When you’re ready to get your knowledge out to the world with an online course, you have many decisions to make! An important one is which platform you’ll use. The platform houses your course content. The platform is sometimes called a Learning Management System (LMS), but in truth, you may not even need an LMS.
In this article, I’ll discuss the various types of platforms you can use for your online course along with the advantages and disadvantages of each type. The cat tower in the photo on the right has lots of platforms; in this post, I’ll help you choose the right one for your online courses.
I also have an interview with an expert on online course platforms, Jeff Cobb, below.
Before you even start looking at options — and there are many — you need to make a few preliminary decisions:
- How do you want to structure the course? Will you “drip” it out over time or give students access to everything at once?
- What format(s) will you use? Recorded video? Text? Audio? Live webinars or meetings?
- What interactivity do you want to include? Quizzes/tests? A discussion group/forum? Email coaching with you?
- How much do you want to track students’ activity and progress? Do you want to send them reminders if they aren’t active?
- How much support and training do you want from your platform?
Of course, if you work in an organization that has made this choice for you, you’re all set. This post is for people who have their own business or need to make the decision on their own.
Once you know the answers to these questions, you can start to narrow down your options.
The simplest option: Your website
If you have a website, your simplest option may be to put your course there without any additional technology. This is especially easy if you don’t want to drip the content. Your student access journey can look like this:
Sales page > Thank You Page > Autoresponder (automated email) containing the link to the delivery page > Course Delivery page
Advantages: It’s very simple; you can design the page to look however you want
Disadvantages: It’s easy for students to share with others; there’s no interactivity; you need to create all of the pages yourself from scratch
You can pair a website delivery page with a Facebook group, Slack account, or some other option for discussion and interactivity.
If you have a WordPress website, you can password protect a page and give students the password in the autoresponder.
If you want to drip content and give every participant a unique password, membership software, usually as a WordPress plug-in, is a good option. Examples are Digital Access Pass, aMember, WishList, Zaxaa Member, and more.
This type of software registers students so they have to log in each time. It can drip content and may also let you email students at various stages. It allows you to have various levels if you want to offer a Gold level, for example, with more content.
Most membership sites let you offer discounts and include an affiliate program so you can encourage others to promote your course.
Advantages: Most membership software is inexpensive, around $100-$150 per year. This software is meant for registering students for your content so it has many of the features you need built in.
Disadvantages: There’s a learning curve and there probably isn’t a discussion group feature. You need to design the web pages yourself.
WordPress course plug-ins
You can buy WordPress course plug-ins. The two main examples are LearnDash and Lifter LMS. They let you structure pages on your website into an online school with multiple courses, sections, and lessons. They integrate with payment processors so you can take payment. They also integrate with a limited group of email service providers.
Advantages: They are fairly inexpensive and usually a one-time cost. Because the courses are on your website, you can make the pages look however you want.
Disadvantages: You have to create the pages yourself. They may not integrate with the other services you use. They don’t include a discussion group.
Thinkific, Teachable, and Kajabi are the big players here, but there are others. These are websites that host your courses for you. They let you create sales pages and register students without you having to deal with your own website. They offer templates and strive to create a beautiful look for your courses.
Advantages: You don’t have to host your own courses. There are templates to help you make your course look good
Disadvantages: These usually have a monthly fee. You’re limited to the existing templates. They may not integrate with other software you use, such as your email service provider.
You can choose to use a 3rd-party marketplace, such as Udemy or LinkedIn Learning. I think of these as being similar to using Amazon to publish your book. People come to these sites looking for courses to take.
Advantages: You can reach a large number of people.
Disadvantages: You have a lot of competition and you don’t have full control over pricing, format, etc.
Installed web-server software
One of the oldest and most-used LMS is Moodle. It’s open-source (you can change the code if you want and know how to do so) and free. It’s mostly used by governments and universities. My husband’s university used it a while back and I’m creating training for a state department of education that also uses it. A similar alternative is Sakai.
Advantages: They are free and full-featured.
Disadvantages: They don’t look as pretty as some of the other alternatives. You have to install the software yourself on your web server. There isn’t any 1-on-1 support from these companies directly although there are help files and lots of tutorials on YouTube and elsewhere. To customize it, you’ll probably have to hire a programmer.
Large corporations and educational systems (universities, K-12 Departments of Education) want lots of features and great support and there are lots of LMSs that cater to these types of customers. Examples are Blackboard Learn, TalentLMS, and Canvas.
Advantages: They offer lots of features, provide support, and look great.
Disadvantages: They are usually much more expensive than platforms designed with the entrepreneur in mind.
Interview with Jeff Cobb
Jeff Cobb, an edupreneur with more than two decades of experience in the business of lifelong learning, founded Learning Revolution. He is the author of Leading the Learning Revolution: The Expert’s Guide to Capitalizing on the Exploding Lifelong Education Market. Jeff is a vocal advocate of cradle-to-grave lifelong learning, an award-winning teacher, and author of multiple books and research reports.
Jeff successfully started, grew, and sold a learning platform and online course creation company and has since advised thousands of individuals and organizations on selecting the right technologies for creating and selling online learning.
Watch my discussion with Jeff here. It’s about 25 minutes long and full of concrete information about online course platforms.
What is your experience with learning platforms?
I’d love to hear your experiences and challenges with learning platforms for your online courses. Are you hopelessly lost in making a choice? Have you found the perfect one? If so, what do you like about it? Did you have a bad experience? What were the problems you had?
Please leave a comment and share this with your friends and colleagues!
“They may not integrate with other software you use” seems to be a recurring theme. I’m often frustrated by the glitches between the payment processor, email program, and platform. I’d love to find a platform that plays well with others and isn’t prohibitively expensive.
Some platforms let you email from the platform. WordPress plug-ins let you use your existing software, so they’re flexible.
WE’ve been using Facebook’s social learning units and advertising that on FB to get students to pay and register. Income is not much but it’s extra income. Maybe we should explore other learning platforms. Thanks for this!
Thanks for taking us through all these options Ellen. This is very helpful.
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