The Market for Online Courses

By Jeff Cobb.  Last Updated on December 9, 2022

Market for online courses - chart of 7 top trends

If you are in the business of selling online courses and/or other learning experiences – it pays to know what the market landscape looks like in the foreseeable future. Without that kind of foresight, it’s impossible to be strategic and plan effectively for the coming year.

So, what can you expect in the evolving market for online courses?

The global e-learning market is projected to reach USD 390.6 billion by 2026, growing by 11.7% annually. (GMD Research). Within that overall market, the self-paced online learning market – one of the main areas of interest to aspiring course creators – is estimated to be worth $15.86 billion in 2021 in the U.S. alone. (Source: Statista)

In addition to those numbers, consider that the online course marketplace Udemy currently claims more than 40 million learners – and it’s just one of dozens of large course sites that have been growing rapidly in recent years.

In general, the overall market for online courses is booming and will continue to boom. But, of course, the fact that the market is booming in general doesn’t mean that you specifically will get a slice of it just by publishing an online course or two. It sort of felt like that for a while, but – to quote Bob Dylan – “the times they are a changin’.”

One of the high level shifts I’ve seen in consulting with education businesses over the past couple of years is that the market for online courses is clearly becoming more sophisticated. Learners have a lot more experience with e-learning and their expectation have risen. To the extent you are selling business-to-business (B2B), employers also have much higher expectations.

And, of course, a number of new approaches and new technologies – from microlearning to artificial intelligence – have come along to change what is possible with online learning. Basically, we are quickly moving past the days when throwing some videos and a quiz or two onto a lightweight online course platform will work.

So how will education businesses focus their efforts. Or, in other words, what will you be competing with?

At my firm Tagoras, we recently conducted a survey in which 234 education providers told us the key areas they will be focused in coming years. Respondents represented a wide range of providers – from solopreneurs, to trade and professional associations, to academic continuing education providers.  The focus was not purely on the market for online courses, but the responses clearly apply to online course sellers. The chart at the beginning of this post illustrates the 7 areas (out of 15 we asked about) that will get the most attention:

  • Design and delivery of higher-quality or higher-impact learning experiences
  • Increased efforts to gather and analyze data to inform new product decisions or improve existing products
  • Increased efforts to gather and analyze data that demonstrates the impact or effectiveness of the learning experiences we offer
  • Creation of learning experiences that blend online elements with face-to-face elements
  • Microlearning opportunities
  • Creation of social, informal, or peer-to-peer learning experiences
  • Providing a personalized learning experience

We identified three key trends flowing out of these areas – again, all of these apply to the market for online courses:

Context will rule content

Providers of learning experiences are thinking much more about quality, about how they can leverage data about their learners to deliver more value, and about how to personalize learning experiences. Shaping and supporting the learner’s context is becoming as or more important than just providing content.

For online course sellers, this trend has a number of implications. It means, for example:

  • Really taking the time to understand your audience’s needs as part of your initial market validation and as part of piloting your courses
  • Finding ways to go beyond the “one and done” transactional model that is the default approach for so many online course platforms. How can you add meaningful social elements – discussion, chat, live mentoring sessions – that help make the experience as targeted and relevant as possible for each learner? How can you curate content to help supplement your course experiences and create more value?

Those are just some suggestions for starters. In general, my view is that membership models, in which course experiences are housed within an overall community, are going to become more important than ever. This is one reason I am high on platforms like BuddyBoss.

Impact is imperative

I’ve written about this before – and it was a big focus of Leading the Learning Revolution– but impact is really starting to matter. Course buyers have more choices than ever before and they are increasingly interested in what works, what’s actually going to help them achieve the learning outcomes they are seeking from a course experiene.

I’ve heard this directly from the thousands of learners I have surveyed and interviewed; I hear it from employers; and the chart above shows that learning businesses are much more focused on impact. There are two obvious ways in which impact will play out:

  • In marketing: impact matters from the very start of the customer journey. You need good testimonials and, where possible, data showing that learners have been positively transformed by your offerings
  • In product development:delivering impact means, of course, designing for impact. Make sure you follow a high quality course design process like this one that will ensure you produce measurable results.

Talent will be tough

Finally, talent will be a bigger and bigger issue – as in finding the people who know how to create and facilitate the kind of learning experiences that create real impact.

If you are a solo edupreneur, that probably means investing more in yourself, learning much more about effective learning design, about measuring outcomes, about marketing effectively – and/or finding the right contractors to help you in these areas.

If you employ others, it means investing in and adding to your staff – or, again, finding the right contractors.

Finding great contract help isn’t easy, but at least there are good places to look. Take your time, conduct thorough interviews with the best candidates, ask them to complete sample projects. It’s worth it to find people you can rely on over time.

The Long Game

A few years ago, none of the factors above were as critical – especially in the market for online courses. The competition was lower; the expectations of learners and other decision makers were lower. It wasn’t easy, but it was definitely easier. These days, it’s a new game, and only those who are ready for it (or just plain lucky!) will win.

Keep in mind, though, that everything above is an ongoing effort. Even if you can make a big leap forward in the short term, long-term success as an edupreneur will require continually dedicating time and resources to each of these areas and continuing to improve them incrementally over time.

Do that, and even as the list of the latest trends changes, your your market for online courses will remain strong.

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