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10 Rules of
VISIONARY BUSINESS

How to Choose An Online Learning Platform: 5 Steps to Find the Ideal Tool

online learning platforms

Choosing an online learning platform is like online dating.

All the prospects say they’re the best. They only show their best angles. And checking out their online profiles doesn’t guarantee a good match.

It could take you months, even years, to find The Right One. And making the wrong choice has dire consequences.

Pick the wrong learning management system or LMS for your online course, and not only do you end up wasting time and money. You also end up turning off prospective students and causing learners to fall out of love and divorce you.

We don’t want that to happen to you.

If you want to cut down on research time, minimize trial and error, and increase your chances of picking the right online course platform, then this post is for you.

We've cut down research time, trial & error & increased your chances of picking the right online course platform. Click To Tweet
This post is long! Get the cheat sheet here.

Step 1. Online Learning Platforms: What’s Your Type?

If you Google “online learning platforms,” “online course platforms,” or “learning management systems,” you’ll be overwhelmed by all the results.

There are so many choices! How do you even begin?

You can narrow down your choices by first choosing the type of online learning platform and then zeroing in on a specific platform later on.

“Have fun! Play and experiment as you discover the power that all of the LMS platforms have to help you reach people and change their lives with your valuable offerings.” David Kirshbaum, Mirasee Project Manager

 

There are three main types of online learning platforms: self-hosted WordPress platforms; third-party hosted platforms; and online learning marketplaces.

Below, you’ll become familiar with the differences between these types of platforms and read about a few examples of each.

Self-hosted Platforms

These are platforms that are built on your own web hosting. For the purposes of this post, we’re focusing on platforms you can create on a WordPress website, because that’s the simplest way to have a self-hosted course site.

You can turn your WordPress site into an online course by using either a membership site plugin or an online course plugin.

A self-hosted WordPress online course platform is the right type for you, if you want:

  • The platform to be hosted on your own website, so you have complete control of your course.
  • To pay a one-time payment, although you may have to pay for optional paid upgrades that can be expected with any software.
  • You want a fully customizable and brandable type of course platform. Your course website can pretty much look any way you want it to.
  • To be able to add features as you need them by using additional WordPress plugins. So if you decide later on that you want a dedicated online forum, after all, it is only a plugin away.

A self-hosted WordPress online course platform is NOT for you, if you want to avoid:

  • Longer setup time. You need to install the platform, set up various integrations, and add the customizations you want. Until you do all that, you can’t get your course up and running.
  • Needing a lot of technical skills. If you want an affiliate program or a discussion forum, you may need a separate plugin. Making sure all these parts keep working nicely together can get hairy. And just when you have everything running smoothly, WordPress releases an update and you may have to start all over again!
  • The added costs of using additional plug-ins.
  • Worrying about the integration of different applications. For example, if you want to embed video on your course page, your video files first need to be hosted somewhere else, such as YouTube, Vimeo, Wistia, or Amazon S3.  

Examples of Self-Hosted WordPress Online Learning Platforms

   Protected Page (Free with your WordPress site)

The easiest way to turn your WordPress site into an online course is to create password-protected pages for your lessons. You can drip feed the lessons by using your email service provider to schedule when your students will receive the password for each part of the course.

Find out how to turn your WordPress site into an online course here: Click To Tweet

But if you want more features, then you can look at the various WordPress plugins available that will magically turn your site into an online school. These include:

   MemberPress (Business edition $99/year, Developer edition $199/year)

MemberPress, a WordPress membership site plugin, promises ultra-tight integration with WordPress, content dripping, and the ability to generate coupons. It also comes bundled with Affiliate Royale, a plugin for affiliate program management. (Note: When I say “member,” think “students.”)

   Wishlist Member (Single site $197, Multi site $297)

This WordPress plugin turns your WordPress site into a membership site and offers unlimited membership levels, sequential content delivery, easy member management, and multi-level access to content.

   WP-Courseware (2-site license $99/year, 10-site license $125/year, 25-site license $175/year)

WP-Courseware turns your WordPress site into a learning management system. Some of its features include a progress widget so students know how far along they are in the course, a customizable course completion certificate, and the ability to quiz and survey students.

   Zippy Courses (Standard $199, Deluxe $299)

Zippy Courses offers a content scheduler for drip-feeding lessons, drag-and-drop interface, and built-in quiz creator. We’ve been using it for all our courses: Audience Business Mastermind, Course Builder’s Laboratory, Art of Offer Craft, Audience Launchpad Intensive, and Audience Liftoff Intensive.

   aMember Pro ($179.95 lifetime license with 6 months of free updates and support)

aMember Pro is not a WordPress plugin. It’s a membership software that’s installed in an existing site and provides digital content delivery, email service, web-based payments, and affiliate program management. However, the actual content of your course still has to be on a WordPress site.

Third-Party Hosted Platforms

The next type of online course platform is third-party hosted platforms. This means your course is hosted by a vendor’s website.

A third-party hosted online course platform is ideal for you if you want:

  • A feature-rich, easy to use platform with the different components built-in and working together.
  • To work on only one dashboard to do everything related to your course, from building lessons and modules, to creating a sales page, to interacting with your learners.

A third-party hosted platform is wrong for you, if you don’t like:

  • Putting your course on somebody else’s “real estate.” With this type of platform,  you’re merely renting the vendor’s space. This means you’re at their mercy. If their servers go down, so does your course.
  • The design of your course to be limited by the templates provided by the platform, unless you have the capability to do advanced CSS/HTML editing.
  • To have recurring costs. These platforms are sold as a subscription-type of service, which translates into a recurring monthly, quarterly, or annual cost. You have to keep paying if you want to keep using the platform. And some platforms even charge transaction fees on top of the subscription.

Examples of Third-Party Hosted Online Course Platforms

   Kajabi (Basic $129/month, Pro $389/month, Premium $899/month, billed monthly, no transaction fees)A veteran in the online info product market, Kajabi offers built-in features like commenting, video hosting, affiliate management, and email service, among others. And even though Kajabi hosts your course, you can use your own custom domain (www.yoursite.com).

“In addition to being the easiest way to create and deliver a beautiful course, Kajabi also contains all of the tools you need to market your course and build a following.” Kenny Rueter and Travis Rosser, Kajabi Founders

 

   Ruzuku (Starter Plus $697/year, Bootstrapper Plus $897/year, Up-and-Comer Plus $997/year, no transaction fees)

With Ruzuku, you can provide self-directed, evergreen, or live courses complete with audio and video streaming. It also offers a discussion forum where students can post different types of media, and Course Health analytics shows how your students are faring.

“Ruzuku is best for course creators who love to interact and engage with their course participants in a way that’s social, supportive, and fun.” Abe Crystal, Ruzuku founder

 

   Simplero (Starter $83/month, Basic $125/month, Professional $188/month, Unlimited $333/month, billed annually)

Simplero was created for infopreneurs to sell any kind of information product online, including courses. Its membership site feature lets you drip content to your students and it even hosts your audio and video files, so all you have to do is upload them to your course. Simplero also has a robust email marketing platform, affiliate management, and 1-click upsells.

   Summit Evergreen (Boostrapper $10/month, Starter $99/month, Professional $249/month, Premium $499/month, billed monthly)

This hosted platform offers a concierge service—which includes help with moving your existing courses from other platforms—student analytics, comment posting, and the ability to brand your emails, shopping cart, and course pages.

   Teachable (Free, Basic $39/month, Professional $99/month, High Volume $299/month, may have transaction fees)

Teachable starts with a free subscription (subject to transaction fees) and offers dynamic pages that automatically adjust to whatever type of device your students use. It also has a powerful course page editor, robust analytics, its own affiliate program, and the ability to segment your students and send them targeted emails.

“Teachable makes it easy for ANYONE to create and sell beautiful online courses. You own your student data, pricing and have complete control over your branding and course website.” Ankur Nagpal, Teachable founder

Teachery ($49/month, $470/year, $900 lifetime, no transaction fees)

So far the only third-party hosted platform I’ve found that offers lifetime subscription, Teachery has an easy-to-use live course editor. You can easily customize your course pages, lessons, sales pages, and payment pages.

“Using Teachery, a course creator can have a beautifully branded course ready to sell in a matter of minutes.” Jason Zook, Teachery Co-founder

   Thinkific (Starter free, Essentials $49/month, Business $99/month, Advanced $279/month, billed monthly, may have transaction fees)

Thinkific has a unique voice-over slide tool that lets you record audio narration for your slide presentations, including PowerPoint and Keynote. It also has an affiliate program manager and built-in discussion forum. It even allows you to create hybrid classes with online and offline course components.

“Thinkific is perfect for coaches, consultants, authors, speakers, subject matter experts, and entrepreneurs who already have a business with clients, and need an all-in-one platform where they can set up and sell their online courses without any of the tech headaches.” Greg Smith, Thinkific Co-Founder & CEO>

 

Online Learning Marketplaces

The third type of online course platform is the online learning marketplace. This is a large e-commerce site that sells many courses. Imagine an online Walmart for courses.

If you just want to put your course out there and get paid at the end of every month, then a learning marketplace is the best option for you.

Put your course in an online learning marketplace if you want:

  • Access to the millions of followers who come to the marketplace looking for courses. The site markets or promotes your course to their followers. It would take you years to build an audience of the same size.
  • Your course to be on a well-established website, which means your course has a good chance of ranking on search engines without a lot of the usual SEO work on your part.
  • A platform that takes care of the back-end technology and has the tools you need to create and sell your course, all in one place. They’ll take care of processing payments and most offer a professional, user-optimized experience for your learners.
  • To have zero costs. These marketplaces are usually free to join, so you will have no up-front costs.

Avoid online learning marketplaces if the following are unacceptable to you:

  • Have the least amount of control over your course. All courses in a marketplace tend to look alike, with very limited customizations available. The marketplace can dictate how you price your courses, and they can change their policies without consulting you and other teachers in advance.
  • Somebody else to receive the payments for your course and then pay out your share of it. And the commission structure can change without prior notice, leaving you to deal with something you didn’t originally sign up for and unable to predict your income.
  • To limit your ability to nurture your relationship with your students. Since you don’t own your customer database, the marketplace will “’own’ your customers, including their email addresses and your relationship with them,” says Jim Hopkinson, Mirasee Director of Courses.

Examples of Online Learning Marketplaces

   Learning.ly (Your share: 50% of sales)

Launched in 2015, Learning.ly gives your course exposure to the global audience of The Economist Group. You have to apply to become a Learning.ly Expert and prove you meet their criteria of field experience, awards and distinctions, and publishing and presenting.

   Lynda (Your share: Depends on your royalty rate and popularity of your course)

Lynda works on a subscriber model, in which learners pay a flat monthly or annual fee and then have unlimited access to all the courses they want. You get paid a share of Lynda’s revenues, which depends on how popular your course is and the royalty rate (percentage) you agreed on. This post explains the calculation. You also need to apply to teach on Lynda.

   Skillshare (Your share: Depends on course popularity and referrals you make)

Unlike other learning marketplaces, Skillshare says “anyone can teach a class,” so it’s a good option for you if you don’t have formal training in your subject area. Skillshare also works on a subscription model, so your course income is a little more difficult to figure out. As explained here, it depends on how many members take your course. In addition, Skillshare also pays you for referring premium members to the marketplace, even if they take somebody else’s course.

   Udemy (Your share: 100% of sales from your promotions; 50% of sales from Udemy’s promotions)

Udemy has 12 million students in 190 countries, which is part of the reason why we chose it to teach our shorter courses. Its pay-out formula is unique and seems to be the most fair. If a student signs up for your course because of your own marketing efforts, then you keep all of the earnings. But if a student finds your course through Udemy’s promotions, then you get 50% of the revenue. On the other hand, you can only price your course between $20 and $200.

   Amazon Video Direct (Your share: Depends on how and where your course is offered on Amazon Video)

I left this for last, because it isn’t strictly a platform for online courses, but you could use it as such if your course is going to be 100% video. You upload your course (in the form of videos) on the platform and it becomes accessible to anyone with Amazon Video (so far that’s U.S., Germany, Austria, UK, and Japan). You get a royalty for them, depending on whether you make your videos part of Amazon Prime, or available for rent, sale, or with subscription.

Now that you’re familiar with the three types of online course platforms, decide on which one you think will suit your style and goals best.

When you do, you no longer have to search the entire universe of online learning platforms for the ideal one for you. You can limit your search within the galaxy of the platform type.

There are still many choices within this galaxy. You may want to limit your search to the examples I mentioned above. But I have to warn you, it is not an exhaustive list and new platforms become available all the time.

So if you want to see what else is out there within the type of platform you’ve chosen, you can use Google to find them. For example, if you want to find more options to create a WordPress course site, simply type “Zippy Courses alternative” or “WP-Courseware alternative” into Google.

Step 2. Create Your Wishlist

What does your ideal online course platform look like? Answer the following questions to learn which features are most important to you.

Remember, there are no right or wrong answers here. There’s only what’s right for you.

 

FEATURES YES NO
Your course structure, format, and medium
Will students pace themselves from one module to the next?
Do you want to schedule the delivery of each module or lesson?
Will students be in different learning levels or tracks?
Do you want your learners to pass a quiz before they can move on to the next lesson?
Will the lessons be pure text with images?
Or will you also use audio and video?
Do you want to embed slideshows?
Do you plan to deliver the lessons live through web conferencing and make the recording available later?
Student support and engagement: How will you support your students?
Through email?
Through comments under each lesson or module?
Through a full discussion forum?
Do you want to be able to monitor and track your students’ progress through the course?
Do you want to automatically create badges and certificates as students complete certain parts of your course?
Integration with existing resources
What applications are you already using, or plan to use, that need to play nicely with your online learning platform?
A WordPress site
Email service provider (e.g., Aweber, MailChimp, InfusionSoft)
Landing page creator (e.g., Lead Pages, Unbounce)
Payment processor (e.g., PayPal, 2Checkout, Authorize.net).
Sales tools
What else do you need to sell your course after creating it? If you don’t want to deal with separate tools for these, then you need a course platform that has these tools as well. 
Landing page creator
Shopping cart/payment processor
Email service provider
Affiliate program manager
Customer support requirements
What kind of customer support would make you feel fully supported?
Do you want someone to hold your hand every step of the way, concierge style?
Do you want to be able to speak to somebody on the phone?
Or would email be enough? How many hours or days are you willing to willing to wait for a response?
Technical abilities
How much of a techie are you?
Are you comfortable with and able to wrangle with web technology?
If you’re not a techie,  are you willing to hire somebody to assist you?
Do you prefer a platform that’s simple, intuitive, and as easy to use as a word processor?
Budget
How much are you willing to pay?
Do you want to make a one-time payment upfront?
Are you willing to pay a monthly or yearly fee for a subscription-type platform with all the features you’re looking for?
Are you okay with paying in the form of a share of your course sales?
Personal preferences
What types of platforms do you enjoy using?

After going through these questions, make a list of the ideal features and functionalities you’re looking for in an online learning platform.

Next, rank the features according to importance. Mark the ones that are non-negotiable. And mark which ones are nice to have, but not absolutely essential.

When you’ve completed your ranked list, create a spreadsheet like this:

online course platforms

See how I color-coded the columns, with green being the most important features and pink denoting those that are nice to have, but not essential.

“Pay attention to integrations—make sure it integrates with the systems you need it to.” Maureen Lauder, Mirasee Project Manager

Now you have a clear idea of your “dream date.” Realize that you may or may not find all these features in one platform. Especially if budget is a concern, you may have to make some compromises.

For now, keep an open mind as you move on to the next step.

Step 3. Narrow Down Your Choices

Next, fill the first column of your spreadsheet with the names of the platforms you want to explore further. Carefully go through each platform’s website and indicate which of your dream features it has.

If the website doesn’t mention a feature you’re looking for, take note of it for later.

Get an overall feel for the specific platforms you’ve found and weed out the ones that are above your budget or don’t meet your essential must-haves.

Based on what you’ve learned, make a shortlist of three platforms you will explore more deeply in the next step.

Don’t get discouraged if a platform you’re interested in doesn’t provide all the features you’re looking for. You could always use external tools to get the features you want, like a video conferencing software like Zoom for live lessons or a Facebook group for discussion—if that’s an acceptable compromise to you.

Step 4. Do Your Due Diligence

This step takes a bit of work and time, but it’s the best thing you can do to make sure you’ll make an informed decision: Test-drive each platform on your shortlist!

Follow these steps to test platforms effectively and efficiently:

  1. Create a folder in your computer with either dummy or actual course content.

Include the types of content you plan to use in your actual course: text, images, PDFs, video, etc. Also create questions for a dummy quiz, if you want to use quizzes in your course. And don’t forget the content for your course sales page.

  1. Sign up for a free trial for the platform you’re going to evaluate.

If the platform doesn’t offer a free trial, then plan to pay upfront and complete your evaluation during the refund period. Make a note on your calendar for when you should complete the evaluation and potentially request a refund!

  1. Create your mock course on the platform you’re testing.

Here’s the fun part: actually using the platform with your dummy content.

Use the spreadsheet you created earlier to make sure you test the features on your wishlist. Make additional notes on things like how fast it takes to upload files (especially videos, if you’ll be using them). Explore every part of the course creation end. Do your best to break something 😉

“See which one you like the best – both from your point of view as the designer, and from your future student’s point of view.” Lizzie Merritt, Mirasee Training Manager

 

  1. If you run into problems, that’s a good thing!

When you get stuck, that’s your chance to test the platform’s customer support. Send a question and take note of how long it takes them to respond and how satisfactory their response was. Even if you don’t encounter problems, ask a question anyway.

  1. When your mock course is up, test everything as a student.

Even better, ask a friend or two to test the course for you. Price your course at a penny, and have someone enroll in your course to make sure the shopping cart works. Let them go through the mock course, click on everything there is to click, and tell you:

  • What does the course landing page look like? Is it attractive? Would they sign up for your course?
  • Is it easy to enroll in the course?
  • Once inside the course: is it easy to understand how the modules and lessons are organized?
  • Is it easy to navigate around the course?
  • Is the text readable? Do images show up properly? Do videos play?
  • Does everything work as they should?
  • Was anything confusing or frustrating?

On a scale of 1-10 (with 10 being the highest), what score would they give the platform? Record their responses in the same spreadsheet you’ve been using:

online course platforms

Note: I created that spreadsheet only to show an example. Your notes will be much more detailed than mine.

Step 5. Take the Plunge

It’s decision time: which online course platform are you going to go steady with?

Look at your spreadsheet, and see how each platform performed vis-a-vis your features wishlist, your experience while trying the platform, and your test students’ feedback.

If one platform stands out, then your decision is easy. But it’s possible for two or all of your shortlisted platforms to look pretty equal. What then?

Decide on one feature that you want to use as a tiebreaker. This could be the price, customer support, or how pretty the landing pages are. Choose one feature that’s important to you, and where the platforms do not perform equally.

Or your tie breaker could be something purely subjective: All things being equal, which platform do you simply like the most? Sometimes you have to follow your gut and go with the option you have the best chemistry with.

“More features means more work. So if you’re a solo course maker, cut the fluff. No one has ever said, ‘You mean this underwater basket-weaving course has BADGES? SIGN ME UP!’” Rocky Kev, Mirasee Technologist

 

Parting Thoughts

Choosing the platform where you will create and sell your course is a challenging part of being an online course creator. There are so many options—even within the same type of learning platforms—and all of them look great.

The best way to find the platform that’s most suitable to your needs is to actually use them by creating a mock course and testing them on a few students.

Choosing a platform to create & sell your course can be challenging, but we've made it easier. Click To Tweet

Following the process I described above will help you find The Right One you can commit to. It may feel daunting now, but remember, this is dating, not a marriage. Your online learning platform doesn’t have to be a lifelong commitment.

Technologies change, you change, and your business will change. So you may need a different platform down the line. Choose what suits you best right now.

This is a long post, so we created a cheat sheet you can use to remember and implement everything you just read:

Cheat Sheet: 5 Steps to Choose an Online Course Platform

Narrow your choices, clarify your needs, and find your ideal match!

Do tell: Which type of online course platform appeals to you the most? If you’re already an online course creator, what platform have you been using and how are you liking it? And if you had a magic wand, what new features would you like to see?

10 Rules of
VISIONARY BUSINESS

10 Rules of Visionary Business Book

(Plus 10 lessons learned growing to 60,000+ subscribers, $2M+ revenues, and 25+ team members, without losing our values, or selling our soul.)

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