Why You Should Take, and Even Maybe Teach, an Online Course

The Internet is full of cat videos, bad lip readings, and hilarious memes. All good things, of course. But, believe it or not, there’s actually some useful stuff online, too.

Chalkboard and classroom
Photo Credit: insomniac via Compfight cc

When I set out to start my own online course, I didn’t know much about online education. All I knew was I wanted to deliver a quality learning experience to my readers that went beyond the scope of my blog. And that was about it.

Then in an interview, I heard entrepreneur Ramit Sethi say that before you can charge a certain amount for a information product, you better be willing to pay that much. In this case, he was saying, “Don’t charge $2000 for a course until you spend $2000 and see what a $2000 product looks like.”

So, I started signing up for online courses. And boy, did I learn some things.

The Internet has changed education

This is not like when you were in college and the professor gave you a long, complicated URL to remember to post a weekly assignment. And it’s not like those foreign language correspondence classes you took in high school because no one in your small town taught Latin.

Things have changed. Big time. Now, an online course can be comparable to a real, live educational experience. In fact, sometimes it’s even better.

Let’s say you didn’t go to college. Or maybe like a lot of people you got a degree in one field of study and then figured out what you actually wanted to do. What now?

Well, you used to have two options:

  • Go back to school and get your degree. In other words, return to the system that didn’t work in the first place.
  • Read a lot of books and teach yourself (AKA the Good Will Hunting route).

Number 1 is often expensive and doesn’t guarantee you success in the marketplace (which is usually why people go this route). And Number Two is hard. it doesn’t work for people who need a teacher, someone to walk them through the process (and that’s most of us).

So what’s there left to do? Until a few years ago, nothing.

5 reasons to get serious about online learning

The web is exploding with legitimate, online education opportunities. But, you wonder, how can I trust this whole Internet thing with all its cat videos and memes? Good question.

Here are five reasons why you should get serious about online education:

  1. Online courses are less expensive. For a fraction of the cost, you can now get a University-level learning experience taught by industry experts. That is, if you take the right kind of classes (I’ll talk more about that in a minute).
  2. Online courses are more results-oriented. Since you’re likely giving money to someone you’ve never met, online educators are motivated to help you get the results you want (instead of simply teaching dry theory). Their reputations are on the line, after all.
  3. Technology makes the experience of an online course more exciting. Instead of attending a couple 45-minute lectures per week, you now get worksheets, discussion forums, and interactive presentations.
  4. The classrooms are cooler. You no longer have to grab a sack lunch and spend a half-day at your local community college, sitting in a cold, dimly-lit room. You can go attend class right in your living room — whenever you want.
  5. You get to keep the course. This might be my favorite reason. As opposed to traditional education where you the only keepsakes you get are the overpriced textbook and a three-ring notebook full of illegible scribbles, many online courses let you keep a lot of the course material (including the lessons).

If you haven’t considered taking an online course, I seriously think you should. But, and this is important, don’t just sign up for any class that comes along. There’s a lot of swindlers out there (who probably made the cat videos).

Criteria for a good online course

Here’s what to look for:

  • Credentials. Has the teacher achieved what she claims she has an expertise in? In other words, if you’re taking a course on how to get published, is a published author teaching it? Or at least someone who has had real-life experience in that industry? If other marks of legitimacy (i.e. licenses and such) are needed for what you want to learn, make sure she has those, too.
  • Testimonials. What do other students say about the course? Don’t just read the landing page copy, though; find some people who have gone through the class and will give you their honest opinion.
  • Access to the teacher. This is up to you, but I recommend taking a course that gives you some personal access to the teacher. That may mean live video chats or conference calls with other students. Or it could be personal email access when you get stuck. It really depends on the teacher and the material.
  • Discussion opportunities. One of the best parts of an online course is the opportunity to connect with other students who are going through the same experience as you (this is the best part of any educational experience). Does the course have a forum or Facebook group, a place to ask questions and get help from their peers?
  • Refund policy. Just like with college, there should be an initial period of time in which you have the freedom to drop your class, if it isn’t what you’d hoped. A 30- to 60-day money-back guarantee is pretty standard.

Notice that I didn’t include price in this list of criteria, and there’s a reason for that. There is no set standard for what an online course should cost. Many four-week courses are $200–$500, but then others range for six to 12 months may cost thousands of dollars.

It depends on your field and what kind of value you place on the information. Just know that taking this course online is typically going to be cheaper than paying for it in person.

“I could do better…”

If you’ve ever taken an online course, you may have noticed that there are some skunks out there.

One thing I noticed is these classes weren’t always worth my money or what I was expecting. There was a lot of hype at the front end, but then when it came time to take the class, the quality was sub-par.

This disappointed and frustrated me. It seemed like some people were using their marketing savviness to take advantage of people who really wanted to learn. I kept saying to myself, “I could do better.”

So one day, I did.

If you find yourself saying the same thing, maybe you should, too. Because it’s not enough to simply say things should be better. Sometimes, we have to be the change we want to see in the world (someone wise said that, I think).

Sometimes, our frustration is a sign of what we ought to be doing.

Have you ever taken an online course? What was your experience? Share in the comments.

73 thoughts on “Why You Should Take, and Even Maybe Teach, an Online Course

  1. Hi, Jeff! I signed up for your course yesterday and went through a couple of the lessons. It is VERY interactive even when you’re doing it on your own, you’re right when you told me that yesterday. I’m surprised it isn’t just “Okay, read this and you’re done.” It challenges you to work through it and ask for feedback. 

  2. Hi Jeff,
    Internet has made many things possible.Online education has became popular now a days.For Instance if you are confused of certain topics in your Homework you can browse online For free PDF,EBooks,..etc.They helps us in Better understanding and Online Videos  has made our work too easy .

  3. I have taken online courses and teach online accounting at Baker University. I also review other teachers classes for Baker. What I have found is most classes lack the Michael Hyatt Wow factor. They are just online correspondence courses (dates me) and self taught.

    A quality class is made better with creative, effective videos and verbal podcasts. Discussion can actually be better than a ground class. You have more time to process quality posts and comments. A good online instructor drives that being active in discussion boards; driving the conversation forward (but not dominating the conversation). You know…being a good teacher!

    Good luck on your course Jeff! Enjoyed you segment at Platform University too.

  4. Hi Jeff, 
    I have a very positive attitude to online courses.I’ve taken a post-grad course with the University of Leicester and a course in the Methodology for online teaching with the University of London as well as writing courses with the Universities of Oxford and East Anglia. For the last five years I’ve been running online courses myself. I teach Business English and Academic English using email and Skype and if one is prepared to work very hard then I believe it is well worth while. One meets very interesting people from all over the world and, as with all teaching, one learns a great deal as one teaches.

    Good luck and very best wishes,


  5. I finally had the chance to sign up for you Tribe Writers class, and so far I’m loving it! You came along at the right time in my writing career to help me figure out who my tribe is, how to discover my voice, and so much more that would have taken me years, if ever, to figure out.  Thank you!

  6. I signed up and took a “Grammar Refresher” course about halfway through your course. It was offered through my local community college, but not taught by them.

    It was a six-week course and lessons were released twice a week. There was a student board to connect with the teacher and the class members.

    You could not study a lesson until it was released, and the older lessons were closed for comments after a set period of time.

    You could save the lessons to your computer, and you could ask the teacher a question about an old lesson – in the new lesson area which was very confusing.

    The material was useful, but it was still a lot like reading a textbook with some links to places on the Web I could have accessed for free that was more interesting.

    I also tried working on a master’s degree online which was all reading texts. No student interaction. You could e-mail your student adviser. I don’t learn that way. So, I only completed five courses.

    In your course, on the other hand, one doesn’t have to wait for a set time to go to the next lesson, has audio recordings of experts in the field, in-depth audios covering questions students asked about each module, and has better interactive features for students to work with each other.

    Schools have a long way to go to get into the online market, and make it better.

    Eva P. Scott

  7. Great post. There are definitely some bad ones out there. Yours has been great. Keep up the great work! And, again, you are challenging me to do something I know needs to be done, just like with writing my ebook. Thanks for always challenging us!

  8. Thanks for the post Jeff, I loved the thinking.  As someone who had a great time in college, learning a ton of stuff, on a full-ride scholarship, without a *cough* degree to show for it, I understand the value of learning and applying the learnings.  Sometimes a degree isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, at least for some of us.  

    Regardless, I love what you do and I look forward to participating in Tribe Writers.  

  9. I have taken many online classes and love them. They are not all great, but many are. 

    I have also been leading my own classes since fall and have found my passion. The instant access, lack of bureaucracy, and deep connection I have with my participants is truly rewarding!

    Here is my latest class. 

    Mama Scout

  10. I have taken online classes and I hate them. 

    I don’t mind totally self paced programs with video teaching and exercises but online college classes I found beyond annoying. 

    I will always be a student but what and how I pursue education and knowledge will not be laid out by a cookie cutter curriculum that requires me to spend money on and endure classes that have nothing to do with my goal. 

  11. Jeff, I was in your recent Tribe Writers course and loved the format and information. It was enough info and encouragement to keep you going, but not too much to make you feel overwhelmed. Also, I feel it was priced in a good range, and you more than delivered on the value.

    I have also signed up for a couple of other online courses. I purchased Michael Hyatt’s Get Published! course which had a lot of valuable information. (This wasn’t really a course so much as it was just a product you can purchase.) For the past several weeks I have been in Danny Iny’s Audience Business Masterclass, which was several hundred dollars, and a TON of work, but well worth it if you’re serious about building an online business. 

    I also enrolled in Michael Hyatt’s Platform University, which I think is $25/month. It’s pretty new, but the content so far has been good. (Jeff, I saw you have some content on there as well!)As a full-time college prof, it has been interesting to take online courses and compare the experience to my own, both as a teacher and a student. There are some benefits to traditional education, but you really can’t beat online courses for price, focus, and learning certain sets of practical skills. 

  12. I’ve done some university level courses through Coursera (coursera.org). So far I’ve completed four courses and am about to finish a fifth. The range of subjects they offer is mind boggling and the quality is in my experience quite high, both impressive factors given their classes are free. 

    I think one of the under-rated benefits of online courses is the diversity in teachers and fellow students. When I went to a traditional university almost all my classmates were within a few years of my age and the majority grew up in the same country which meant there often wasn’t much diversity in views expressed . When I took a sociology course on Coursera, I got to learn from classmates from a huge variety of countries, ages and life experiences which gave a much richer perspective on the social issues we are discussing. The course I’m taking on mental health at the moment is especially interesting because the lecturer works within a different health system and culture to mine. 

    I also really appreciate the option to take your time with discussions in online courses. In a traditional course, you have to come up with everything you want to discuss within the space of a one or two hour tutorial once a week, think of responses on the spot and often can’t talk at length because other students have stuff to say. In an online course you can spend as long as you want pulling your thoughts together, can come back to the discussion later if you think of something else relevant to say and can let discussions unfold over the course of days and weeks. 

  13. Jeff,
    I totally agree with your concept. I have taken several university level courses via the Internet, but I they have not been as effective as specialized courses from bloggers and other professionals. I believe formal education is important, but there are a lot of quality programs ,like yours and Michael Hyaty’s Platform University, that really enhance the platforms of today’s thought leaders.

  14. Still working through Tribe Writers and love all the elements. You hold your members and yourself to high standards. I have had mostly good experiences online. In fact, better than I’ve expected. I have had a couple of experiences where the connection among class members was lacking. Also, if you’re not self-motivated and able to organize your time well, an online course can go on without you! 

  15. Hi Jeff,

    I have taken a couple of online courses and been pleased with the quality and experience.  And it’s funny that you posted on this today because I have just started my own online course in how to write picture books (you can see it at https://susannahill.blogspot.com/p/making-picture-book-magic.html if you’re interested.)  What I’m wondering is how to get the word out effectively that it exists?  I worked hard to make it affordable and accessible.  The response so far has been very positive.  But I don’t really know how to spread the word beyond my own little sphere…

    1. Susanna, I know this great teacher who could help you spread your ideas. He started an on-line class called Tribe Writers. His name is Jeff Goins. I was in his first class last year. You can read about why his class rocks here https://www.ipaintiwrite.com/2013/03/10/how-far-would-you-drive-to-meet-a-pen-pal/

      xo Pamela

  16. I’ve been working with iTunes U for the past three years as it applies to K-12 education. iTunes U courses are free, which is a great selling point. The iTunes U catalog is vast and full of quality courses on almost any topic from top institutions like Stanford and Open University, as well as a number of incredible teachers from schools all over the world. The caveat is that iTunes U courses currently lack a built in discussion tool, which I know is something learners value. Still, it’s free, high-quality course material that you can download and explore. Plus, you can create your own courses for free using Apple’s Course Manager tool. If you use a Mac, you can build iBooks with iBooks Author and insert them into your course. More info: https://www.apple.com/education/itunes-u/

  17. Great stuff Jeff. I think we all eventually want to create an online course. Someday I will. 

    I have spent thousands of dollars on courses over the last 4-5 years and I have been disappointed by some of them. They were not excellent material at all. I have also found some  of the material to be more than their weight in gold. 

    I don’t regret the money I have spent, because it was a learning curve. I am just glad that I have learned from the past mistakes and what to look for when spending my money in the future. I am glad that I have signed up for Tribe Writers and look forward to becoming the writer… the artist… I am. 

    This post also got me thinking about the online courses. The people that I trust recommend other courses that they have taken and trust. What I need to do is stop spending money and only doing half the stuff then moving on to another course. I need to commit to one at a time. College would have been easier for me if I could have done it that way and not feel pressured to take 5 subjects at once. 

    So today… I commit to Brett University and creating a curriculum of learning courses that I would like to go through. Courses that I need to take toward my personal freedom. One at a time. It starts with Tribe Writers. Thanks for creating and sharing it. 

    Thanks for the encouragement, and thanks for being Brave!

  18. Uh, you’re killing me Smalls. Really wish I’d heard of Seth Godin and read these words before getting into $50K of student loan debt for an MBA.

    “In other words, return to the system that didn’t work in the first place.”

    But, the silver lining is that I’ve learned the lesson and am well on the road to awesome. Thanks for continually pouring writing wisdom out into the blogosphere.

  19. I’ve been teaching online for eight years and train teachers to teach online. It’s got it’s upsides and it’s downsides – but so does the faced-2-face classroom. I’ve been taking Jeff’s TribeWriters course and it’s been fantastic. One of his resources on Kindle Publishing completely changed the trajectory of a major project I had been working on for months. The learning community is active; my only regret is that I’m working on my Masters Project (on online learning of all things) and wish I had more time to invest in the course.

  20. I’m a college instructor and I taught qnline courses for several years.  I made a decision to stop teaching online.  Why?  1.  Online teaching is more time consuming from an instructor’s  point of view.  2.  The online platforms still have glitches.  Once, the entire class’s midterms disappeared into cyberspace.  3. Face-to-face teaching provides immediate feedback and lends itself to more Socratic methods of teaching.

    That said, from a student’s perspective there are several benefits such as: 1. Freedom, 2. learning online skills as well as the subject.  The technical issues in online educational platforms have improved in the last few years.  I may teach online again, but I do so many other online activities right now that I’ve decided it’s not the time.

  21. Thanks for sharing this post. I will be sure to take this all into consideration when I am creating my online cours about self-publishing.
    Deborah H. Bateman-Author

  22. Internet appears to do for the world to change.internet link people together even in anywhere.Is a tool to learn about everything, about everything.We have a saying “do not know, just ask google”.In education, the internet is a good tool for education.

  23. Great points Jeff! I consider myself a lifelong learner. I want to eventually develop a online course to teach others about leadership and how to build a thriving community.

  24. I think for a lot of people online course are great and it is changing how we learn but I’ve joined a few but like in a real class there are those that do it and just as many that fall off and I am one of those latter types. I find it hard to stay motivated in online courses because they feel so disconnected from reality, it’s not that I don’t see the value or that I don’t want to do them but even the free ones I have registered for just end up in a bucket that I never go back to and I am not sure how to change that.

      1. I think with the right motivation within and from the instructor and class they can be very powerful and having all these options is never back but it does get hard to wade through the sheer number of courses you could take which could cause decision paralysis if your not careful.

  25. Jeff I took 3 of your courses. Loved them all. Finish 2 of them. And in a month will finish the 3rd one Tribe Writers. The advantage of live in personal courses is you have a start and end date. Like both.

  26. I watched the webinar on Saturday, Jeff, as per your suggestion. It was well worth the time! Thanks for sharing and for always staying curious and encouraging your audience to do the same.

  27. I really like the idea of online courses for learning specific skills, but to be honest, I’m a little nettled by how you seem to knock traditional education. My upper-division English courses were some of the best experiences of my life — and what’s more, I learned extremely practical skills (in critical analysis, communication, and writing) that I’ve applied for high effect to my professional work since then.

    1. Awesome, Nathan! So glad to hear that. It is not what I usually hear from people who have pursued traditional education as a practical means to finding a career.

    2. Nathan you were really blessed, educationally-speaking. I started college on campus. 3 courses in, they closed the campus and went totally online. That shook me up but the next 2 classes went well, the professors were very helpful. Then I got to one of the higher math classes, statistics/calculus/graphing all in one. The professor in that class would not help anyone so out of 50+ students, all with 3.5 or better GPA’s, only 23 made a B = no A’s. He did not try to help us and his student reviews were so bad they let him go but I had washed out by then, so had my self-esteem.

  28. Good insights. I am taking your Tribe Course and have implemented half a dozen strategies and actions into my own blog and books. I was also impressed with the comprehensive detail in each section. I committed and secured a WP.org site vs .WP.com sites I have been on for years. Got Blue Host and your Theme. It is all paying off. Going pro was an awakening experience. Carpe diem…

  29. I will create an online course in the near future. I plan on taking the Zen Habits course to see how Leo does things. That said, I already have taught online as a college professor. Online learning is not for everybody. Failure rate is about higher 20% in online than face to face.

  30. “This disappointed and frustrated me. It seemed like some people were
    using their marketing savviness to take advantage of people who really
    wanted to learn. I kept saying to myself, ‘I could do better’.”

    My own experience was being approached (in person and via e-mail) each time I spoke about writing at the Financial Bloggers Conference. Many comments were along the lines of “I want to be a better writer but I don’t know how.”

    I wound up creating a course specifically about better blog writing. Not SEO tips, not how much to charge for sponsored posts, not how to find free photos — just how to create effective and evocative work, come up with a continuous stream of ideas, avoid burnout and the like.

    Turned out to be great fun to share what I’ve learned from 30-plus years (more than eight of them online) of making a living as a writer. Also a great challenge, i.e., another thing I didn’t know I could do!

      1. Enjoyed meeting you, too. Right now I’m in South Jersey, sweltering during a visit to my dad and brother. Tomorrow night I’ll be back in Anchorage, just in time for the predicted “sticking” snow.

  31. I enjoyed Danny´s webinar. What you say makes so much sense. My problem is that I live in a small country (Finland) and what works in the US, might not work here quite the same way. My website is bi-lingual but I am focusing on Finnish content now. I am hesitating buying the course, firstly because I live in another time-zone which could complicate things. To get 2000USD in 60 days in this country could be a challenge as there are only 5 million Finnish speaking people on the entire globe : ) I also do find the course quite pricey. I understand that there is a lot of substance. Could it be too extensive? I am a bit tired of learning new stuff (all I have ever done in my life is studying, up to a PhD) and would just like to get on with things. I wish there was a course that just walked me through the selling and marketing. But I have a book coming in January (in Finnish) and I am writing another one (e-book, in English). I am hoping the books will boost demand for my content as there hopefully will be publicity.

    But anyway – thanks for the thought provoking webinar. All the best. Kati from Finland

    1. Hi Kati, there’s tons of course for sales and marketing. I recommend checking out the library videos at Hubspot.com. They’re mainly for inbound marketing, and they’re free. Good luck!

    2. That’s certainly something to consider, Kati. But in terms of getting support and the time-zone matter, you shouldn’t worry that much, I’m sure it could still work out. Do you know about Copyblogger’s Authority? They have invaluable stuff for marketing that could be of help and use – there are free resources you can get access to by signing up, and I think as of today, Authority is closed for new memberships (for the paid membership) and will re-open again in the beginning of 2016. Perhaps that could be of interest to you?

  32. Thanks, Jeff for the article about online education. You gave some selection criteria. But in the final analysis, selection comes down to intuition. Sure, it’s great to have some form of direct access to a teacher, but the quality of that interaction is unknown ’till you do it. As for testimonials, how do I know it they are legit, or if someone else’s experience will match mine?

    1. Good question, Don. I think it is a little bit of faith, which is where the refund policy comes in. Read the testimonials and see if they connect with what you’re looking for, then take a leap. And if it doesn’t fit, request a refund.

  33. I’d love to teach an online course, but I’m not sure if could. First, I don’t know if I have time and second, would anyone actually pay to learn what I know? It may sound silly, but I feel like Russian, writing, and doing crafts aren’t necessarily the most useful things. 😉

    1. You’d be surprised how many different things people would like to learn, Natalie. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a million blogs and courses on writing, marketing, languages, personal growth a.o. Not to mention the courses offered on these.

      Russian is a challenging language, and writing and crafts also have their perks, so if these are the things you love and know you can teach to people who’re willing to learn, all that’s left is finding out if there’s interest. There’s certainly value you can add and make your course stand out. 🙂

      Also, doing a pilot course, like Danny Iny suggests is a great way testing the water. I highly recommend watching the webinar, there’s a lot of good stuff he talks about. (As for the time factor, I can absolutely relate. But I really hope you can make some in the near future.)

      1. Thanks, Ralitsa! That’s really nice of you to say. 🙂 I will have to plan a Russian course at some point (I think that would be the most fun to do). Unfortunately, time is an issue… Hopefully after I earn the certification I’m working on right now, I’ll have a bit more time.

  34. I want to take the book I’m working on and make an online course with it. I loved Danny’s webinar, but I just can’t afford that much for a course right now. Any less expensive options you can recommend, Jeff?

  35. I have taken and taught online courses at universities. Technology is changing education. It’s a growing field with lots of opportunity. However, I do find it interesting that a lot of the “tips” I have seen in online courses not at a university are still teaching the same things you learn about writing in college. The more things change . . .

  36. What are some tips to leading an online course? I am in Toastmasters and learning to speak more fluently. I might decide to give it some time before doing something bold, but if I did lead one, what are some aspects I should keep in mind?

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