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The State of Online Learning 2018

  • Lexi RodrigoLexi Rodrigo

Imagine you were about to climb Mt. Everest.

Aside from training physically, gathering your gear, and hiring a good Sherpa, you would probably learn as much as you could from the experiences of others.

You’d connect with other people who are planning the same trip, to compare notes.

You’d learn as much as you could about the experiences of others who’ve succeeded—or tried and failed—to learn from their mistakes, anticipate and avoid the common pitfalls, and discover what worked for them.

You’d immerse yourself in the success of others, to keep yourself inspired and motivated.

In other words, you’d want to see the lay of the land.

We at Mirasee hope our annual survey about online courses gives you just that, no matter where you are in the process of course creation.

Because becoming an online course creator is a lot like climbing Mt. Everest. It’s challenging. It’s not for everyone. But for those who do succeed, it’s life-changing.

Recently, we conducted the survey again, this time, with the support of some partners: Dorie Clark,Learning Revolution, Ruzuku, and Thinkific. With their help, we had a total of 1,410 respondents—making this, the State of Online Learning 2018—our biggest survey so far.

And for the first time, we asked about, not just teaching, but also learning online.

Online learning is becoming an even more prevalent part of the education landscape, and corporations and educational institutions–anyone interested in the future of learning–would do well to listen. This survey is extremely valuable in helping to contextualize this emerging trend.

~ Dorie Clark, author of Entrepreneurial You and adjunct professor, Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business

We’ve only been doing this survey since 2015 (it used to be called the State of Online Courses), so we didn’t expect to see any changes.

But while some things remained the same, surprisingly, some did not… as you’re about to see.

The Respondents

They’re service providers.

The majority of the respondents have businesses, whether full-time or part-time, providing services. They’re freelancers, coaches, consultants, trainers, or something similar. This has not changed since 2016.

And being a service provider brings in the vast majority of their income. On average, services bring in 61-70% of their total revenues, but up to 33% of respondents say they derive 91-100% of their total business revenues from services.

The distant second source of revenues is audience-based activities (e.g., speaking, performing), which account for 11-20% of total income for 14% of the respondents.

Online courses are a top income source for only 3% of respondents.

They want to teach online.

Online courses are more popular than ever with our respondents. A smaller percentage of them is just thinking about it; more are either planning their online course, in the process of creating an online course, or have created an online course.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Online courses are more popular than ever.” State of Online Learning 2018 quote=”‘Online courses are more popular than ever.'”]

They want to serve, but they’re not charities.

They’re motivated by the desire to share their knowledge, first and foremost, but also to build their audience and make money at the same time.

Making money wasn’t so important in 2015, but it is now.

In terms of their “ultimate why,” making an impact continues to be their main driver. Income has become less of a driving force, while achieving lifestyle freedom has become a more important ultimate goal.

They’re optimistic that they can earn more.

Our respondents are generally optimistic that their revenues will grow. Almost half of the respondents in 2018 (42%) expect to see revenue growth from providing services, a higher percentage compared to 2016.

Their optimism about increased revenue from online courses, on the other hand, has been vacillating, increasing sharply in 2017 (from 18% in 2016 to 29% in 2017), and then dipping slightly in 2018 (24%).

Fewer are pessimistic and not seeing any revenue growth at all (down from 20% in 2016 to 14% in 2018).

As in the past, a significant number of respondents want to derive a bigger portion of their income from online courses than from services. However, optimism for online courses is going down, while the hope for services is going up.

They want to become better marketers.

No matter where they are on the course creation journey, respondents recognize that their biggest challenge is marketing.

More on that as we go over the results for different groups of respondents….

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Online Course Creators: Encouraging Results, More Realistic Expectations

Course creators tend to make money consistently.

Course creators are more likely than other respondent groups to have consistent business revenues.

Like other respondents, they get the majority of their business revenues from providing services, but rely less on that income source. On average, course creators are getting 31-40% of their revenues from online courses, their second top source of income.

Not surprisingly, course creators are the ones who are most optimistic about seeing revenue growth from online courses.

Course creators feel successful.

Online course creators measure the success of their course through student satisfaction, income, and enrollment. Based on those criteria, more than one-third consider their course to be moderately successful, while about one-fourth say their courses were “definitely successful.”

A majority of course creators are confident that their students were satisfied with their course, achieved the learning objectives, and got the results they wanted from the course.

Their answers are based on the variety of methods they’ve been using to measure their students’ satisfaction and success.

Greg Smith ThinkificIt’s great to see people measuring student satisfaction, if you don’t measure it you can’t improve it! I still think we have a long way to go in terms of better measurement, tracking and helping with student success in online education, but it’s getting better each year.

~ Greg Smith, B.Comm, Lawyer, Co-Founder & CEO, Thinkific

Course creators are charging more for their courses.

Things are also looking up in terms of course pricing. Fewer course creators are either giving away their courses (from 19% in 2016 to 15% in 2018) or charging less than $100 (from 53% to 44%). More are charging from $300-$1000+ (from 25% to 31%).

But they’re getting fewer students.

However, on the flip side, student enrollment has remained stagnant or even gone down. While a higher percentage have enrolled 21-50 students in 2018 than 2016 (from 11% to 17%), the typical course creator still enrolls 6-20 students, remaining virtually unchanged since 2016.

So while course creators are starting to charge a little more, they’re also getting fewer students.

Abe Crystal, Ruzuku

This suggests the need to help course creators develop viable business models without needing to recruit hundreds of students. Whether that’s small-group programs with premium pricing, or using courses to drive sales of other services, or other approaches. You just can’t feed your family on 20 students buying a $200 course!

~ Abe Crystal, Ph.D., Co-founder, Ruzuku

Course creators are still unsure of what to expect.

Perhaps as a result of their spotty results, course creators seem to be more optimistic about charging higher prices, but less optimistic about their ideal number of students. A slightly bigger proportion of course creators want to charge either $500-999 (from 12% in 2016 to 16% in 2018) or $1000+ (from 9% to 11%).

When it comes to enrollment size, however, they seem to be aiming lower.

The percentage of course creators who want to have more than 1,000 students has been declining every year from 2016 to 2018 (from 44% to 42% to 41%). In contrast, an increased proportion is aiming for just 21-5o students (from 8% to 12%), which is just a bit more than the average number of students they have.

Course creators know they need to get better at marketing.

As can be expected, course creators’ biggest challenge remains to be marketing.

While technology used to be the second biggest challenge, since 2017 it has become “a minor challenge,” perhaps due to the availability and increasing affordability of learning management systems (LMS) and tools.

Time and creating their online courses, on the other hand, have become more pressing.

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By the way: Leveraged Learning, Danny Iny’s new book, is now available!

Aspiring Course Creators: Signs of Maturity

Aspirants have become more confident about teaching.

In this post, “aspirants” refers to respondents who are either thinking about, planning, or in the process of creating an online course.

Aspirants’ challenges have changed through the years.

When we did the first survey in 2015, confidence was their second biggest challenge to online course creation. That is, they didn’t feel that they had enough expertise and credentials to teach.

In 2018, lack of confidence has become a “minor challenge.”

Time used to be aspirants’ biggest hurdle. By 2017, however, marketing had become their top challenge, followed by time, course creation know-how, and technology.

Could aspiring course creators be maturing? Sure looks like it. They’ve become more confident that they have something to teach and the credibility to teach it. And they also recognize that they need to know how to sell their course, even before they finish creating it.

Aspirants are conservative about pricing, ambitious about student enrollment.

While they’re motivated by the same ideals as course creators, their expectations are slightly different.

For one thing, they seem to be less ambitious when it comes to course pricing. While one-third of them continue to aim for the $100-299 price range, a smaller percentage is aiming to charge $300-$1000+ (from 44% in 2016 to 35% in 2018). On the other end of the spectrum, more are aiming to charge from nothing to $99 (from 26% to 33%).

On the other hand, aspirants are much more ambitious than creators when it comes to enrollment numbers. The percentage of aspirants who are aiming for more than 1000 students increased dramatically, from just 9% in 2016 to 36% and 41% in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

Given the disconnect between the enrollment size they desire and the actual number of students they are likely to enroll (based on the current enrollment numbers of course creators), aspirants may be in for a rude awakening when they get around to finishing and selling their courses.

Aspirants aren’t pinning their hopes on online courses.

Despite their hopes to reach a huge number of students, aspirants are conservative when it comes to the revenues they expect from online courses. In 2018, only 14% of them expect to generate more income from online courses. Almost half (47%) continue to see more growth from providing services, and a worrying 18% don’t see any revenue growth at all.

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Jeff Cobb, Leading the Learning RevolutionWhile this report offers many signs that the online course business is maturing, one that I find especially encouraging is that course creators report greater use of evaluations and analytics to measure learner success and satisfaction. This suggests a wave of edupreneurs who are truly focused on delivering educational impact and creating positive change for their customers.

~ Jeff Cobb, Author, Leading the Learning Revolution

Uninterested: An Endangered Species

Their numbers are dwindling.

The percentage of respondents who aren’t considering online courses at all has been getting smaller, from 10% in 2015 to 4% in 2018.

Their concerns have also changed in the last few years. In 2016, their lack of interest in online courses was due to the lack of time for course creation, a misalignment of online courses with their business model, and not having the expertise and credentials to teach a course.

These reasons have become much less pressing. In 2017, their biggest reason for shying away from online courses was the lack of a budget for course creation.

This changed yet again in 2018, when their biggest reason was not knowing how to market and sell courses, followed closely by now knowing how to create online courses.

Even for this group of respondents who refuse to embark on the course creation journey, the primary concern is the same: marketing.

Uninterested respondents rely most heavily on services.

Among the respondent groups, the uninterested ones tend to rely the most on providing services for their income, deriving 71-80% of revenues from services. They’re also more likely to not have revenues yet. More than half (57%) of those who are uninterested in online courses have businesses that don’t bring revenues yet. This makes them the most economically vulnerable group, compared to aspirants and creators.

To summarize:

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What about our respondents’ experiences as students of online courses?

Online Learning: Ahead of the Curve

Compared to students of MOOCs and other online courses, our respondents appear to be ahead of the curve.

Most respondents finish a significant portion of their online courses.

Respondents finish the majority of online courses they enroll in. Only 5% of our respondents say they complete 0-20% of their online courses. As much as 42% say they complete 81-100% of the online courses they’ve enrolled in.

This could be because we did not ask specifically about voluntary online courses. Some respondents commented that the courses they took were mandatory courses. We need to specifically ask about voluntary online courses next time.

When they didn’t complete a course, the most common reasons were the lack of time, the course not being what they expected, and not needing the entire course.

Under the “Other” category, the most common reasons were boredom, distractions, and unexpected life events that took away their time and attention. They also complained about having to watch long videos and getting disenchanted with instructors who turned out to be not as qualified as they made themselves out to be. “The course wasn’t what I expected it to be,” was a common theme.

Yet others were honest enough to admit that they didn’t finish the course because they didn’t block out time for it.

Here’s a sampling of what they said:

“Didn’t create a specific time to do it, no matter what.”

“The professor was brand new and tried to make it as hard as possible!”

“Signed up for and bought many but haven’t started them. Will do so later when I have more time”

“The courses have included pre-recorded support and online group meetings with mostly one-way communication. Encouragement and a feeling [of] accountability from someone who knows and cares would help.”

“Done a lot of courses – complete most of them – but some just are not what they say or are misrepresented in terms of work needed.”

“I forgot about it.”

“I took a 90-day program that involved work every day – had a full-time job and three kids – one baby – life got busy and I didn’t fully finish.”

“Poorly constructed, not relevant, boring.”

“The instructor’s way of teaching did not match up with how I like to learn.”

Online course students are learning and getting results.

According to respondents, they learned what they wanted to learn and got some of the results they wanted from the online courses.  Almost half (42%) say they achieved their learning objectives “to a great extent.”

Their results from online courses are slightly less stellar, although still positive. About 44% of the respondents say they got some of the results they wanted to get, while 30% say they got their desired results “to a great extent.”

Courses that were too basic and not practical or applicable were their second and third biggest obstacles to learning. Their top ones (“Other”) included getting overwhelmed, not having enough accountability, lack of individual attention and feedback, and difficulty grasping the material.

It’s not always the course creator’s fault, as some of these comments show:

“My brain might have been too old to move at his rate of speed!”

“Accessing course materials was complicated and messy.”

“When I’ve failed to get the most out of a course, it’s because I watched passively and didn’t do my own work alongside.”

“Overkill and overwhelm are two huge problems with online courses, in my view…and they are linked. When a course has 10 main steps/levels/phases (etc) and the student goes inside the course to find out that each step/phase/level has within it 5-10 videos, tasks, homework, etc., it just gets to be too discouraging. Faced with many online courses like this, I’ve often felt overwhelmed and discouraged.”

“The freedom to learn when you want can work against you, as other deadlines and ‘must-do’s’ from daily life and work tend to press harder.. so ultimately I feel it was more a lack of setting time apart from my side, not so many things the courses were lacking.”

“Lack of basic pedagogy in instructors…. seems like anyone can be a teacher, and that may be true, but not anybody has the knowledge of teaching technique.”

“I would say not practicing the learnings from the course in my life right away. If there was no accountability built in, I might just watch the content but not do the exercises, so it only ended up being ‘book’ learning, not a lived experience.”

“Health issues and listening to negative people.”

“Was left with the choice to struggle on my own or seek help that was overpriced.”

Our respondents left us hundreds of comments and, unfortunately, we can’t publish them all. These examples show that, while our respondents generally have a positive experience with online courses, there’s plenty of room for improvement.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”‘While our respondents generally have a positive experience with online courses, there’s plenty of room for improvement.’ State of Online Courses 2018″ quote=”While our respondents generally have a positive experience with online courses, there’s plenty of room for improvement.”]

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What Now? The Way Forward

Advice for the Uninterested

Focus on getting revenues from your business (assuming having a sustainable business is one of your goals). If you want to transition from full-time employee to entrepreneur, Danny has a step-by-step plan for you to stop trading hours for dollars (or at least to trade them for more dollars!).

Advice for Aspiring Course Creators

It’s time to make a more consistent income from your business, even if it’s a side gig. This may be a matter of getting more clients, making higher-value offers, or both. Either way, Danny’s got you covered.

If you’re still in the thinking or planning stage and want to jumpstart the course creation process, join our Course Builder’s Bootcamp. It’s a free, six-day program that will get you off to a good start.

Advice for Online Course Creators

You already have one course, if not several. Now get out there and get more students! This isn’t just about selling your course. It’s also about iterating, polishing, and improving your online courses. Because a great online course that delivers on its promise and has happy students (even if there are only a handful of them) is much easier to sell than a course that’s only good enough.

Also, if you haven’t done so yet, join our weekly webinar to learn our Course Builder’s Blueprint. You’ll learn sales strategies to enroll more students and have the opportunity to ask our presenter your questions about how to improve and sell your course.

Advice for Online Learners

Take responsibility for your learning. Choose courses wisely (Tip: Don’t sign up for more than one all at the same time!). Make sure you understand what the course is all about before enrolling, and look for a money-back guarantee.

After you sign up, block off time to do the work and apply what you’ve learned. Anticipate what might keep you from completing the course, and make plans for how you will address them. And if you find your drive waning, this piece on motivation may help.

Get Leveraged Learning by Danny Iny, Free!

Leveraged Learning book Danny Iny free copy
Finally, whether you’re interested in online learning as a course creator, as a learner, or both, then get your free copy of Danny Iny’s new book, Leveraged Learning: How the Disruption of Education Helps Lifelong Learners, and Experts with Something to Teach. Danny has done extensive research and offers a framework to make online learning more effective.

What insights did you get from the State of Online Learning 2018? Which group of respondents do you identify with the most? And what questions would you like us to ask in the next survey?

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11 thoughts on The State of Online Learning 2018

Amar Kumar

Hello Lexi,

Now-a-days, online course is a new substitute to regular college degree these days. One of the major benefits of online course is its much affordable cost of learning.

Also, it saves a student’s energy and time spent in commuting to and from college for their regular classes. Online degree provides facility of flexible schedule and students can select it as per their convenience.

Many prominent institutes offer online degree and e-learning certificates in various specializations so that students can choose their interested stream. Eventually, thanks for adding much value to this topic.

With best wishes,

Amar Kumar

Carole Stizza

Thank you for sharing the results! I found myself nodding a lot when I recognized where I have experienced portions of your survey results. I am very fond of data that allows me to see where my experience fits with others (or not) and it sounds like your data has helped fuel a new era of online learning that is exciting!

Lexi Rodrigo

@Carole Stizza – Hi there, I’m glad you enjoyed reading about the results. It’s so cool that some of the findings resonate are consistent with your experience 😀

Steve Olsher

Truly a seminal work! Amazing, impressive findings. Thank you for sharing this.

Lexi Rodrigo

@Steve Olsher – Thanks for the feedback, Steve! Which finding that struck you the most?

Stan Hustad

Thanks so much and we will have a ton of new content coming out this new “School year”

Lexi Rodrigo

@Stan Hustad – Awesome! What’s your course about?


Amazing post Lexi! One of my major take aways is that people who want to build courses are no longer hoping to sell it and call it a day. From the report, many are leaning on courses while also providing services on the side — which is a good thing!

The average teacher educates the material they know and are comfortable with. While the best teachers experiment outside of the classroom, in order to provide new data and new ways to do things.

It’s a cycle: improve yourself as a educator by providing what you teach as a service, to improve your course, to provide better services, to improve your course… etc

Lexi Rodrigo

@Rocky – I like how you think of it as providing services “and” teaching online courses. Entrepreneurs don’t have to choose one over the other and, in fact, they can support and reinforce each other. Thanks for that great insight!

mary anne em radmacher

Thank you so much for this. I find it helpful and informative at so many levels.
I think this will help me establish benchmarks for my own on line course work,
as a teacher, a learner and a coach.

Lexi Rodrigo

Thank you so much for the feedback, Em! I’m glad to hear that you find the survey results helpful 😀

Comments are closed.