How to Start an Online School in 2022

/ 15 min read
Martin Gessner

Anyone who has ever driven a child to school can understand the advantages of skipping the commute and opting for an online school. And while there are online options for kids, the opportunities for adult remote learning are virtually endless. More and more people are looking for new skills and hobbies to learn in the comfort of their own homes.

And thanks to advances in technology, it's never been easier to share your knowledge with students around the world. Online schools are cheap to set up, and can offer nearly limitless earning potential if you find success. If you're thinking about giving teaching virtually a try, now is a great time to do it.

In this step-by-step guide, we'll take you through everything you need to know to start your own online school and give you examples you can follow for inspiration.

Why you should start an online school

The elearning market has been growing rapidly for the past 20 years. In that time, uptake has increased 900%, with forecasts suggesting online learning will be worth a staggering $350 billion by 2025.

When the COVID-19 pandemic came along and forced many of us to work and learn from home, it added a rocket beneath this already exponential growth. Now there's an additional segment of workers retraining or adapting to new ways of working, alongside the usual fare of folks looking to learn skills and hobbies in a flexible online environment.

With such a wide audience, there's an opportunity to teach literally anything. From web development and baking to languages and how to play certain video games, the briefest look at any elearning platform shows the diversity of subjects being offered.

"The end result? If you've got expertise on a certain subject and want to share it with potential students there will be an audience eagerly waiting for you. Demand is high; supply is low. All you need to do is set your business in motion."

The 3 main delivery modes of online schools

The flexibility of online learning extends to the way content is delivered. There are three main course structures you can adopt, each with a different pricing structure:

  • The night school model: Students pay a one-time fee for access to course content. This usually consists of different learning modules and is supported by assessments, quizzes and exams to confirm successful completion. This delivery mode is what most people picture when they think about online learning.
  • The academy model: Students pay a subscription for access to a vast library of courses, videos and learning materials covering multiple parts of a broad subject. Often it will also include live Q&A sessions, community features and one-on-one sessions with instructors. This model is about creating a long-term resource that learners can return to over a sustained period.
  • The combined model: As the name suggests, the combined model is a mixture of Night School and Academy. Students pay a subscription fee for initial access to your online school, with an option to purchase additional courses and resources for a one-time fee.

Which one should you choose? It mostly comes down to the subject of your expertise. For example, fitness courses lend themselves to the academy and combined models as there is no definitive 'end point' for students, whereas a course on Astrophysics lends itself to the traditional night school mode.

đź’ˇ Tip: Purely based on revenue potential, the subscription business model adds the most monetary reward. It allows you to generate consistent monthly revenue and shift focus to building a loyal customer base, rather than needing to constantly acquire new ones.

How to Start an Online School in 7 Steps

An online school is no different from any other business venture. It doesn't 'just happen'. There are steps to take in order to create your virtual learning environment, build an audience and set your school up for sustained success.

Step 1: define your expertise

Start by asking yourself two questions:

  1. What do I want to teach?
  2. What am I qualified to teach?

You need to strike a balance between these. You may want to teach a crash course in computer animation because you love Pixar films and think it'll make a lot of money, but if you've got no qualifications or experience, it just won't work.

Rather, think about what you excel at. It may be linked to your career, or it might be a hobby that you've picked up and built expertise in over many years. You don't have to have a university degree in the subject, but you need to have some unique knowledge about the field.

The chances are this will come quite naturally. Oftentimes, the motivation to start an online school or elearning course develops after you've already been mentoring individuals or an audience over some period of time, and are looking to take the next step.  

Step 2: create course outline

You should be an expert in the topic you teach, and already know the courses you will offer and the curriculum. Don’t pick a topic you think will be popular and try to “wing it”. Stick to what you know you can offer solid advice on, and focus your course creation on that.

After deciding what you want your online school to focus on, you have to create a course outline. This will serve as a guide for you and your potential students.

To help you create a more detailed course structure, break the course down like so:

Introduction

  • Course title, content description, and objective
  • Learning outcomes
  • Instructions

Module one: topic 1

  • Objective
  • Instructions
  • Main points

Learning methods

  • Lecture
  • Readings
  • Assignments

In addition to writing out your modules, write down the time you’ll allot for teaching each subtopic. That way, you can organize your tasks better and be more efficient.

The length of the course will depend on the topic you are teaching. The average length of an online course varies from five to nine weeks, but you can decide how long it'll be. Be sure to break down the outline with your timeline in mind, taking care to give each area the attention it requires.

In addition to a course outline, you may want to create a syllabus. A syllabus will express the guidelines and expectations for your course, as well as any materials, like textbooks or journals, students will need.

đź’ˇ Tip: While making your outline and syllabus, you should reflect on your teaching methods. Will you deliver all the content via recorded video or run live classes, for instance? Will you mostly lecture or will you break students into groups for discussions? Will there be exams or essays? All these elements are important to consider.

Step 3: test your curriculum

If you’ve never run an online class before or tested your curriculum, I recommend applying the Lean Startup methodology to your project. This methodology is based on the idea that first you validate your hypothesis before investing resources in the project.

In the case of your online school, that means testing two variables:

1.    Are there people interested in the new course you are offering?

2.    Is your course good enough that graduates would recommend it?

These points are critical. In order to avoid wasting your (and your students') time and money, it's essential to do all the preparation you can to make sure that you are able to run a successful class that people are interested in and might benefit from.  

You could try and gather this data by offering your course for free to a small number of students. These students would benefit by getting a preview of the course, and you would benefit from the practice, and getting valuable feedback from the alumni.

If you do choose to charge these first students, you could get creative with other ways to thank them for taking a chance on you, like reduced rates or covering the costs of course materials. (You might even ask family and friends to complete it as a favour.)

Once you’ve completed the course with your first set of students, it's time to review the results. You’ll probably find that you have lots of ideas on how to improve the curriculum. That’s a positive outcome. You can take those learnings and utilize them to improve your course for the next set of students.

💡 Tip: Make sure to monitor the completion rate of your course closely, especially if you’re not holding live classes. A low completion rate is a sign that something in your course outline or syllabus isn't connecting with people, and offers you an opportunity to improve your class.

Step 4: invest in your digital toolkit

There are various solutions available that you can use to build your online school. Teacher software like Edmodo, Socrative, and Projeqt, for example, are intuitive platforms that enable teachers and students to connect and work with ease.

Most of the online course software have similar features, including video lessons, progress tracking, assessments, community features and, email integrations, so you can mail students content, send reminders, and share updates.

Alongside the course platform, you need a CRM. A CRM helps you automate and better manage your relationships with students, while providing valuable insights into how people are engaging with the content within your course. You can then use these insights to provide a better service.

Salesforce, PipeDrive, and Keap are all popular CRM tools you might consider. Beware: you'll need to hone your CRM skills to get the most out of them. If you're looking for a powerful and intuitive solution, you can use Paperform to collect student information then send that data to a Notion database automatically.

đź’ˇ Tip: During this time you can look after a variety of other things too, like building a school website, or a landing page to collect sign ups. You might also create your brand identity to ensure your school stands out from the pack.

[INSERT TEMPLATE : teacher-observation-form]

Step 5: Add the Learning Material

You’ve selected your digital toolbox. Now it’s time to start uploading your digital assets. Regardless of which software you use, you'll want to digitise your class and syllabus so that your students can access it remotely.

From there, you can upload your content. Aim to provide a diverse learning experience for students, which should be reflected in a variety of content types:

Once you've uploaded your content, it's time to set up the supporting systems for your course. For example, if you set homework for a class, set up an automation for email reminder notifications two days before homework is due.

Functionalities like this will cut down on your workload and help ensure people do the coursework and stay engaged with your course.

While you're at it, you could set up an enrollment process for new students. The enrollment process is often a series of automated emails. You should send emails when people:

  • Express interest in your classes
  • Start the course
  • Pass the first test
  • Any other notable milestones.

By automating as many of the tasks as possible, you’ll reduce your total workload. If you had to send an individual email to every student who expressed interest in learning more about your class, you'd be so bogged down in replies you wouldn't have any time to teach.

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Step 6: launch your online school

It’s a great feeling to hit day zero. The online school is up, the syllabus is created, and your first round of students are waiting to start. While this is just a small part of the journey, it’s a big milestone.

Before going live, have a few people test your learning management system (LMS) to see if everything is in order—it's better to delay the launch of your school than to open up the floodgates and make a lacklustre first impression.

Once you've confirmed your materials are live, the platform is running as intended and your first cohort of students are ready to go, you can get started with your first class. Time to celebrate!

đź’ˇ Tip: As soon as you start accepting students, your workload will increase exponentially. There will be more tasks to complete, courses to launch, and problems to overcome. So enjoy and celebrate the launch, but be prepared to get right back to work.

Step 7: Execute Your Marketing Strategy

Although you plan to impart knowledge and teach skills, you shouldn’t forget that you’re also running a business. That means you need a proper marketing strategy for your online school to keep enrollment up.

There isn't a one size fits all approach for online school marketing. The approach that works best for you will depend on your skillset. For Focus on Force, I invested heavily in SEO and content marketing. I wanted to make the site a useful resource hub for anyone who wanted to develop their Salesforce career.

Often, you'll see people either starting a YouTube channel or a blog to impart their knowledge and grow an audience, which they then leverage into paid students. This is a good way to validate your idea and ensure there's a market for your course.

Marketing on social media or via display advertisements targeting your student persona is also a great idea. Once your school is up and running, encourage your students to engage with your school on social media and share reviews—positive word-of-mouth is extremely valuable.

How to Keep Students Engaged

By now you've got all the tools you need to get started with your course. But there's one more thing to consider: ensuring people actually finish it once they begin.

Here are some ideas for retaining students and helping them stay motivated.

1. Help them set goals

When people sign up for a course, they normally have an end goal in mind. Usually it's something concrete, like learning Excel to impress their boss. As a course creator, you should leverage that initial student desire to achieve a goal.

Having ways for students to monitor their progress, and gratification elements like clickable checkboxes or a chart that fills as they progress through lessons, help keep students motivated. Motivated students who feel they're working towards a goal are more likely to finish your course.

2. Promote interaction and provide a place to celebrate

Students working online don’t get the same camaraderie that offline students do. This can be isolating, and contribute to low completion rates.

To combat this, encourage as much real-time student interaction as possible. Planned 1:1 meetings, virtual games and office hours, or even facilitated group discussions over video chat are all useful strategies.

3. Encourage engagement, not just consumption

It’s easy to go into consumption mode when completing a course via mindlessly reading or watching video lessons. In this state, information washes over students and very little concrete learning is done.

To ensure students are actually getting something out of classes, it's up to you to encourage their active engagement. Consider running quizzes after each lesson to test their knowledge, so you students recognise the importance of paying attention.

With Paperform you can build assessments and quizzes that generate scores automatically. You could start with the template below and custimise it to your heart's content, or you could make your own. Either way, your Paperform quizzes will be backed with powerful built-in analysis, conditional logic, and all the question fields you could need.

4. Add gamification and competition

Friendly competition and gamification motivates students to progress through a course by making it a bit less dull. You don't have to build a video game from scratch—simply use a leaderboard or points system to add a competitive element to the classroom.

Different activities can be rewarded, such as completing a module, interacting and answering questions from other users, and doing well in weekly quizzes or challenges.

5. Hold regular office hours

As the owner and curator of the course, it's ultimately your job to offer support to students. By holding regular office hours, you provide your students with an avenue to ask questions, get feedback, or ask for advice outside of class.

3 online school examples to get you motivated

Taking on a challenge like starting an online school can get overwhelming. The good news is many have already had tremendous success with their own schools. You can take a look at some of these examples to inspire your new venture.

1.   Udemy

screenshot of udemy website homepage, woman smiling(Image Source: Udemy)

Udemy is one of the best online education platforms out there. They offer over 150,000 courses that cut across multiple disciplines. They're a popular choice for those wanting to undertake professional online training, and offer certificates that you can add to your LinkedIn profile.

Thousands of individual creators make their living teaching on Udemy. If you're looking for ideas, check out their broad selection of courses, and take note of how teachers deliver content and attract new students.

Key lesson: There's a market for courses on almost any subject. Whether you're the best DnD Dungeon Master, or the master of Google Sheets in your workplace, someone, somewhere is willing to learn from you.

2. Ali Abdaal's part-time YouTuber academy

screenshot of Ali Abdaal's Part-time YouTuber academy webpage(Image Source: Ali Abdaal)

Ali Abdaal is a doctor and YouTuber who leveraged a massive YouTube audience into a successful online school. While you can find a lot of his content online for free in various forms, this course provides a more structured and detailed look at how to grow your YouTube channel.

Key lesson: Try to build an audience before launching your online school. That way you've got a baked-in cohort waiting to learn from you, and willing to spend their hard-earned money to do so.

3. Chandoo's Excel school

screenshot of Chandoo's Excel School webpage (Image Source: Chandoo.org)

Chandoo's Excel School is an extension of his comprehensive website and blog, which was built to teach people how to master Excel. He has built a comprehensive resource centre (and an active community) which he can now encourage to sign up to his course for more advanced knowledge.

Key lesson: The importance of offering value through free content, before attempting to ask people to pay. Chandoo proved the value of his expertise first, before building a paid online course.

Over to you

The online school market is booming, and it's a great time for interested people to get involved. With the right knowledge and skills, you can set up and run a profitable online school. All it takes is a decision and a bit of hard work.

Running an online school can be financially lucrative and spiritually rewarding—not only do you get to impart your knowledge, you get to make a difference in someone else's life. How cool is that?

Whatever you choose to teach, you can use Paperform's powerful, intuitive digital suite of tools to build everything from quizzes to sign-up pages to payment forms. You can give it a go yourself with our 14-day free trial, no cc required. You'll be getting that "best teacher" mug in no time.


This was a guest post by Martin Gessner, Founder of Focus on Force, a Salesforce certification and resources course.  He has spent over 10 years working in various Salesforce roles including Business Analyst, Project Manager, Consultant and Solutions Architect. Along the way he has earned twelve certifications, published "The Salesforce Career Playbook", and continued to help Salesforce professionals learn more about Salesforce, develop their career and prepare for certifications.


About the author
Martin Gessner
Martin Gessner is the Founder of Focus on Force. He has spent over 10 years working in various Salesforce roles, and helps professionals learn more about Salesforce and develop their careers.

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