Yes, most of us can agree on this: 2020 may have been a shit year, yet not the worst ever. We have seen a lot of progress, incredible scientific advance (vaccine, vaccine, vaccine !!!), and there have never been so many people around keen to learn something, everywhere.

For online education, 2020 has been a record-breaking year.

You have in mind the picture of students forced to study remotely. But what about adults? Stuck at home, with time on their hands (willing or not), millions of adults worldwide took online courses, learned new things, or became online teachers and instructors.

Many say, 2020 has been the “second year of the MOOCsafter 2012, when this new learning model became a global phenomenon. In a few numbers:

  • 180 million learners worldwide (data excl. China) took part in MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) during 2020.
  • One-third of the overall learners were new: they subscribed to a MOOC platform for the first time in 2020.
  • MOOCs providers launched 2800+ new courses in the last year (source: classcentral.com).

It was not only the MOOCs.

Vocational learning grew, but also life improvement, creative and artistic skills entered people’s lives as something worth to learn and practice at home, inspired by media articles about “what to do during a lockdown”.

To create a sea of learning possibilities, new platforms born from the passion economy ecosystem played a big role.

I am talking about the so-called creator platforms: solutions (well known names are Patreon for creative talents and Substack for writers) that enable creators to put online an offer and monetise it directly with their audiences via subscriptions, digital content sales and self-managed communities:

  • without the need to enter a marketplace,
  • and without being bound to a GAFA platform.

As the “passion economy” paradigm is challenging the “platform economy” (i.e. the domain of demand/offer orchestrators, global marketplaces, and social networks), so its extension to the world of learning is democratising the teaching and learning experience: it allows to offer much more than what MOOCs cover, both in terms of topics and of experience.

In this new world of e-learning,
you can teach and learn everything.

You can provide new coaching services, have your virtual mentor, or deliver remote consulting sessions. The flexible tools provided by creator e-learning platforms blur the lines among education, coaching, training and mentoring.

✔️ This essay provides you with:

  • A map of the current landscape of online learning platforms.
  • Elements to understand its evolution..
  • ..and anticipate its next developments.
  • Insights into opportunities for individuals and businesses.

Out of scope. This post will not cover: (1) the domain of language learning, whose formats and dynamics would deserve a report on its own; (2) the Learning Management System market for schools and education institutions.


From where we come from.
A 2011-2019 retrospective.

The e-learning revolution started in 2011 when Stanford announced its first online courses, free to everybody. Soon, the MIT and other Ivy League Universities followed. The New York times declared 2012 “The Year of MOOCs”.

A new way of learning was born and began an irresistible growth. Academic institutions paved the way. New platforms went online to cover all topics in the STEM fields.

Some platforms started offering soft skills courses, and some more work-oriented programs: leadership skills, entrepreneurship. New classes were available in languages different from English, and subtitling became standard. However, the most impressive growth in the number of learners still came from English-speaking countries, especially India.

The evolution of learning platforms looked more or less like this:

New platforms outside of the academia went online to cover a broader learning domain. The champion of this “horizontal”, not-academic category is Udemy.

As of today, Udemy is the world’s largest learning marketplace (in business terms: a two-sided platform orchestrating demand and offer), offering over 100,000 courses taught by 57,000 individual instructors, in 65 languages and covering topics ranging from finance and accounting to software and IT, office productivity, lifestyle, design and photography, personal development, health and fitness.

In the years 2017-2019, new vertical platforms got traction, especially for creative skills (Creativelive, Skillshare) and Data Science (Data Camp, 365 Data Science). And then came 2020: a banner year for online learning.


2020: the second year of the MOOCs and the dawn of a new learning landscape.

The pandemic, a propeller.

2020 was the year when most people learned what a MOOC is.

Many turned to online courses to find support to new professional challenges, many for making the best use of their time at home, many found finally an opportunity for learning new things. Some, to learn how to cope with the complexity of our times.

In March 2020, in response to the pandemic, Coursera launched a course by the Imperial College London called “Science Matters: Let’s Talk About COVID-19“. With over 130.000 learners enrolled, that was the most popular course on the platform last year. According to Class Central (the leading course discovery platform), one-fifth of the 100 most popular courses launched in 2020 deal with COVID-19: Johns Hopkins’ “COVID-19 Contact Tracing,” accumulated since its launch more than 1.1 million learners; Harvard’s “Mechanical Ventilation for COVID-19,” had over 300 thousands enrollments.

For many, courses like this one were also an ice-breaker to experience what a MOOC looks like: between mid-March and July, Coursera alone registered 35 million new enrollments.

A new demand, beyond the academy and the job: more learning needs, more interests, more desire to improve your life.

Before the pandemic, most enrollments went to vocational training in the STEM disciplines. Yet, the work and life challenges aroused by COVID-19 increased the interest in soft skills: personal development, self-improvement and communication skills made to the top, but also Art & Design, Humanities and Language Learning.

  • With organizations rethinking how they work, often improvising a new all-working-from-home environment, many employees went online to learn how to master their minds and take control of their time.
  • Employees were also trying to crack the code on remote collaboration – tough, tougher thing: listening skills courses, but also team management and “how-to” video-conferencing, went top of demand.
  • With remote working, also cybersecurity left the rooms of the IT guys and landed on many laptops at home: it was often the corporates to promote upskilling of their sitting-at-home workforces.
  • The other MOOCs domain going in full swing during 2020 was Data Literacy. The ability to collect, read, understand and represent data – encompassing everything from advanced Excel and BI courses, intro to Data Science, Python, Information Design and Data Visualisation – is now, de facto, the new computer literacy. In this map, you see Data Camp as a placeholder for all the data science learning platforms.
LEADING MOOCS PLATFORMS, 2020

What you also see.

  • The world of MOOCs and learning marketplaces extended horizontally to cover more and more domains – from traditional, university-led courses to more work-related upskilling down to life improvement and fitness.
  • The MOOCs platforms got more “vertical”, with marketplaces covering one area, some of them with a sophisticated USP.

One example of this evolution is Masterclass, a name you have heard of since its ads were EVERYWHERE on the Internet.

Launched in 2015 with online lectures hold by famous experts – Shonda Rhimes on Writing for Television, Natalie Portman on Acting, Gordon Ramsay on Cooking -, Masterclass had its best year in 2020.

The platform charges an annual membership fee of 200 EUR that gives access to all classes and courses, a steep price point in this arena. Current subscriber numbers are not disclosed, but the platform – VC backed – is valued at 800 million USD.

Another thing happened: a new meta-search business was born, to cope with the abundance of courses and MOOCs. The leading MOOCs discovery service is Class Central.

Class Central’s business model is affiliation: users can freely search and get suggestions about new relevant courses available; once users, following the links, enrol to a course, the course provider pays a commission back to the discovery platform. 


More than MOOCs: a world of teachers, a world of learners.

The creator platforms open an endless territory where who has something to teach can find someone, somewhere, eager to learn.

2020 was the second “Year of the MOOCs”. However, we will also remember 2020 as the year of the passion economy. We have already explored the new paradigm and its tech ecosystem in the past newsletters.

The passion economy is driven by the idea that creators deserve a better way to make money out of their talent: not as gigs working for a marketplace, not as slaves to a platform algorithm, AND in full control of what they offer and how they engage their audiences.

What´s more, making money should not happen only when you amass the millions of viewers for a commoditized experience, but when you know how to serve a small group of fans and subscribers: 1.000 or 100 real fans, that will pay for what you have for them. 

The creator platforms are not marketplaces: they sell their SaaS services to creators, to whom they provide holistic solutions that assemble the set of tools you would need to

  • Get your digital presence online,
  • Safely sell your creative works and performances,
  • Convert and manage subscribers,
  • Run a membership program,
  • Get paid for it.

Creators do not need to worry about technology and do not need to fill a form to join a marketplace. They “only” must focus on reaching out to potential customers and convincing them to become paying subscribers. 

For many yoga teachers, creator platforms like Patreon have been life saviours in the last ten months. For many writers and journalists, Substack provided a side hustle or gave a chance to develop a little media empire.

The disruptive power of the creator economy comes from taking business tools, reducing them to their simplest features, and putting the things together into a low-end, affordable turnkey solution. 

These holistic solutions can sell to previously neglected customer segments: people that need a simple page builder, plus a one-click way to setup a payment system, an easy-to-use CRM and an intuitive way to set prices and launch promotions. 

So, a growing number of experts, instructors, trainers and coaches could find new ways to share their knowledge, deliver classes, teach something as independent business owners.

Meet the learning creator platforms.

A SELECTION OF LEADING PLATFORMS AND NEWCOMERS, 2020

Learning creator platforms:
breaking down the model.

⚒️ What do these platforms do? The building blocks.

All creator platforms share the same “core”:

  • content creation and management
  • subscription and membership management
  • access to one or more payment systems,
  • with the creators setting their preferred payment strategy:
    • typically regular monthly subscriptions,
    • sometimes with standard/premium tiers and membership programs
    • less frequently pay-per-content (e.g. for buying ebooks)
  • and basic customer analytics and CRM
    • to check performance
    • communicate with customers
    • sending promotional messages

For this mapping, I put together both

  • the creator platforms enabling a subscription business (like Patreon, Memberful and Substack)
  • the ones made for individuals to sell digital downloads (ebooks, premium videos, graphics and illustrations, digital music tracks) on their own, outside of marketplaces.

Both models converge in learning creator platforms:

a course creator can sell a course to participants
AND handbooks or other learning tools (e.g. practice books).

So, what features do learning creator platforms offer to course creators?

Let’s go through some learning creator platforms.

  • Thinkific, founded in 2012 – 50.000+ course creators
  • Teachable, founded in 2013 – 100.000+ course creators
  • Kajabi, online since 2010 – serving 60 Mio students in 120 countries

Before the launch of these platforms, the technology behind online learning – the LMS, Learning Management Systems – was only used by educational institutions or corporates for their workforce training. Thinkific, Teachable and Kajabi have been first-movers in making it easy for individuals and teams outside of the traditional education sector to offer courses.

On top of what I have outlined before, these platforms offer:

  • course design out-of-the-box, with a curriculum template builder;
  • assessments, quizzes, exams and certificates;
  • ability to run 1-2-1 courses, small participants courses, or 1-2-many;
  • video management including live streaming and webinars;
  • a page builder for creating a course website, also white-label;
  • DRM to sell digital downloads: ebooks, audiobooks, tutorials, guides;
  • tools to promote your course including SEO discoverability and campaign landing pages.

Kajabi´s proposition, in particular, focuses on helping creators to promote courses with:

  • a sales funnel builder;
  • automated email marketing;
  • a Kajabi University to educate creators on how to market their courses.

Digital downloads – offered also independently from online courses – are a strong selling point for Gumroad and Podia

PODIA.COM

Mighty Networks, instead, is first a membership-site builder. Its promise? Not only to replace Facebook Groups or Slack Groups to engage your community of learners and customers, but to do that with a fully white-label solution.

Mighty Networks allows you to run events, moderate content, sell exclusive access and use it for anything ranging from learning groups to social clubs and communities of interest.

With one big difference from Facebook, Linkedin & Co: you own your network, your members’ data are safe, your content stays in your full control. Among the platforms I have been reviewing, this can be one you could ask “Do I need it?”. I invite you to think twice at your use cases: are you running a service business – consulting, B2B education, business publishing? Think about how you could use a membership site to serve better and engage your community of customers.

MIGHTYNETWORKS.COM

🔛 A SaaS-like business model. Creators are the customers. Platforms are business enablers.

Besides what my illustration describes – a model where course creators pay for a Software as a Service and own the relationship with their learners – it is worth remembering that a creator can migrate, with their customer lists and content, from one service to another. The transfer cost is the same as shifting from MailChimp to Substack, as I did, or from one hosting platform to another for running your websites and blogs, as I did too. Content migration, download/upload, set up a new environment and learn how to use it.

💰 How do they make money? A revenue model based on SaaS fees, sometimes combined with commissions on creator revenues.

The revenue model of learning creator platforms can combine both a SaaS service fee and a commission on creator revenues.

The leading platforms – Thinkific, Kajabi, Podia and Teachable – all stick to a SaaS fee-only model: depending on the edition you choose (more features, service level, more personal support), you pay a monthly fee, discounted for annual payments upfront.

Among these platforms, Kajabi is the one with the most expensive low-tier offer (119 USD a month), but it offers more tools and support than other providers for this “entry premium price”. Teachable keeps the entry-level fee lower (29 USD), but it gets an additional 5% on subscriptions sold.

Creator platforms made for fitness training and workouts, – Playbook and Strydal among others – are closer to other players of the passion economy: their revenue models rely more on sales commissions, less on pure SaaS fees.

MOOCs and creator platforms: meeting halfway and sharing common challenges.

I started this post talking about a growing demand to learn more in every human domain. 

MOOCs, learning marketplaces and creator platforms fulfil that demand by extending the breadth of their offer.

MOOCs platforms go beyond their academic background and approach vocational learning and life skills. The providers coming from the space of creativity and lifestyle, have developed flexible tools that provide almost any type of learning experience, including 1-2-1 coaching sessions.

The offer of MOOCs, creator-led courses, training sessions and community learning can only grow, bringing with it a two-folded challenge:

  • Discoverability is difficult because MOOCs catalogues are standard, whether all other courses born on creator platforms not. There is no way to set a uniform taxonomy for things belonging to such a broad, almost infinite, learning field.
  • Matching offer and needs is difficult for the fragmentation of individual course offerings. As the creator platforms provide more 1-2-few or 1-2-1 experiences (coaching and consulting sessions, micro-courses), the fragmentation becomes bigger.

Talking about 1-2-1: Superpeer is a platform for professionals that want to offer paid sessions à la “Can I pick up your brain?” – i.e. Experts who are interested in sharing their knowledge can do so via remote, one-on-one, video calls. They upload an intro video, the times they want to be available for calls and how much they want to charge for their time. Superpeer handles the appointments, the video-chat sessions and the payments, against a commission.

Corporate training and business coaching.

The next wave of e-learning: coaching, mentoring and virtual bootcamps.

Compared to MOOCs and marketplaces, creator platforms offer more flexibility and more interactivity: teachers can provide more personal feedback and give their audiences a community feeling that the student forums of Coursera cannot do. Still, the creator-led training is a teacher-centric experience, not designed around the learner.

For MOOCs and learning marketplaces, it is corporate customers to drive the path toward a more learner-centric experience: when these marketplaces address corporates and enterprise clients, they offer

  • Custom catalogues of courses, from which to develop a personal learning path by mixing and matching courses.
  • Custom support (mentoring, learning account management) and some instructor-led courses.
  • Live workshop and events, plus hands-on projects.
  • With edX, custom-designed programs and degrees.

The B2B opportunity: democratising management training.

Some new segments emerged to tap the B2B opportunity, with companies that – with some exceptions – went live after 2017:

  • Digital coaching solutions, business and career.
  • Corporate training solutions for workforce upskilling.
  • Virtual bootcamps.
  • Online startup mentoring.

They do three things:

  1. Virtualize a learning experience that used to be in person (coaching, mentoring)
  2. Give corporates a cost-effective way to extend management training beyond business leaders and cover the entire workforce
  3. Offer a mix of standard coursed and custom solutions, tailored to the corporate needs but more affordable than traditional consulting.
  • Torch.io (founded 2017, VC backed) provides digital learning, leadership coaching, and mentoring with a network of qualified coaches and instructors. To develop a corporate leadership program, Torch.io conducts extensive interviews to assess goals and needs. It uses the data collected to match learning needs with available coaches and develops programs around each manager segment of the corporate client. It does that at a fraction of the costs of a Korn-Ferry.
  • Coach Hub. Founded 2018 in Germany, CoachHub is a talent development platform that enables organisations to create a personalised, measurable and scalable coaching program for the entire workforce, regardless of department and seniority level. Coach Hub works as a marketplace, with certified coaches covering several disciplines, including time and stress management, resilience and leadership skills while remote working. Client companies can invite their employees to join the digital coaching platform. There, an AI-based matching system recommends three business coaches who meet the individual requirements of the employee. Coach and coachee communicate directly via the CoachHub app on a smartphone or desktop. Coaching typically takes place via bi-weekly video calls, and e-learning assignments are available for personal development. To deepen the session work, micro-learning units and self-assessment tools are available via the coaching app. The American competitor BetterUp offers a similar set of services.
  • MentorPass. Founded in 2019, Mentorpass is a mentor marketplace where founders and startup teams can find support to develop, rollout and scale their business. Mentors cover ideation, product development, growth, operations setup and talent development. Based on your business goal, type of startup or critical area to address, you can choose between a suggested mentoring journey or pickup individual mentors. The revenue model is subscription-based: for 300/600/1200 USD a month, founders get credits to use for booking up to 24 sessions a month.
  • Pluralsight is a tech skills learning marketplace offering both on-demand video courses and hands-on projects, interactive courses and personalised learning paths. The course catalogue covers software development, cloud computing, IT Operations, AI/Machine Learning and Data. The price tiers cover all needs from the simple access to the standard catalogue, up to more personalised and interactive learning experiences.
  • Skillsoft is a more sophisticated product than Pluralsight. In partnership with academic institutions and tech companies, Skillsoft covers all job-related skills. It develops the learning curricula using AI to match the learner’s interests, behaviours and current skill levels. The learning experience is immersive and closer to the working environment, with micro-learning units activated when relevant, that is when the learner needs to complete a task. There is an offer for both individual learners and companies. Private customers pay as much as 29 USD monthly or 299 USD yearly.

Some words, finally, on how creator platforms are going B2B.

For them, the biggest asset to offer is the tool itself. Their proposition to business customers is to make them independent from learning service providers. Creators platforms can provide their business customers with an easy-to-use platform for designing courses as they need, upload or migrate existing learning material, integrate external content and have full control of the course delivery and ROI monitoring.

Thinkific is the creator platform with the most robust offer for teams, corporates and businesses of any type. Thinkific covers the entire range of customers, from individual trainers, teachers to schools, education businesses, consulting companies and corporates. “Thinkific-Plus” serves customers with aggressive growth projections. ‘Plus’ customers have an account manager and access to advanced customization and integration options, compliance documentation, Plus security features. Hootsuite is one of the “Thinkific-Plus” customers: their customer Academy is powered by Thinkific.

Where do we go from here?
What are the next opportunities?

  • There is room for more vertical solutions and marketplaces covering one domain as the platforms focused on Data Science or creative skills are already doing. And room for discovery platforms to help anyone find out courses and other learning experiences, two-clicks away.
  • Creator platforms can develop additional solutions for professionals in specific domains, e.g. for independent consultants. These could represent the next big wave of learning providers after fitness trainers, creatives and tech experts.
  • For companies providing educational services, the availability of new platforms is also a chance to complete their digital transformation and reach out to many more customers than today.
  • For educational publishers, platforms like Thinkific give a chance to extend their offers beyond ebooks and beyond physical service constraints. No need to reinvent the wheel.
  • B2B is still underserved. For corporations experiencing the workforce transition to a distributed environment, new platforms offer a cost-effective chance to upskill their employees. In 2020, Novartis hired many people to create learning material, but they also went to Coursera to quickly fulfil their need to educate all associates on Data Science and AI.
  • Peer-learning is another opportunity: students supporting other students with virtual learning communities.
  • Finally, the world of schools can also make use of creator platforms, as a complement to their existing learning environments.

Banner image credits: photo by Gabriel Benois on Unsplash

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