In my guide to online course platform selection, I stress that you really need to understand your goals before you start making decisions about a platform.
That means understanding the kinds of outcomes you aim to create for your learners and the types of activities – e.g., video tutorials, online discussions, graded assignments, live online sessions – you will need to offer to achieve those outcomes.
It also means understanding the outcomes you are trying to create for your business. For example, will you have a very “high touch” relationship with your learners, or are you aiming to created a highly automated selling and delivery machine? Are you prepared to drive all demand for your courses yourself, or does it make more sense for you to host them in a marketplace platform like Udemy?
All of the above is likely to vary by what type of learning business you are – and will impact the type of online course platform you need.
So, it’s really important to spend some time thinking, taking notes, and developing a clear vision for your business before you go platform shopping. Otherwise you are almost certain to get distracted by all the bells and whistles, confused by all of the options, and bogged down in “paralysis by analysis.” I see it all the time.
And yet …
… at some point you do need to become familiar with (or refresh your knowledge of) what online course platforms can actually do for you if you are going to pick the right one to meet your goals. To help streamline that process, this post suggests one platform to vet in each of the categories I have defined (and which countless bloggers now copy me on):
- Extended Enterprise
Each of these offers either a free trial or a free version. I consider each to be one of the best, if not the best in its class. I recommend carving out an hour to try out each of them. That may sound like a lot of time, but you can knock it out in one work week just by blocking out an hour a day on your calendar. And, let’s face it: this is an important choice. It is important and worth it to invest some time in it.
So, here are the online course platform free trials I suggest:
I view “standalones” as hosted platforms geared toward solo edupreneurs or small businesses that want a turnkey way to create their own branded site to sell online courses. They tend to be significantly less complicated than traditional learning management systems (LMSes) and provide a friendlier experience both for end users and administrators. As a trade-off, most do not conform with established e-learning standards like SCORM and xAPI. (You’ll have to decide whether that matters for you.) They also don’t tend to have the same level of depth in areas like testing, continuing education credit, and reporting that more sophisticated platforms will have.
Thinkific has been my go-to choice in this category for many years. The company was one of the earlier entrants into the market and has managed to grow significantly and rapidly without having to take on venture capital. The feature set and pricing are very representative of what you can expect in this category, which also included companies like Teachable, LearnWorlds, and Podia.
Thinkific has a free plan that gives you access to its most fundamental features, and there are also options like this one that I offer to get free access to it’s Pro plan for a limited time.
All-in-ones provide everything you need not just to create and sell online courses, but also to manage your full Web presence. They combine elements of a Web content management system (CMS) with marketing and customer relationship management tools (CRM). While some of the standalone platforms have started to move in this direction, I don’t think any of them have really reached a point where I would rely on them as my home base Web site. With all-in-ones, I would.
Kajabi is arguably the all-in-one against which all other must compete, so it is easily your best point of reference and comparison in this category. You can try Kajabi for free for 14 days – not a lot of time, but enough to get a good feel for how much this powerful all-in-one platform can do.
The WordPress category is becoming trickier all the time, as there are a number of WordPress-based platforms – like, for example, CourseCats and AccessAlly – that are starting to look a lot more like Standalone or even All-in-Ones. Really, if you combine WordPress software with a course platform/LMS plug-in, you do have an all-in-one solution, but one that comes with the incredible flexibility and (for many) the significant learning curve that can go along with using WordPress at more than a rudimentary level.
If you decide the plug-in route is for you, there are a bunch you can find and try for free just by searching on “LMS” (for “learning management system) under Plug-Ins > Add New. LifterLMS is one of these, but I strongly suggest going a step further and paying $1 for 30-day access to the most comprehensive version of Lifter. (The company does not automatically charge you to continue after 30 days.) That way you will get a sense of the full range of features that is available for a top notch WordPress course plug-in. (I also consider LearnDash a top-notch WordPress LMS plug-in, but unfortunately the company does not offer a free trial.)
I coined the the term “marketplace” years ago to describe online course platforms that, in addition to providing ways to author/assemble courses, also provide an existing marketplace in which to sell online courses. While that can sound really attractive, you have to be cautious with this category. First, some of them don’t really have all that much of an audience. Second, you often give up a great deal of control over pricing and user data. In general, the bigger the audience a marketplace platform has, the less control you are likely to have.
The go-to option in this category for most edupreneurs is Udemy. It doesn’t cost anything to sign up to teach on Udemy and the company does have very good support for helping instructors create and sell courses. Really, even if you have no intention of putting your courses into a marketplace platform, it is worth signing up for Udemy and trying out all of the tools there just to build your knowledge about what good course platforms can do.
Extended Enterprise: TalentLMS
Platforms in this category are a good fit for business that want all of the capabilities of a traditional corporate LMS (which are generally much more sophisticated than the other types of platforms covered here), but also need to be able to sell courses (which the vast majority of traditional corporate LMSes do not support well or at all).
While these types of platform have always been the choice of serious training catalog vendors, the category has grown a lot in recent years as more companies have wanted to use the same platform to train employees and sell content to customers and partners. (This is what is meant by “extended enterprise.”)
That’s it. Like I said, take the time to do all five of the online course platform free trials and you will have a really solid understanding of what a platform can do for you.
Of course, I’ll stress again that you need to start with getting clear about your business and learning objectives and, as part of that, be sure to grab my free online course platform guide.
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