021 to Create and Sell Your Expertise
No online course platform is perfect. Therefore, it’s best to know what’s the most important thing to you in delivering your courses. And what’s going to be the most important thing to your students? Some questions to ask yourself are:
- Are you looking to grow your audience?
- Are you most concerned about price?
- Are you looking for ease of use?
Looking ahead to 2021, we’ve rounded up the best platforms to create online courses with a quick look at what makes each of them work.
Best for Creating Your First Course: Udemy
- Type: Marketplace
- Strengths: You can use Udemy for free and simply create an online course with the knowledge you want to share.
- Weaknesses: Revenue share model is 50% for courses listed on their platform. In addition, you don’t get contact information for those who buy through Udemy. Community interaction (if any) happens in Udemy’s network, not yours.
- Best for: Trying out course creation, learning the process. Making and selling a course without having to build a multi-channel platform.
Best for Brand Exposure: Skillshare
- Type: Marketplace
- Strengths: Set up with the creatives in mind, Skillshare specializes in design, craft, and technical skills. As a result, it supports creative projects and feedback for assessment. Students show their work and can practice and learn from giving and receiving feedback as much as from your instruction alone.
- Weaknesses: You can’t earn money until you get 25 students enrolled in a class, and even then, your share is $1-2 per enrollee. You can’t use these enrollees to build your own email list or wider network.
- Best for: Those just starting out and who have a creative topic. You can create courses that feature videos taught in short 10-25-minute segments and culminates with a class project. It’s an uncomplicated way to turn your passion into some extra cash on the side.
Best for a Community-Focused Course: Mighty Networks
- Type: Hosted
- Strengths: A full-bodied platform that allows you to not only sell online courses but build a true “peer-to-peer” community mastering your topic together. What sets a Mighty Network apart is that your online courses, community, events, and even mastermind groups are in one place, under your brand, and available to your members on every platform, including native mobile.
- Weaknesses: It’s not a Facebook Group, so your people may not want to follow you to another platform beyond where they spend a lot of their time already (even if they already followed you off Facebook to an online course platform).
- Best for: Creators who understand the power of a community in delivering premium priced online courses, better results, and deeper relationships across their students. If your course would benefit from collaboration, conversation, and cheering each other on (whose doesn’t?), Mighty Networks creates a place for people to master your topic together under your brand.
Best for Heavy-Marketing an Online Course: Kajabi
- Type: Hosted
- Strengths: Offers many features you’d want from hosted online course platforms. It is designed for savvy marketers who value marketing pages and sales funnels that drive sales and conversion to paid online courses. They recently added a native mobile app for course content.
- Weaknesses: Kajabi offers a very limited community while being the most expensive option among the dedicated course platforms. It also lacks privacy levels for gated content—buyers have all access to content or none at all.
Best for: Savvy marketers who value the sales pages and funnels built into Kajabi. It’s ready to deliver your online courses with 10+ well-designed themes and robust built-in email marketing tools.
The Best Online Course Platforms: Honorable Mentions
There are so many online course platforms out there that we thought we’d list some honorable mentions too. While we believe the choices above are the best online course platforms in their respective categories, these options are worth looking into as well.
- Type: Hosted
- Strengths: Teachable is the most popular of the online course platforms for creators. It allows you to add multiple content types including videos and quizzes to your course, drip your course content, create certificates, and it also has a very well-designed course player, resulting in a great learning experience.
- Weaknesses: No community option, which drives instructors to create a Facebook Group and have to juggle members across both platforms. Plus, it’s hard to customize the look and feel to match your brand.
- Best for: Marketing promotions. Teachable has a coupons tool, 1-step checkout, 1-click upsells.
- Type: Hosted
- Strengths: A simple website builder with easy-to-create sales pages (no code required!). Allows for advanced quizzes including randomization and question banks with bulk import.
- Weaknesses: No community option. Plus, the checkout process doesn’t perform well and lacks good sales and marketing features.
- Best for: Certification-based courses, where prerequisites and quiz assessments are key to the learning path.
Podia (formerly Coach)
- Type: Hosted
- Strengths: Podia is super easy to use, with a clean, modern design out of the box. Podia also gives you the ability to create one-off “posts” for paid content in addition to longer courses.
- Weaknesses: Podia doesn’t support essential features like graded quizzes, certificates, feedback, etc. There’s no standalone community space on the site, which disables any possible network effect and member interaction in the learning process. They also don’t support building a full website.
- Best for: creators who have course materials of different shapes and sizes who want a beautiful viewing experience.
Use an Online Course Platform to Create and Grow Your Income
The demand for online learning is only growing, especially from creators whose unique brands and expertise are attracting people like never before.
Whether you have one course or a series, write your own code or want to simply set things up with drag-and-drop, there is an online course platform for you.
Now is the time to turn your expertise and experiences into a new revenue stream. As you design your learning plans and pricing models, don’t forget real online learning goes beyond videos and articles: real online learning happens when your people can talk to each other and teach you back! Level up your content by bringing your community, courses, and subscriptions together.
Sold, yet? We hope so.
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