How the Explosion in Online Education can Revolutionize Your Business

image of keyboard with *learn* key

Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and Berkeley are doing it.

Companies, both big and small, are doing it.

Solopreneurs are doing it.

And bloggers have been doing it … they just haven’t been making any money at it.

It’s a trend that Copyblogger saw coming … in fact, Brian built a course to teach it way back in 2007. (And he built a number of successful businesses on the same principles before that.)

“It” is online education — and it’s gone from being an interesting sideline to a major social and economic trend.

This trend’s going to be around a little longer than planking or Pinterest. Because there are some very solid factors underlying the shift to online education … and they’re only getting stronger.

Online education is at a tipping point. And that’s awesome news if you’re a Copyblogger reader. Let’s talk about why.

Online education is now a juggernaut; more than 6.1 million current college students took a Web-based course in fall 2010. Nearly a third of students have taken one during their college careers. ~ Boston Globe

Traditional education is in trouble

Smart writers like Michael Ellsberg and Josh Kaufman have been pointing to a shift in how universities are serving students.

The traditional model of “get a degree and land a sweet job” just isn’t working any more, at least in most professions. I’m still a big fan of universities — but we have to face the fact that they’re quickly becoming a pricy luxury.

Students are looking for other ways to learn what they need to learn — without the six-figure price tag.

“Normal” people live online now

Is your mom on Facebook? Mine is. And the weirdest thing about it is … it’s nice. It lets me keep up with what she’s doing, and share the exploits of my charming hooligan six-year-old.

I first got online in 1989. But the internet doesn’t belong to weirdo early adopters like me any more. The internet, assisted by the smart phone, is woven into our lives like it never has been.

That means that normal people — not just web junkies like you and me — are willing to consider online activities that never would have occurred to them before.

It means they look at online education and think, “Hm, I would do that.”

The world is changing faster than traditional education can evolve

Almost every aspect of our lives is changing. Business, socializing, church, family life.

All that change is coming faster than we can handle. We all need help with some aspect of the change that’s swirling around us.

Which means if you can master some element of the changing world, and stay on top of it, you can help customers do the same.

Great businesses are built by solving tough problems. And mastering change is one of the toughest problems we all face … every day, and in every aspect of our lives.

Traditional education has a tough time with this. If you want to study ancient Greek, you should be set. (And more power to you, because I think that is cool.)

But if you want to study technology, nutrition and fitness, marketing, communications, or any of the other myriad ways people make a living, you need the latest information.

Online learners are … well, learning

None of this would matter if online education didn’t work as well as face-to-face learning.

But it appears to actually work better.

In a 2009 report based on 50 independent studies, the U.S. Department of Education found that students who studied in online learning environments performed modestly better than peers who were receiving face-to-face instruction. ~ Mashable

Online learning allows students to go at the pace that’s right for them. When online education is well designed, it gives plenty of opportunity to not only absorb the theories in the material, but to discuss it meaningfully and put it into practice.

Students can replay “lectures” if they need to. They can interact with other students online in ways that far surpass traditional classroom discussion.

Even something as simple as being able to “attend class” when you’re at your most refreshed can make a huge difference. (I am pretty convinced that I learned exactly nothing from the few 8:00 a.m. college classes I attended.)

So is there still room for the small entrepreneur?

The rise of the “big guns” in online education is actually awesome news for the small (or micro) business wanting to get into an education-based model.

The big players are showing more and more people every day that online education is real education.

That we don’t have to shuffle into a physical room with an instructor physically present to learn.

That we can take the very best education and make it widely available, instead of limiting it to a few hundred people at a time.

That we can learn at our own pace, on our own time, when and where it’s convenient for us.

Harvard and Berkeley will continue to do a brilliant job teaching law and microbiology.

But you may very well be able to do an even more brilliant job teaching small business tax planning or vegan sports nutrition.

Or pet-sitting. Or crochet. Or how to get a novel published.

Where to go if you need some help with that

You might remember that I mentioned that Brian Clark taught a course around this very idea, back in 2007.

That’s Teaching Sells — a comprehensive course in how to build an online education business. It takes your passion for creating smart, interesting, useful content, and wraps it into a business model. (Actually, there are 10 business models in the course, but who’s counting?)

Because the course is so intensive, enrollment is strictly limited. If you want to learn more about it, members of Authority are the first to learn when we re-open for new students. If space allows, members of My Copyblogger are offered the remaining spots.

About the Author: Sonia Simone is co-founder and chief content officer of Copyblogger Media, and a co-creator of Teaching Sells. Get more from Sonia on twitter @soniasimone

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Reader Comments (44)

  1. says

    Good points.

    Of course eLearning has been around for many years although now it’s open to everyone rather than just the largest (and richest) of corporates.

    • says

      Absolutely — one of my old friends, Howard Rheingold, was a pioneer of e-learning within a university setting, and it’s been around since before that.

  2. says

    Sonia, I completely agree that the traditional educational system is in trouble when it comes to subjects that change quickly. It’s unfortunately that teachers, who are supposed to be subject matter experts, have been reluctant to change with the demands of their students and technology…so now it is catching up with them with this shift towards online learning. Online is where I first learned Internet Marketing and still do. I still have not found any traditional learning institution provide this in the same quality. Instead of teachers teaching us, we are learning from each other, and I think that’s great.

  3. says

    Its true that eLearning is catching up very quickly. In my country, hiigh schools are already adopting eLearning in their teaching. But I still feels eLearning lacks the interaction that traditional learning provides.

    • says

      That can be built in with forums and other student interaction. It’s not exactly the same, but it appears to be at least as effective if not more so in fostering learning.

      • says

        Sonia and Dan —

        As a guy who teaches in both online and traditional settings, my experience has been that the online discussion forums actually encourage more meaningful engagement.

        In traditional classrooms, students can, of course, chime in at any time and without much forethought. While convenient, such ease of access doesn’t always lead to meaningful or enriching dialogue.

        Online forums are archived records of comments, so students seem to be more careful and deliberate with the things they choose to share. While we do see an occasional unfortunate pop-off, most of the comments reflect students who have read the materials and engaged in critical thinking before pressing the SEND button.

        By the way, thank you for the excellent piece, Sonia!

          • says

            Hi, Ainslie —

            I am fond of the online model, as well, both as a teacher and student. That mode works well, is relatively inexpensive for the school, is easily scaled to accommodate fluctuating student loads, and it also allows great flexibility for family time, travel, work, hobbies, etc.



  4. says

    Great article! We follow the education model, give away a ton of valuable free information and build solid relationships. It’s great that a Solopreneur (love that term) can make a huge impact by working hard, being consistent, and providing REAL Value. Thanks again for the article!

    • says

      Shane, I think you’re right in saying that.

      Google+ has sooo many features that are rarely used or known about. I confess I under-utilize my Google+ account, but I’m reading Chris Brogan’s book “Google+ For Business” and he has some really good arguments as to why everyone should be using it.

      We should hangout….

    • says

      Shane I agree that Google+ has great potential.

      I don’t think it would replace a learning platform like a membership site but would be great for a study group.


  5. says

    I’ve been watching entrepreneurs I respect, like Jason Calacanis slowly discover the “online education” market as his company pivots and pivots again. It’s weird how Brian Clark saw that this market will go mainstream 5 years ago.

  6. says

    Excellent points about the importance of learning online (from tons of sources) and not just from college classrooms. The huge cost of college really makes it even more important for people to learn and grow in a more proactive, lifelong learning perspective.

    It helps keeps the cost of your education down and can land you some great jobs without the need that so many young people feel they have to take on huge student loans to get a “traditional” education (then hope for the best when they get out into the working world).

    Well done Sonia.

  7. says

    Online education is revolutionary, for sure. I had been planning on spending $100,000 or more on getting a Master’s degree… instead I just took a few courses online, and for about $1,000 learned more than I ever would have in a theory-based university. Awesome.

    The only problem I have is there are just too many good courses out there… it’s hard to choose (especially for a learning-addict)!

  8. says

    Great post! Traditional, classroom colleges are becoming a “luxury” as Sonia says. On CBS Sunday Morning, this past Sunday, they did a segment called, “Some hard lessons about college costs”. According to CBS, college tuition has risen at twice the pace of inflation and has doubled in 10 years. The middle class will no longer be able to go to college because even state-run universities are becoming unaffordable, especially for students who are paying for it themselves. Then, when students do graduate, they can’t get jobs and are burdened with thousands of dollars in student loans! This fact, along with the accessibility of the internet for any individual to start a business, will continue to drive online education. This is a huge opportunity for all as Sonia says!

    Copyblogger has done a tremendous job at their model, not only because they have mastered the art of internet marketing, but they consistently meet the needs of their customers with the right messages and tools at the right time, i.e. Scribe, Premise, Genesis, internet marketing courses, content writing education, etc.. Everything you need to create a phenomenal, successful WordPress website at the cost of a hosting package, in many cases. This is as long as you put the work in and persevere in a niche that you are passionate about.

  9. says

    The Boston Globe did a big article on online education just this morning. Seems that MIT and Harvard are jumping in with free classes.

    • says

      Yep — that first quote here comes from that article. Unfortunately their wacko website doesn’t seem to like the link as well as it did yesterday.

  10. says

    I don’t teach in a university or even in a high school anymore. I know insurance. It is not the type of stuff that people who are looking for a weekly paycheck are going to be interested in. I do not train people for a career. What I do is educate people on the good, bad and ugly parts of insurance. So much misinformation, lies and half-truths have been spread by politicians with political agendas that it is no surprise that many Americans do not know what it true anymore. I use my blog for education purposes but I am looking for a way to set up a more effecient educational experience.

  11. says

    I loved this post!
    I adored traditional learning in the college classroom when I did it, because I love learning for learning’s sake. When I got my M.A., I didn’t have a “plan” for what career I would go into with it, I just knew that after getting my B.A. there was so much more about what I’d already studied that I wanted to delve into. And I’d go back and get another degree in a heartbeat if I had a few thousand extra dollars to throw around! : )

    That said, there are times I feel like I’ve learned more about marketing and communications online in the last 3 years than I ever did when I actually worked in Sales & Marketing, then in Public Relations, for 8+ years. I love learning online, and paying attention to what brilliant marketers are doing in this space has been an invaluable education — reading great content, like here on Copyblogger, but also paying attention to launches and other marketing campaigns — you can’t beat that for real world education!
    My friends get sick of me telling them about this or that thing I discovered or learned online, but I tell them all the time this is wave of the future and to get in while the gettin’ is good, and better yet, start creating something! ; )

    • says

      I know it, Kimberly, I’d love to go back for a master’s in history, just to do it. But the price tag makes it a significant indulgence. :)

  12. says


    I agree that we are at a tipping point. The market is becoming saturated with online courses and tech companies who have created the newest online learning platform.

    Nowdays everyone has the technology to create an online program. But people’s definition of what makes a quality online course is very different.

    It is up to the entrepreneurs to think about how they are going to differentiate their course to the market. It is up to people to take the time to create an online course that has the best information, plenty of practice and connection to the teacher (just as you mentioned above)

    It is also up to people to get that online education is not easy and involves a huge time commitment and a lot of personal investment (as you would know with Teaching Sells)

    The online education space is a great place to be at the moment and I am glad to be involved in it.


  13. says

    My knee jerk reaction to an article that promotes online education over a traditional university based education is “Huh?! You gotta be kidding me!”

    But then I thought about, put my longing for the good ol’ college life aside, and began to recall exactly how I got to where I am today… online education. Not through online classes per say, but reading blogs & websites with high quality content (like Copyblogger) that pertain to the subject matter I want to improve upon. For the longest time I believed online education was a joke. Similar to online dating, it was something I would never do. Then I realized I was living a lie.

    We have a world of information at my fingertips, and while I still haven’t ventured into the realm of cyber-dating, I couldn’t tell you the last time I wasn’t searching online for the answer to a personal or business related question.

    Deep down I want to revolt against the online world and all that it has done to destroy the “simple” life in America. Where face-to-face interaction dominates our social lives, handwritten letters are a joy to receive, and time spent hanging out with friends isn’t interrupted every 20 seconds by the “ding” of a smartphone. But at the end of the day, I am addicted to learning and the internet is my remedy. It is such a phenomenal tool… when wielded by those responsible enough to handle such power.

    Sonia, thanks for the reality check. It’s good to have my beliefs challenged from time to time.

  14. Will Powers says

    The internet is a great tool for education, but what about actual human interaction? Some of the things taught in school is interpersonal skills. How can we create great leaders if there is very little or no experience because the pratice room is “virtual”? Are we all just going to go through life behind a computer and MAYBE a webcam? Personally, I have had experience with both actual class room education and online courses and I prefer the actual classroom. The instructors I’ve had in person seemed to care much more than the instructors that I could only communicate with only by email. The internet is a great tool for education. However, it should only be an add-on, not the primary source.

    • says

      Will, I’ve learned a lot more about intelligent, respectful dialogue from forums and comments sections than I did in my four years of BA education. Socializing, raging hormones, and getting wasted were the main areas of interest in undergrad and since that scene never really floated my boat, I just did my own thing.

      Running an online business doesn’t have to mean Living online. That’s a matter of choice, not education. Growing up in a household where role models are glued to their computer or gadgets vs. running an online biz And getting involved in their local community is going to have a much bigger impact than that four year period of woohoo-I’m-free!

  15. says

    One objection that I’ve heard among newbies are “with some much free information, why do I need to pay?”

    Well, I think the more information, the more we need to pay because one thing that will never change is that we only have 24 hours a day.

    So little time, so much information means we need thought leaders and “teachers” to help compile and organize information so we could make best use of our time.

    It’s a business model I’m seriously considering getting into.

  16. says

    I work for a startup in the online education sector – We’re a marketplace for elearning content where anyone can buy and sell. It’s our goal to democratize this market and enable both buyers and sellers to overcome some of the traditional challenges – enabling them to make simple purchases, use content in any platform and supporting sellers with new ways to bring their content to market. We’re excited to welcome and content developer who has something they’d like to post for sale!

  17. says

    I believe that in this phase the online system courses cannot totally replace regular system of training but it can strengthen and help him.
    I think the combination of the two systems have the best results.
    For those who want some particular info for a domain of activities, the online system specific speed and convenience (no need to travel) presents a clear advantage

  18. Archan Mehta says

    Still, there is something to be said about the bricks-and-mortar traditional education system. It is not perfect, but it still beats the on-line system. There is no substitute for face to face communication, but the price tag is astronomical these days. Nobody in his or her right mind can afford the cost of higher education. If only education did not have a price tag and remained insulated from market forces…that could be a boon to curious minds. Unfortunately, the current system is not likely to change any time soon. So, what option do you have? Join the on-line crowd. That is sad indeed, that we lack choices. A free society should provide several choices for individuals. Oh well, you can’t win ’em all, I guess.

    • says

      Hi, Archan —

      There are actually many excellent substitutes for brick-and-mortar classrooms, and in many cases, online systems provide better learning platforms than those traditional environments.

      While there are certainly some subjects that are difficult, if not impossible, to cover well online (e.g., those related to lab work, hands on skills, manual dexterity, etc.), that does not rule out online schools in other areas.

      It is important to note that there are many cost effective ways to afford higher education, both online and traditional. We are in a society that provides myriad choices, including the choice not to participate in post-secondary education. Additionally, it is an easy argument from a cost-benefit perspective, that many–or perhaps even most–people cannot afford to NOT engage in higher education.



  19. says

    This was a very informative post. Online Education is definitley increasing as students are looking to save money that they may be working full time, or they cannot afford room and board, activity fees, and other miscellaneous expenses that comes along with attending a brick and mortar. Im pretty sure in a couple of years students will be attending classes on their iPhones, iPads, and Android Smart Phones as “theres an app for that school and class”. But there will still be a need for traditional universities because there are some majors that you cannot take online as they are strictly hands on, such as nursing, electrical engineering, etc, etc.

  20. says

    Wondering if education is more open to all takers, and fewer primary skills/remedial educators are necessary, will education change format so that live courses are more interactive and actually teach only more advanced subjects? The other thought is that if much of course work can be done online, will class time be used instead for those having issues with certain concepts? Then those with more money would still have access to the best education because professors might end up tutoring privately rather than teaching larger classes weekly. Although if these sessions could be held via Skype or Hangouts would students need to move out of state for the best education? Having said all this, I’ll add that much of what I learned during my first years in college was how to live on my own and have relationships with non-family members. Less people getting traditional educations could mean social havoc in our businesses, when new grads start work without first experiencing these kind of life lessons. Thought provoking post Sonia.

  21. says

    Hi Sonia,

    do you have at your fingertips what % of FB users are dormat vs passive vs active? I know that they are approaching the 1bn mark but I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of that number don’t actually use it much with a large number of fake or duplicated accounts thrown in there too.

    I agree 100% that the world is changing fast and also with your point about a growing trend toward online education but even though we may be trending that way, I’m still not sure if Facebook is the norm – most people I know are quite suspicious of it and though yes, they do have accounts, they never use them for that reason.

    If your point was just about more people getting online as opposed to Facebook per se, then I do agree, but I guess you mentioned Facebook as the largest social media platform because that’s where we find people. Incidentally it’s harder than it used to be to find people on Facebook as they change their algorithms to find more ways of making money (e.g. on people’s comments) giving much more focus to really popular updates and quickly burying the rest.

  22. says

    The traditional lecture, textbook and homework education is about as inefficient and antiquated as writing on clay tablets. The only thing less conducive to learning is the pompous and condescending professors who have no real-world experience in the subjects they teach. Finally, there are the obscene cost and inability to get required classes in order to graduate. Something has to change.

    Sir John Templeton predicted most traditional universities would disappear within 50 years in his 2005 manifesto. It’s a very bold prediction for someone who was 95 years old at the time. He attended Oxford and was a Rhodes Scholar, so he understood education very well and he realized the shift to electronic interactive training was inevitable.

    • says

      In 50 years from now we will have gadgets lens in the eyes and sensors that will make you fill that you are in the classroom with your colleagues even everybody is miles away.
      The classes and work will a very different experience from today.

  23. says

    You are right. I think that traditional education is being treated as a very essential thing among the world. People judge you on your qualifications and results. However, I am one who don’t think that way. In my opinion, I think that traditional education are just something that can somehow train your mindset on problems solving and allow you to think more since we will be facing homework problems etc.

    But to become successful, traditional education are not helping at all. Also, traditional education have taught us to be selfish and to be the best among all of the people. It even result to people not helping other people just because they are afraid that they might catch up with the them. Everyone are concerned about the positioning in the class and this is not going to help in the private sector.

    Doing business would mean to help with one another and improve other people’s lives.

  24. says

    I am in total agreement with the author on Solopreneurs being able to make a difference… I would further add that even people who have passion for education can make a big difference by devoting small time… India India, with the rapid growth of internet, we have already witnessed large number of people who want to take the online education route.. and the best part is, its not as expensive and geographically concentrated as Face to face education is

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