The online education industry is on its way to be worth $325 Billion by 2025, and is an excellent way for beginning entrepreneurs to make a full-time income selling their skills in a premium online course package.
There are incredible benefits to the online course model, including great profit margins, passion-fueled business ideas, and world-wide reach with automated sales processes. But it isn’t all sunshine and roses.
One of the greatest hurdles in the online course industry is finding the proper technology stack and process to deliver these online courses.
After a quick google search you will be bombarded with different plugins, limitations around which other tools it integrates with, various confusing pricing structures, and cobbled together coding workarounds to make things work the way you wish they could.
This post will simplify your search by rounding up the most popular and effective methods of delivering high quality online courses.
But if you are looking for the single end-all, be-all tool… let me go ahead and let you down easy now. There isn’t one. Everyone’s business is different and every use case unique. But throughout this comparison I will make recommendations for the best tool for different situations. I’ll go into the pro’s and con’s of each tool, and give as much context as possible to help you make a smart decision.
This may become its own online course one day 😉 But one step at a time. Let’s start with step #1.
What do you need for a quality online course system?
The best online course platforms require some basic features:
- They need to accept payments (or integrate with something that does)
- It must protect premium content and display it beautifully for your students
- It should have some community element to it.
- It should be simply and straight forward to use for both the teacher and the student
- It can scale easily with more students and courses
- It should support advanced selling features like coupons, sales funnels, bundles, tracking student progress, etc
As we review each of the tools, it's important to note that nothing is going to be perfect across the board, but to look for the best use case for your business and decide which features you don't need yet in your business.
If you are just getting started with building online courses, it's important be ok with good enough. Start with a simple solution that you can trust and can afford, and improve it over time as you earn more money.
The 3 categories of online course delivery
There are 3 main ways of delivering online courses that we will cover in this article.
Software as a Service Platforms
These are software companies that try to provide a full end-to-end solution for creating, marketing, selling, and delivering online products. They tend to have a higher monthly cost and less flexibility, in exchange for the greater simplicity of getting your business up and running. If you are terrified of tech, these options can be handy.
These are courses that will live on your actual website. Many of these will be WordPress plugins that will seamlessly integrate with the rest of your site. These solutions offer a ton of customization and are often cheaper, but come at the expense of increased complexity to implement smoothly.
The third category catches all the other ways you can successfully launch online courses. Whether that be by email, live webinars, or forum software, these are solutions that are done very differently, but can sometimes be equally effective.
Let’s waste no time and dive into the hosted options.
As we move forward consider both the short term and long term benefits of the platforms. Using a SaaS may get you up and running sooner, but may not have the long term benefits of owning your own courses.
Hosted Online Course Solutions
Hosted solutions are geared towards the the creatives who want to serve their audience, but don’t want to get bogged down in the tech, and don’t want to hire a developer to build up their own platform. The most popular hosted solutions that we will cover today are:
Teachable is a hosted solution that has grown extremely popular for online course creators in recent years, and for good reason.
Its entire focus is on building online courses, and offers limited additional functionality.
With Teachable, you can create multiple online courses, offer an affiliate program, create sales pages to market your courses, offer upsells and coupon codes to help sell more products, and manage your courses and students from an easy-to-navigate dashboard.
Teachable is a very approachable system for beginners, but it comes at a price:
Teachable offers a free plan that takes over 10% of every sale you make, or will charge you $79 per month in order to keep 100% of the earnings of your course (Stripe & Paypal will take their cut of course...)
But buying into any learning platform is going to be a smart business investment as it will enable you to focus on creating and selling courses for profit - the whole point.
Here is a quick run down of each plan:
Is Teachable the Best Online Course Platform?
Teachable is an excellent option if you don’t have a WordPress website and just want the simplest way to deliver a great looking online course.
Udemy is a unique option because it is an online course marketplace, where all the other options on the list are specifically owned by the course creator.
The online course marketplace is an entirely different experience. You don’t need a following, a Youtube Channel, a blog, or any other way of marketing your own product. If you have a passion and just want to teach the world (and not build a real business out of it), Udemy is a great option to consider.
It was how I launched my first online course years ago. I discovered a very interesting database tool, and learned the ins and outs of it. While browsing around online to see how others like it, I noticed that NO ONE had an online course teaching it.
So I built it on Udemy (before I ever had a blog), and let Udemy do the rest of the work. To date, that little course has earned me //get eranings from Udemy, I got to scratch my itch, and hundreds of students learned the tool. Great!
If I wanted to go further and build a real business around that course, I would not recommend Udemy. It’s important that you have pricing control, and for you to control the customer journey. But it is a great way to test an idea and find a new audience.
Is Udemy the best Free Online Course Platform?
If you are a hobbyist who isn’t sure if you want to purse an online business, I think Udemy is a great place to dip your toes in the water. You can quickly earn your first dollar, but don’t expect it to let you retire early. For me it was the stepping stone that told me it was possible to earn money online, which motivated me to move forward.
This review is in progress
This review is in progress
Clickfunnels is a brand that needs no introduction. Their marketing material is everywhere and their affiliates trip over each other to earn a commission from you. While their marketing annoys me, their platform is a reasonable option for delivering your online course.
That is because it covers most of what you need an a simple package. You can create your sales funnel, checkout process, and membership area all within Clickfunnels.
The actual course delivery area is extremely basic when compared to dedicated online course platforms. You will essentially get a protect page where you can create simple lessons and embed a few videos. You can’t track progress through a course, mark lessons as favorites, or do other functionality that is a basic expectation of online courses.
Who is Clickfunnels best for?
I struggle giving a full recommendation of Clickfunnels. I think it is overpriced for the value you get, and for course creators the outcome doesn’t compete with the alternatives. A redeeming factor of Clickfunnels is the vast “funnel sharing” ecosystem that allows others to share templates with you.
Kartra is the all-in-one marketing platform that is out to eat Clickfunnels’ lunch. It offers more competitive pricing, as well as additional features.
- Sales funnel builder complete with upsells, downsells, bumps, and subscription payments. Very easy to perform A/B split tests and create trackable links to test your campaigns.
- Single click import of complete funnels (including landing pages, checkout pages, EMAIL SEQUENCES, tagging automation, and more) as well as a great training area to help you become a better marketer.
- Membership area with nice functionality (favorite lessons, comments and engagement tools)
- Built in email marketing platform with advanced automation features (tagging, segmentation, lead scoring)
- Built in video hosting with nice marketing features (tag viewers, social share to unlock, etc)
- Booking calendar system to allow your students to book 1:1 consultations or sign up for group training (excellent upsell opportunities)
- Live chat help desk to better streamline student support
- Affiliate program for your products
- Kartra marketplace where you can list your own products for other Kartra users to discover and sign up to promote them as affiliates
I cover more about Kartra in my full review post here. A major benefit that Kartra has over other platforms in this list is the Kartra marketplace. It is the happy middle ground between Udemy’s open marketplace, and a fully closed system. You maintain complete pricing and terms control, but are able to open up your product for promotion by others. This is a very smart system for those who have a small list and want to build an affiliate army quickly.
Is Kartra the Best All-In-One Platform?
If you want a nice balance between delivering a great course, building a great sales pages, and reducing the number of tools it takes to do it, Kartra is a great option. If you have tried WordPress and decided that it’s just not for you, then I would definitely encourage you to give Kartra a 14 day trial and get your funnel up and running quickly.
Self-Hosted Online Course Solutions
Self-hosting your courses has some unique advantages:
The true geeks out there will absolutely love self-hosting courses on their site, but to others, the complexity may not be worth it. Some cons of self-hosting include:
I am a fan of self-hosting courses on my site. I don’t work this hard to create content that brings people to my site just to send them off it!
Here are some of the best self-hosted online course solutions:
LearnDash is a powerhouse in the WordPress LMS space who boasts big clients like the University of Florida, WP Elevation, and Income Mesh (sorry, shameless plug there).
It is a robust solution that offers:
- Unlimited courses
- Course / Lesson / Topic structure for easy-to-navigate courses
- Shortcodes for Learner profile, course content, and anything else you can imagine to integrate your learning platform throughout your site (you can build a great learner’s dashboard this way!)
- Course progression tracker
- Drip feed content
- Integration with WooCommerce and Easy Digital Downloads to allow you to sell your courses however you’d like
- Course certificates for completion
- Gamification through Course Points to increase engagement
The list goes on and on - as LearnDash is an extremely robust solution. You have to ask yourself if you need all the features, or if they can get you stuck in tech prison - preventing you from making real progress.
Is LearnDash the best WordPress Online Course Plugin?
LearnDash is one of the strongest online course platforms for WordPress. If you want to build a serious online course business, you will appreciate all the options LearnDash gives you.
This section is in progress.
Thrive Apprentice is the newest major player in the online course space, launching in February 2019. It offers a beautiful interface, the ability to rapidly create courses, and a tight integration with SendOwl to sell the courses and protect your content.
Created by the team at Thrive Themes, this plugin is included as part of their very reasonably priced Thrive Membership, which makes it a no brainer if you are already a fan of their page builder or lead capture tool.
Thrive Apprentice doesn’t have as many features as LearnDash, but it covers the necessities for solopreneurs and small business owners to add online courses to their offerings.
You can protect your courses using a direct integration with SendOwl, or through several membership plugins:
- Wishlist Member
- WooCommerce Memberships (full tutorial)
- Ultimate Member
I am a huge fan of everything Thrive Themes does, and think that Apprentice is an extremely good option for anyone who wants a simple and powerful way to sell online courses on their site.
Is Thrive Apprentice the Best Online Course WordPress Plugin?
If you don't need all the bells and whistles of LearnDash, but you want to keep your courses on your site, I can definitely recommend Apprentice. They made a super simple workflow that makes course creation fun, and you can avoid tech headaches using their SendOwl integration to make things easy.
Review in progress
Review in progress
Alternative Online Course Solutions
This is the “catch-all” bucket for launching online courses. After all, the term learning management systems, is a relatively new category of software - so there have to be other ways of delivering this premium information.
If your main focus is on building a close knit community, with delivering courses as a secondary priority, you could consider launching everything inside a forum.
Forums provide some interesting functionality:
- The Ability for deeper discussions among members
- Archiving content for future reference and easier searching
- Launching a new course as easy as creating a new forum post
Forums are going to miss out on a lot of the functionality of dedicated online course platforms. Tracking user progress, splitting courses into modules and lessons, and other key features will be missing. You can “launch” a course as a single thread with multiple videos and downloadable lessons all in a single post, but that can be overwhelming and can quickly become unorganized to your students.
Launching courses in a forum also suffers from a "perceived value" effect. People are used to getting free access to a forum. And they are growing used to premium learning experiences like Thrive Apprentice and Teachable.
So simply throwing some 2 hour long videos of you reading power point presentations into a thread won't have the same premium feel as other options.
You will also need some membership solution to restrict access to the portions of the forums for premium course students
Forum Software Pros:
Should You Launch Your Course in a Forum?
If you want to keep your community off Facebook, and only want to offer courses as a secondary tool, a forum solution may be a good fit. But if you want to offer multiple products, it can be confusion to store them all within a single forum.
Premium Email Courses
Providing a free course via email is a great idea - it allows you to set the pace of the learning, it’s super simple to set up, and it trains your new subscriber to open your emails! Win win win!
But what about premium courses? Could you somehow build out a premium course experience and deliver it into the inbox?
I really don’t think so.
Protecting the content is going to be the greatest challenge. You can’t stop people from forwarding all your emails or saving the links to your lessons and reposting them elsewhere.
And true, people can also share their log in details (but that is much less common).
Customers have grown accustomed to getting more than a series of emails as part of a course purchase, so you may experience a higher refund rate by offering a premium course via email.
Homegrown WordPress system with membership plugin protection
Since the main functionality behind an online course is to protect premium content, you can also simply use a membership plugin on your WordPress site to build a custom “course area.”
You can use:
- WooCommerce Memberships
- Wishlist Member
- S2 Member
- WP Fusion
- And countless others
The challenge with this method is that you will have to thoughtfully build out your course. If you want to rearrange the flow of your course, it’s not as easy as the drag and drop interface of previous options.
Instead you will be manually linking every page together... something that can quickly get out of hand.
But membership plugins also offer several benefits and flexibility outside of simply launching courses and should be considered for that. Some membership plugins allow you to get special "member discounts" on other items, which can be an interesting addition to your business.
Feature by Feature Comparison of all options
What do I use (and why)?
I am currently using Learndash, WooCommerce, and Cartflows for my online courses. This gives me control over my content, the ability to customize the entire checkout process, and the ability to integrate with just about anything under the sun.
It’s not the simplest solution, and it’s not the cheapest solution, but it offers an incredible amount of potential that is ready for growth.
What should you use?
This is obviously a personal question, but here are some ideas:
If you're terrified of tech, use...
Because Kartra is an all-in-one platform that covers your online courses, sales pages, email marketing, customer support, and more - it is the perfect place to start your business (and never hear the word "integration" again!)
If you're on a budget
Thrive Apprentice makes online course creation simple and beautiful. And with Thrive Apprentice's lifetime access for only $67, it's a no brainer
For Advanced Course Creators
LearnDash + Cartflows
LearnDash is used by many large Universities and incorporates advanced features like essay assignments, learning groups, and more. If you want the most functionality possible - this is what you want to try. When Paired up with Cartflows you have unlimited ways to sell and deliver your online courses
Need help with launching your course?
Leave a comment below on which tools you are using or are considering, and let me know what struggles you are having with creating your online course. I’d love to help you find the perfect tool for your next project!