Anyone who publishes a big round-up of elearning statistics and hopes it will actually get read is facing plenty of competition. E-learning stats posts are a dime a dozen – heck, maybe a penny a dozen since COVID came along and drove everything online.
So, why is this post different and worth reading?
Well, a key reason is that it was created specifically for people who create and sell courses online (or aspire to) and, by extension, anyone who cares about the edupreneurial course creation market – e.g., journalists, bloggers, investors, tech vendors. There’s a lot of hype out there about how big the overall e-learning market is, but how much does that apply to your average course creator?
There are a lot of opinions about how to grow your online learning business, but very little data. However, I’ll note that I was pleasantly surprised to come across Thinkific’s recently released 2023 Online Learning Trends Report. This report is based on original research from the top 20% of creators revealing which trends were responsible for their success.
My beef with most e-learning statistics is that they are just numbers – it’s hard to know how to interpret them or what to do with them. So, I’ve tried to weave together a range of statistics here to create a clearer, much lower-hype picture of the overall opportunity for course creators.
And that leads to the second reason: a lot of the online learning statistics you’ll find out there are just pure, unsubstantiated crap.
Lies, Damn Lies, and E-learning Statistics
I didn’t realize how bad the situation was until I went out and started doing research to find some stats.
What I found was a lot of posts that essentially repeat each other and, in doing so, repeat a lot of statistics for which either (a) there are no legitimate sources, or (b) the original statistic has been manipulated almost beyond recognition to support the author’s point.
I’m not going to point fingers, mostly because I don’t like to do that, but also because I don’t want to do anything that might drive more traffic to these questionable posts. That said, here’s a quick example.
A came across numerous posts with a claim along the lines of “The Research Institute of America reports that learning retention rates improve from 8 to 10 percent for face-to-face training to 25 to 60 percent for e-learning.” This sounded like promising data, but when I went searching for the actual source, I could not find it. That would be because, as this Learning Accelerators article makes clear, it doesn’t really exist.
So, if you read an e-learning statistics post that makes the claim above – and most recent ones do – you will know that the author hasn’t really done his or her homework.
That’s just one of many examples.
Now, none of this is to claim that all of the stats I share here are based on statistically valid surveys, double blind studies, or other high standards. Frankly, high quality research is very hard to find (or expensive). Still, I’ve done my best to find data that seems to be reliable and – perhaps more importantly – I’ve linked to the source in every case.
So, read on to get insights into the online course market and the opportunity for edupreneurial course creators.
E-learning Market Size Statistics
Let’s start with taking a look at the overall e-learning market size – as well as the growth of online education. When doing this, it’s important to look at data that has been analyzed since the global pandemic became a factor – many earlier figures are way out of date at this point.
- With the COVID-19 pandemic having significantly increased demand, the global e-learning market will reach USD 390.6 billion by 2026, growing by 11.7% annually over 2020. (Source)
- Another source puts the global e-learning market at USD 144 Billion in 2019 and estimates it will reach USD 374.3 billion by 2026 and is predicted to increase at a CAGR of 14.6 % through 2026. (Source)
Whichever source you choose, we seem to be headed toward a global e-learning industry valuation of USD 400 billion in the not too distance future. While we can expect interest in e-learning to shrink a bit as it becomes possible to get back to face-to-face education, the pandemic has cemented its place as a major element of the lifelong learning landscape.
At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind that the e-learning industry is made up of multiple categories – it’s not just about selling online courses. And different segments of the online education market are growing at different rates.
The following table distinguishes between some of the major categories of the e-learning market and the projected growth within them.
|Market size in $M||2019||2026||Growth|
Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the strongest current growth areas is in the form of online learning that most readily replaces classroom-based learning – virtual classrooms. Rapid e-learning and mobile e-learning, both of which tend to support convenience and delivering short, focused education at the point of need (aka microlearning) are also projected for major growth.
Stats for Online Course Market Size
As the chart above suggests, asking “How much is the online course industry worth” is a bit different from asking how much the much the e-learning industry is worth. Courses are only one part of the industry, and self-paced, on demand courses – what many aspiring course creators are aiming for – is a still smaller part.
Still, the online course market is big.
- Earlier reports (2016) indicated that, even while overall demand was declining, the self-paced online learning market in the US would be worth $15.86 billion in 2021. (Source).
- More recently (October 2020), the self-paced e-learning market has been projected to grow by USD 6.71 billion during 2020-2024 progressing at a CAGR of 3% during the forecast period. (Source)
- Notably, roughly 59% of the U.S. online learning market is in content-related online learning products. (Source)
MOOCs and Marketplaces
Two key places to look for e-learning statistics that relate to the direction of the market for online courses are:
- Massive open online course, or MOOC, platforms that grew out of partnerships with major universities like MIT and Yale
- Major online course marketplaces, like Udemy and Skillshare, where users can find course on just about any topic.
Both have seen massive growth in recent years – and even more in the wake of the pandemic.
- According to Class Central, Coursera – one of the biggest MOOC providers – saw its learner base jump from 45 million in 2019 to 75 million in 2020 and “the top three MOOC providers (Coursera, edX, and FutureLearn) registered as many new users in April as in the whole of 2019.” (Source)
- Overall, 2.8K courses were added to the MOOC market and this number is projected to more than quintuple to16.3K. (Source) Class Central also notes that “One third of the learners that ever registered on a MOOC platform joined in 2020.” (Source)
Historically, MOOCs have been free, but increasingly the big providers have been moving to monetize their offerings in a range of ways – and there are signs that they are finding success.
- The MOOC market, which was already valued at USD 4.8 billion in 2019, is projected to grow to nearly USD 27 billion by 2025. (Source)
While the MOOC market tends to be dominated by academic-style courses produced by college and university faculty, the major source for content in online course marketplaces like Udemy tends to be entrepreneurial subject matter experts – aka edupreneurs.
- Udemy on its own makes it clear that there is major demand for these types of courses. As of November 2023, the company said it hosts 210,000 courses for 64 million learners, resulting in 840 million enrollments. (Source)
- Those enrollments surged 425 percent as the COVID-19 lockdown started to spread in April 2020. (Source).
- Investors are clearly bullish on Udemy’s prospects – in late 2020 it raised another $50 million at a valuation of $3.25 billion (Source) and the company is poised to go public in 2021.
LinkedIn, the leading recruitment platform in the world is also making rapid strides with LinkedIn Learning, its online learning marketplace.
Of course, if you are a course creator, none of this means the market for your specific course will be strong – you really have to do the work to validate your course idea – but clearly there is very big overall market for online courses, and that means there are clearly opportunities for anyone who is willing to do the work to successfully sell courses online.
Stats for Which Online Courses Sell Best
Once you do decide to jump into the online course market and set out to validate your course idea, it’s worth knowing what online courses are in demand and what online courses make the most money. MOOCs and marketplaces are again a great resource for relevant e-learning statistics.
A report from Udemy titled “Online Education Steps Up: What the World is Learning (from Home),” provides data about the course topics that are most popular on the company’s site – and how much growth there has been in them since the pandemic forced more learning from home.
- Udemy hot topics include:
- Neural Networks (61% growth)
- Communication Skills (131% growth), and
- Growth Mindset (206% growth)
- Pilates (402% growth)
- Technical Drawing (920% growth)
- Ukulele (292%)
- ClassCentral provides similar data for the range of MOOCs it tracks. Here are the top 25 courses from its list of The 250 Most Popular Online Courses of All Time.
- Machine Learning
- The Science of Well-Being
- Learning How to Learn
- CS50’s Introduction to Computer Science
- Programming for Everybody (Getting Started with Python)
- Introduction to Computer Science and Programming Using Python
- English for Career Development
- IELTS Academic Test Preparation
- COVID-19 Contact Tracing
- TOEFL® Test Preparation: The Insider’s Guide
- Successful Negotiation: Essential Strategies and Skills
- Neural Networks and Deep Learning
- Chinese for Beginners
- Financial Markets
- Analyzing and Visualizing Data with Excel
- First Step Korean
- Algorithms, Part I
- Python Data Structures
- Speak English Professionally: In Person, Online & On the Phone
- Technical Support Fundamentals
- English Grammar and Style
- Introduction to Linux
- Write Professional Emails in English
One of the lessons I draw from this is that courses geared toward concrete, measurable outcomes – speaking a language, writing code, playing an instrument, using a specific type of software – tend to dominate the list. Most course creators won’t address the specific topics covered above, but it’s probably valuable to position a course in any topic as offering concrete outcomes.
The list also suggests a perennial market for expanding our uniquely human capabilities for growth and development – learning to learn, growth mindset, creativity, innovation, focus. No matter what we teach, connecting our content and the marketing of courses into these deeply human impulses is a good idea.
E-learning Statistics for the Course Creator Market
So, what do e-learning statistics say about course creator activity? As you might guess, it’s on the rise. Of course, I pointed that out years ago in Leading the Learning Revolution, but growth has continued, and COVID-19 has taken things to a new level.
- Udemy claims 75,000 instructors as of November 2023 (Source) and reports that new courses created per month on the platform jumped from 3,000 in 2020 to 6,000 by April 2021 (Source).
- Skillshare, one of Udemy’s main competitors, claims 12 million registered members, 8,000 teachers and 30,000. (Source)
- Teachable claims more than 100,000 creators who have earned more than $500 million to date through courses and coaching. (Source)
- Thinkific says it is home to more than 50,000 active course creators. (Source)
- Kajabi claims 40,000+ knowledge entrepreneurs – people who mainly sell courses, but also coaching, membership, and other digital offerings. (Source)
- As might be expected, COVID had a big impact on course creators. Thinkific, for example, reported a 200% increase of course creators on its platform as a result of the pandemic. (Source)
So, how much are course creators making?
- According to the company, Teachable creators earned close to $456.7M and launched 183,744 courses in 2020. Given the company’s claim of more than 100,000 creators, that breaks down to somewhere in the range of $40K+, on average, earned per creator in 2020. Of course, this is an average, some creators are earning much more than others. (Source) Still, when you consider that in 2016 Teachable reported the average instructor made $5,000 per course launch, clearly some revenue growth is going on for creators. (Source)
- In 2020, revenue earned by Thinkific course creators surpassed $650M and was projected to surpass $1.5 billion by the end of 2021. Again, if you work back from the companies stated number of creators (50,000+), this comes out to an average of around $13K per creator in 2020. Again, this is an average – some creators are making a lot more than that, most are probably making less. (Source)
- Kajabi says that since launching in 2010, it has empowered over 40,000 knowledge entrepreneurs in 120 countries to serve 60 million students and make over $2.5 billion in sales. Again, extrapolating, this comes to an average of around $62.5 cumulatively (i.e., not just in a single year.) (Source)
- Finally, Skillshare has reported in the past that top teachers on its platform earned about $40,000 a year. (Source)
Obviously, the numbers cover a pretty wide range of potential revenue, but any way you look at it, the amounts are not trivial. Clearly there is potential for making money – even very serious money – as a course creator.
Still, like the book and music publishing industries – and, indeed, like most businesses on the Internet – there is a “winner takes all” effect where a handful of creators tend to earn the vast majority of the revenue while rest earn very little or nothing.
So, anyone planning to invest in launching and/or growing a course business really needs to identify worthwhile strategic goals in addition to direct revenue generation – like content marketing and driving prospects to other revenue sources like consulting and coaching. Maybe you’ll generate a lot of revenue from your courses, but if you don’t, at least you’ll achieve other valuable goals.
Online Course Platform Market Statistics
If you weren’t already aware of it, the information I’ve shared here should make it clear that this is a booming time for online course platforms and, more broadly, the software category of “learning management system,” or LMS, of which they are a part.
- Globally, the global LMS market is projected to grow to $29 billion by 2026. That reflects 19.1 percent growth every year after. (Source)
Course platforms are only a slice of that market, but a pretty big one that has been growing rapidly. Most of these companies are privately held, which makes it harder to get financial information about them, but here’s some of what we know about some of the major players:
- Founded in 2013 (and originally called Fedora), Teachable was acquired by Amsterdam-based Hotmart in 2020 for somewhere in the range of $250M, according to people familiar with the transaction. As TechCrunch notes in reporting on the sale, this amount “well above Teachable’s last disclosed valuation of $134 million in 2018.” (Source) Current revenue is estimated at $35.3M per year. (Source). As noted above, the company currently claims more than 100,000 creators on its platform.
- Thinkific, founded in 2012, is one of the companies covered here that has gone public, making it significantly easier to get reliable financial information about it. In its initial public offering on the Toronto Stock Exchange, Thinkific raised $129M (CAD$184 million). (Source) In the first quarter of 2021, it had 27,500 paying customers – up 115% from 12,800 paying customers in the same quarter of 2020. Revenue for the quarter was $8.3 million – which can be extrapolated out to $33.2 annually – again, up substantially (152%) over $3.3 million for the same quarter in 2020. That said, the company reported a $1M net loss for the quarter. (Source)
- Smaller (for now) than its rivals Teachable and Thinkific, LearnWorlds seems to be gaining ground. Founded in 2014 in Cyprus, but now with its headquarters in London, the company has raised $33.2M in funding. It now claims more than 4500 customers with annual revenue of more than $6.5M. (Source)
- The oldest companies in this mix, Kajabi was founded in 2010. In 2020, the company announced that customer revenue – i.e., the amount of money creators are generating in sales on the Kajabi platform – surpassed $1.1 billion for the first time. (Source) Current company revenue is estimated at $60M per year. (Source) The company claims that since its launch it has “empowered over 40,000 knowledge entrepreneurs in 120 countries to serve 60 million students and make over $2.5 billion in sales.”
- Founded in 2009, Udemy was valued at more than $3 billion in late 2020, with estimated annual revenue of more than $400M. (Source) The company, which is planning an initial public offering of its stock in 2021, claims to have the largest online course catalog available anywhere, with more than 155,000 courses. (Source). Notable, Udemy has curated 5,500 of the highest-rated technical and business courses to offer Udemy for Business, a way for selling its catalog B2B. (Source)
- Finally, Coursera, founded in 2012 and currently the largest of the MOOC platforms, exceeded expectations with its initial public offering on March 31, 2021, achieving a market valuation of more than $7 billion. (Source) While the company did see its revenue rise by 59% to $293.5 million in 2020, it still posted a net loss of $66.8 million. (Source) The company claims that “82 million learners, 100+ Fortune 500 companies, and more than 6,000 campuses, businesses, and governments come to Coursera to access world-class learning—anytime, anywhere.” (Source)
Statistics on Why E-learning Is the Future
So, as all these e-learning statistics make clear, online is big. Clearly there is an opportunity for course creators – one that online course platform companies are capitalizing on and helping to fuel. But will it all last?
Here are some stats that suggest “Yes!”
It’s Standard for Rising Generations
If you want to know what the future may look like, look at what the people who will occupy it are doing.
- By 2018, growth of online enrollments in the U.S. has increased for the 14th consecutive year, despite the fact that overall college enrollments had been declining for a decade. How people become accustomed to learning in college sets the stage for how they are likely to learn throughout adulthood. And, of course, all of this was happening before the global pandemic accelerated e-learning’s entry into the mainstream. (Source)
- According to a 2019 survey, around 63 percent of high school students in the United States use digital learning tools at school to learn every day. Again, this sets the stage for later learning. And, again, this was pre-COVID. (Source)
- Project tomorrow reported in 2019 that 66 percent of K-12 students were using and 72 percent were using cloud based collaboration tools such as G Suite for Education. Same comments as above about COVID and setting the stage for the future. (Source)
It’s (Potentially) More Environmentally Friendly
E-learning often gets touted as more “green” than traditional education. The truth is, we still need a lot more research in this area to determine the true energy costs of online learning, particularly given the energy demands of large server farms as video streaming and conferencing has become standard. Still, there are reasons to hope – and certainly as attention to global warming continues to gain ground, the focus on e-learning as a potential energy saver will grow.
- A much cited (but rarely linked to!) study by Britain’s Open University found “On average, the production and provision of the distance learning courses consumed nearly 90% less energy and produced 85% fewer CO2 emissions … than the conventional campus-based university courses. Not surprisingly, this reduction was attributed primarily to the lower need for travel. (Source)
- Back in ye old days of 2005 when the above study as published, video conferencing was not yet the juggernaut that it now is. Managing our use of video may be one of the keys to keeping elearning green. Much more recent data suggests that “if one million videoconference users kept their cameras off, they would reduce emissions by 9,023 tons of CO2 in one month, which is about as many emissions as it takes to power a town of 36,000 people over that time.” (Source)
If you have come across other e-learning statistics in this area that seem to be reliable, please share them in the comments to this post.
It’s Got Benefits Employers Like
One of the biggest drivers for participation in online learning is whether employers value it. They, after all, are often the ones footing the bills, whether by paying directly or by reimbursing employee expenses. Because learning management system (LMS) vendors know this, you’ll often see them trying to generate stats or massage existing e-learning stats in their favor.
- A 2015 report from KPMG notes that up to 60% of total employee training costs are attributed to traveling expenses alone. The same report notes that a survey of employers for increased ability to “reach” employees and cut costs – both linked to the need for travel – were the two biggest reasons for using digital learning. (Source)
- An IBM study found that every dollar invested in online training resulted in $30 in productivity. Presumably this is because e-learning can happen “in the flow of work,” allowing employees to apply what they learn much sooner than with face-to-face training. (Source) Note: Take this one with a sizeable grain of salt – IBM sells elearning technologies and services.
Done Well, It’s Effective
There’s a persistent bias out there that classroom-based education is simply more effective than e-learning. While it’s certainly true that many people prefer classroom-based, it’s been clear for decades that well-designed e-learning can be as effective or even more effective than traditional classroom instruction. (I discuss this issue extensively with my co-host in this episode of the Leading Learning podcast.)
A couple of my favorite sources for data on the effectiveness of e-learning are E-learning and the Science of Instruction, a classic book from learning scientists Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer, and “Does eLearning Work? What the Scientific Research Says!,” a review of the scientific research by Dr. Will Thalheimer. While not e-learning statistics per se, the following collection of findings from Thalheimer’s article  are based on a wealth of underlying stats and data:
- When learning methods are held constant between eLearning and classroom instruction, both produce equal results.
- When no special efforts are made to hold learning methods constant, eLearning tends to outperform traditional classroom instruction.
- A great deal of variability is evident in the research. eLearning often produces better results than classroom instruction, often produces worse results, often similar results.
- What matters, in terms of learning effectiveness, is NOT the learning modality (eLearning vs. classroom); it’s the learning methods that matter, including such factors as realistic practice, spaced repetitions, real-world contexts, and feedback.
- Blended learning (using eLearning with classroom instruction) tends to outperform classroom learning by relatively large magnitudes, probably because the e-learning used in blended learning often uses more effective learning methods.
So, while it is not an absolute given that e-learning is better, it certainly can be – and often is – better. More importantly, as Thalheimer stresses (drawing on work pioneered by Clark and Mayer), it’s the methods that matter, not the modality.
E-learning Statistics: Wrapping It All Up
So, that’s my tour of e-learning statistics for course creators and others who care about the online course creation market. Obviously, e-learning is very well established at this point – it was already being called a “juggernaut” at the time I wrote Leading the Learning Revolution.
The clear upside of where we are now with e-learning is that course creators no longer have to sell the concept. (I had to do a lot of that back I the early days!) The downside, of course, is that there’s a whole lot more noise and competition. But that’s true of any market once it matures. The statistics can tell you that the market is out there. Whether you are able to do something with that information is up to you.
Fortunately, there are sites like Learning Revolution to help you out. So, stick around and look around – you’ll find everything here from how to create an online course to how to choose the best online platform to how market and sell.
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