How to Teach Online
Increasing technological proliferation has produced a paradigm shift in the way people approach education. Classrooms are no longer necessarily physical spaces students need to go to — they exist in the cloud, and offer unprecedented access to a global market of high-quality educators.
Online education is also cheaper, more convenient, and more up-to-date than most physical alternatives. And with entire nations now coming online, never before has such a fantastic opportunity presented itself for students, educators, and entrepreneurs alike in the form of online teaching.
I started teaching online in mid-2017, and have been loving every minute so far. I’ve made money, formed lifelong connections, and best of all I’ve done it on my own terms.
Let me teach you how to do the same.
To begin, teaching online is nowhere near as hard as most people believe.
Think about it. What do you really need in order to emulate a physical classroom?
- A way to capture audiovisual information, and
The first point is simple enough, considering most people on the planet own a cellphone. Sure, the quality of your phone camera might not be amazing, but it’s certainly enough to make courses that stick. The majority of people watching online courses watch them at the lowest resolution option anyhow.
Your camera mic, too, probably isn’t that bad — if your phone was purchased in the last 3 years, odds are it’s good enough to get started.
Case in point: I shot my first online course entirely with my phone camera and built-in microphone. As of September 2018, I’ve made ~$800 off of it. This is with a total time investment of somewhere around 20 hours.
If you do the math, that’s $40/hour. Not life changing, but certainly better than a large portion of the world — and done entirely from the comfort of my own home to boot.
The coolest thing? I still make money off of it, and I’ll continue to make money off of it until either the world ends or somebody unplugs the Internet (which, in hindsight, is pretty similar to the world ending). That’s my favorite thing about passive income. It keeps working long after you do.
The second point — knowledge — is what trips most people up. The majority of people out there don’t think they know enough about stuff to turn it into an actual class. They don’t think they’re qualified to educate.
But that’s where they’d be wrong.
Everybody has at least one subject — and more likely several subjects — that they know a lot about. Everybody knows enough about those subjects to teach a course on it.
Because here’s the great thing: you don’t need to know more about something than every other person on the planet. You only need to know more about something than your target audience.
If you took three month’s worth of salsa lessons you’re probably by no means a world champion dancer. But ask yourself: do world-champion dancers need to be part of your target audience? Simply put, no.
An example: if you took three month’s worth of salsa lessons (and are at a skill level comparable to other people with 3 months’ experience), your pool of available students is basically…
- people with zero months of salsa experience
- people with one month of salsa experience, and
- people with two months of salsa experience
Which, according to my (very scientific) calculations, is probably still something like 99.9% of the planet.
My point is, don’t feel like you can’t teach something just because you haven’t spent a gazillion hours on it. You don’t need to be the best in the world. You only need to be the best in your world. If you keep looking for something that you’re number one at, I’m sorry to say this, but you’ll probably never find it. There is always somebody out there that is better than you — but don’t let that stop you from using your expertise to make a boat load of really easy money.
Which brings me to the point of this article: how to make a ‘boat load of really easy money’.
Step One: Pick a Subject
This seems like a scary proposition to many, and I was very specific in my wording because of it.
Most often, people call this ‘finding a niche’. I find this insufficient, and in many cases, misleading. ‘Finding a niche’ frames the process in terms of discovery — you’re on a hunt to find some hidden, untapped reservoir and then exploit it to make big bucks.
The truth, however, is a bit different. Because just like there is always going to be someone out there who is better than you at something, most times any super-cool niches you can think up will have already been capitalized on by somebody else.
I mean, hey, it’s a big world. 7.4 billion (at the time of this writing) and counting. Odds are, with all of us sharing the same basic neural machinery, similar thought patterns are bound to happen elsewhere, probably multiple times. And for all the times it has happened, in many cases the person who has thought it up will have more resources and a more advantageous economic position with which to act upon than you do.
But that doesn’t really matter. Because what matters is not the idea, what matters is the execution. You don’t need to be particularly talented to just come up with stuff — you need to be particularly talented to follow through with it and turn it into a viable information product.
Even if you were somehow the first person on the planet to think of a niche, rest assured that within several days of your course going live there would be several lookalikes cropping up, trying to steal your thunder. Because that’s just what business is. People always want to get in on the action, and you can’t really blame them for it.
With all that said, my three super simple steps for picking a subject are as follows:
- Write down the top three things you’re good at, and your estimated skill level (with 1 being a total newbie, and 5 being a complete master) beside each
- Write down the projected size of your audience for each topic (with 1 being small, and 5 being huge)
- Multiply your skill level by the projected size. Pick the topic with the biggest number
No, it’s not exactly quantitative research. No, it’s not a rigorous market analysis. But truth be told, both research and analysis can only do so much, and the most reliable indicator of whether or not a subject will work for me so far has still been my gut. In any case, it’s better to get moving with something then spend any more time paralyzed by fear of failure.
And anyways, what’s the worst thing that could happen? Suppose your choice of subject ends up being a monumental disaster, your finished product is terrible, and you get 0 purchases…
Congratulations! You’ve just gained dozens of hours of practical experience learning how to make an online information product. Considering the fact that increasing automation will soon render all workers except those employed in the field of information unemployed, you’re well on your way to learning one of the most lucrative skills of the 21st century.
Step Two: Decide on Your Set-Up
In light of the last step, this one is relatively straight forward: what is your finished product going to look like? Here you must consider the technical components of online course creation: equipment, editing software, and format.
I’ve compiled a list of handy dandy questions you can ask yourself to understand what you’ll need to move forward. And remember, it doesn’t need to be complicated —my first course was made using just my phone camera and some free editing software.
At minimum, you should know the answer to:
- What kind of editing software will you use?
- Where are you going to record?
- What times of day are you going to record? Are outside noises going to be a problem?
- What kind of microphone will you need? Are you going to be moving (use a lapel mic) or stationary (use a shotgun mic)?
- Is your face going to be on screen, or is a voice-over sufficient? (Many programming instructors, for example, only need screen-capture software and a microphone)
- If your face is going to be on screen, you’ll need a camera and/or lighting. What kinds will you get?
- Are you going to read off of a script, or are you going to lecture free-form?
- If you’re reading off of a script, do you need a teleprompter? (learn how to make one yourself for <$20 here)
Some other tips and tricks that would have saved me tons of time had I employed them right off the bat:
- When starting to record a new segment, clap loudly. This produces a clearly visible audio spike when you’re editing that allows you to sync footage easily
- If you’re planning on having your face in the product, make sure to stare at the camera all the time. This will seem unnatural until you get used to it, but it makes a huge difference
- Lighting is very important. If you’re recording in a dim room, make sure you have an external light source of some kind. Stay away from orangey incandescent lights and instead use a light with color temperature in the neighborhood of 5000K (pure white)
- Avoid unidirectional shadows. Get a diffuser (or if you lack funds, throw a white t-shirt over your light like I did for my second course)
- Place curtains or blankets over as much of your bare walls as possible. This helps insulate your recording room, and is a cheap alternative to expensive professional soundproofing
- While editing, focus your first pass on cutting your content into rough chronological sections — this should take approximately the same amount of time as the length of the video you recorded +20%. Consider it a ‘rough draft’. Then, use the second pass for precision editing and effects. Countless hours have been saved doing this.
Your goal at this point is to understand exactly what you’ll need in order to plan, record, and ultimately create your product. Make sure you have everything in working order before you progress to the next step — I can’t even begin to tell you how frustrating it is to record 2 hours worth of content only to realize you have to re-shoot because the lighting was poor.
Step Three: Plan Your Lectures (Using an SLP)
Once you’ve determined your equipment needs, it’s time to map out your course.
An easy way to save yourself dozens of hours during this step is to use a template, or what’s called a standard lesson plan (SLP). An SLP is basically a ‘wireframe’ you use for each lesson — a series of steps you always take in every lecture that simplifies and structures your content so that students know precisely what to expect. A major added benefit is that a good SLP doesn’t just make it easier on your students; it makes it profoundly easier on you as well.
My own SLP is very basic. I start off with one or two introductory paragraphs where I provide the student with a list of the concepts they’ll be learning in the lecture. This is aptly named ‘Introduction’. I then proceed to actually write down my material, a section I call ‘Explanation’. And the last section, the ‘Summary’, is basically a reversed Introduction — I briefly summarize my content, and re-provide the list of concepts so as to better facilitate memorization.
Of course, you can use whatever kind of SLP you want. My template is by no means the best, and to many it probably seems a little too basic. But it’s worked out fine thus far, and the added benefit is that, by having an introduction and a summary, I typically get to add an extra 45 seconds to 1 minute of content time per video. This may not seem like much, but considering that I normally have between 10–15 lectures, the added time adds up fast.
Once you’ve created your SLP, the fun part begins: populating each template with the actual content that you’ll be teaching. For this, I use a Trello board.
The cool thing about Trello is that it allows you to track the progress of your lectures as you complete them. It also opens up the floor for easy collaboration with any co-instructors or editors you may have, allowing simple & easy delegation and outsourcing (once you’re at that point).
For example, this is what my Trello board looked like for my Udemy course, The Ultimate 4-Step Sales Guide:
Notice how each column represents a different level of completion. In order, my columns were:
- Not Written, where I’d come up with the ideas for each lesson
- Written & Not Edited, where I’d write out, in bullet point form, every concept and example I wanted to use in that lesson
- Written & Edited, where content would go after a quick double-check and potential edit, and
- Ready to Film, which is after I put it in teleprompter-ready format
Later on, when I started producing courses for specific corporate training programs, this allowed my collaborators/editors a quick and easy way to make suggestions.
Step Four: Record And Edit
Once everything is set up correctly, this is actually going to be the easiest part. For your first or second course, you’ll probably have a record time to content ratio (an RC ratio) of around 4:1. This means that for every four minutes of recording time, you’ll probably end up with around one minute of actually usable footage.
Of course, this depends on whether or not you’re reading off a script or going freeform. In my experience, script reading (using a teleprompter) tends to be very efficient — I actually filmed an entire course once with an RC ratio of maybe 1.2. This can be useful, but tends to work better for technical courses, since your efficiency often comes with a price: teleprompters can make you look stiff and inorganic.
After my first course, I decided that teleprompters made me a tad too ‘artificial’ for my taste, and now my courses are mostly presented freeform. Even with the higher RC ratio of ~2.5:1, I find that organic speaking (and the ability to free associate) often imbues my courses with a distinct conversational character that students so far seem to enjoy. It makes it seem like I’m talking to them as opposed to at them. That being said, my course content usually centers around communication skills so YMMV — give both a try and see which works best for you.
The last step you need to take to get a finished, market-ready product. Your editing skills don’t need to be super amazing, but they do need to be at a certain minimum threshold of professionalism in order to be able to sell your course.
If you’re new to editing, your goal at this point is to focus on minimalism. Minimalistic cuts, minimalistic text, and definitely no fancy FX. Often times, people see minimalism as a stylistic choice — you’re going to use this fact to masquerade your inexperience behind supposed ‘clean design’, and they’ll be none the wiser.
If you don’t want to do the editing yourself, there are also ways to easily outsource this part of the process. You can find excellent freelancers on Fiverr for cheap, though it can take one or two tries before you find the person that ‘fits’. If you’re going this route, I advise you to still take an hour or so of work to cut up your content into rough chronological chunks. It’ll save your editor time and save you money by ensuring you only send over the pertinent content.
Be precise in your instructions. Else you’ll get a product back that you’re not happy with, and it will be 100% your fault. As much as you may wish they could, your editor can’t read your mind — if you have a certain vision of the way you want your course to look, describe it in detail or send over a picture. The extra fifteen minutes it takes to write up precise product specifications is always worth it.
If you want to look for a freelancer on Fiverr, feel free to use this referral link for a discount (sometimes upwards of 20% off, depending on how Fiverr feels at the moment). Other services exist, but so far Fiverr has been the most reliable for me.
Step Five: Market or Delegate
Now that you’re finished your course, the question becomes how do I sell it?
Unfortunately, the days when you could make a fantastic product and get sales solely on the basis of its quality are long gone. In order to have any chance of success, you need to get it in front of a lot of people, and you need to make full use of the modern marketing resources available to you.
There are two ways to go about the marketing process:
Option 1: Use an Online Marketplace
If you’ve never created an information product before, this is what I would recommend you go with.
Online marketplaces like Udemy and Skillshare are basically the Airbnb of the online course world. They take care of the hosting, transactions, and (most pertinent to you) marketing of your class. These websites typically have millions of views a month, and offer you a very easy way to get in front of a large audience instantly.
They require 0 upfront capital, and are by far the most accessible option for newbies and veterans alike. My favorite part about online marketplaces is that most of them don’t require an exclusive license to your content — this means you can post the same course on multiple marketplaces at the same time (in some cases doubling or tripling your passive income).
Additionally, one often unforeseen benefit of online marketplaces is the social proof and legitimacy it provides your products. Since I now have nearly 10,000 enrollments, it’s very easy for third parties to hear about my content. Several times, I have negotiated non-exclusive license agreements with corporate training programs that range from $800 to upwards of $1,000 per course, and they reached out to me. I’ve made quite the pretty penny this way — and I wouldn’t have been able to do it had I not used a marketplace.
I’ll outline the two largest marketplaces below.
Udemy’s business model works on a commission basis. If somebody buys your course through their platform— aka, they see your class listed on the marketplace and click ‘Buy’ — they take 50% of the profits. These are termed ‘Organic Search’ sales, and occur when the student comes across your course in-platform.
There are also ‘Affiliate Sales’, which occur when a student either buys a course from one of Udemy’s many promotional emails, or purchases via an advertisement that Udemy paid for. In this case, Udemy keeps something like 75% of the sale.
You also have the option to market your courses yourself — if somebody buys through a link that you yourself created, you keep 97% of the profits.
What you’ll need:
- A 1–2 minute promotional video
- A landing page picture (formatted 16:9), and
- A marketable course description
Click Instructor → Create Class, and the instructions will guide you through how to upload your course.
In contrast to Udemy, Skillshare is smaller and caters more to niches related to media, art, and business. They focus on specific outcomes —in order to upload a course, you need to create a project for students to complete with the knowledge they gained throughout your lectures.
They also have a fundamentally different mechanism by which you make your money. Instead of earning a flat percentage of each sale, you earn money based on the number of minutes watched by ‘Premium’ accounts.
My payout thus far has been something on the order of $0.07 per minute. With a 60 minute-long course, for example, that means I’m looking at approximately $4.2 per full watch of my content. It’s not an incredible amount, but it often still makes me upwards of $70 per month.
They also have a very generous referral program, giving me $10 per signup through my referral code. This may not seem like much, but considering the fact that it’s free (the referral is a link to a 2-month, entirely cancellable free trial) it has relatively strong pull. I typically bring home an extra $30–$40 a month this way, or an average of one referral per week.
What you’ll need:
- A landing page picture (not explicitly necessary, but highly recommended)
- A marketable course description, and
- A project of some kind. It doesn’t need to be super fancy — one of my projects was literally “write a marketing e-mail using what you’ve learned in the last three lectures” — but you need to have one
Click Teach → Start a Class to begin.
Many other marketplaces exist, but either a) they don’t cater to all subject areas , or b) they require exclusive licenses, which would restrict where else you could upload my content. For these two reasons, I primarily stick to Udemy and Skillshare.
Option 2: Market Your Course Yourself
If you want to go with this option, you should know what you’re doing. Ideally, you’d have prerequisite marketing experience from selling another course or information product.
You should know your way around Google Analytics and one or two choice social media platforms, and you should understand the basics behind how to structure a value proposition for your course. You should also be prepared to invest a bit of capital — marketing often isn’t free, and you’ll likely need to pay for blog & influencer posts (depending on your subject area).
The specifics of digital marketing are past the scope of this article, but if you want to keep learning, one of the best guides I’ve found so far that pertains specifically to online courses can be found here. It’ll run you through everything from crafting a USP, to advertising on Facebook, to getting published in a mainstream media news source.
Step Six: Chill
Congratulations! Once you’ve started making sales, feel free to lay down on a beach chair somewhere and drink a Piña colada. You’ve earned it.
At this point, you should have a firm grasp of the development pipeline of an information product. You should know what to expect in terms of realistic passive income and up-front development costs, and you should know the mechanisms behind a couple of the biggest players in the online marketplace business today.
You now have everything you need to do it. Meaning the only thing left is to, well… do it.
Teaching online is one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done. I get to pick my own hours, I get to come up with my own product, and ultimately I and I alone am responsible for my success. This combination of responsibility and freedom is liberating — it means that if I fail, it’s because I screwed up, and if I win big, it’s because my vision and execution made it happen.
I have no doubt you’ll reach similar, if not greater levels of success if you follow the steps outlined in this guide. From one teacher to another: wishing you all the best!
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