What are the pros and cons of teaching online?

Symon He

10 minute read

  • Common Questions

I first discovered eLearning in late 2014 when I was looking for a way to replace my income from my then corporate position. Although I had everything I could ask for in my job at the time—great work/life balance, wonderful managers and co-workers, great perks, and a solid six-figure compensation—I was desperate to find a way out.

At the time, my mom had just been diagnosed with stage IV cancer and I had been commuting to work from the couch in her hospital room. I needed an income source that allowed me complete flexibility in how, where, and when I had to work. I took a shotgun approach and tried out three different things at the time—private consulting, starting a blog, and creating online courses. In early 2015, I left my corporate career for good and began to focus primarily on teaching online.

Now in 2021, I’ve built multiple passive income streams through my online courses, have taught over 350,000 students and counting, turned courses into book deals and partnerships

Along the way, I’ve learned first hand everything that makes teaching online such a great endeavor, even with its drawbacks. So I’ll start with the cons of teaching online because in almost seven years of doing this, I can only think of a few and, as you’ll see shortly, they pale in comparison to all the benefits of teaching through online courses.

CON #1: You have to put yourself out there

To teach online by making online courses, you can’t help but put yourself out there. It means recording videos of yourself that shows your face, voice, and presentation skill and style on full display for the public. It means putting your name on your product (your course) for the markets and having people vote with their wallets. It also means getting student reviews, which are often fair but sometimes you get the feeling they were just venting their bad day on you.

For one of our more popular Udemy courses with over 60K students and an average of a 4.46/5.0 on nearly 2800 reviews, we still get reviews like this:

It doesn’t matter that we spent over 100 hours making course and providing nearly 100 useful resources for our students and has nearly 12 hours of carefully planned content—you can never please everyone. Someone is going to hate your course, your voice, or your face.

But while it’s never fun getting reviews that are both not constructive and just plain mean, getting feedback and improving is a crucial part of the e-learning journey for an instructor. And putting yourself out there is the best way to do that

CON #2: It takes time to ramp up significant income

Whether you take the approach of publishing for a marketplace like Udemy, where you only focus on making your course and let the platform market and sell the course for you, or publish your course independently on your own website and run your own marketing, it takes time to do all that.

For marketplace courses, you must do all of these in order to publish a course:

  • Research your content
  • Develop your curriculum
  • Script your lectures
  • Record your lectures
  • Edit your lectures
  • Create a course profile

For the independent courses, you do all of the above and all of the marketing and advertising to find leads and convert them into students. Now there are some strategies such as “pre-selling” that allow you to sell your course before you actually make it, but that typically just helps in getting early momentum, not in creating a repeatable income stream.

For most first time instructors, earning $100K in the first month, or even the first year, will be quite challenging. For instructors who go the route of marketplaces like Udemy, it can take making 3-5 courses before the income reaches a level that replaces a W2 income. For independent course creators, it’s famine until they figure out their sales funnel and optimize it.

What should you expect?

If you want to become what we call a “Six Figure Instructor” (earning over $8,000 a month), expect the process to take somewhere between 12 and 24 months. We’ve seen new instructors hit this milestone as early as 6 months in, and as late as 36 months. The biggest factor is your content quality and how much time you put into it.

It took me about 9 months and 6 courses to get to a consistent 6 figure income. For reference, I spent about 10 hours a week putting together my courses. Luckily, I had some foresight when planning my course content so I was able to re-purpose a lot of my content into new courses, effectively stitching together extra revenue streams without much extra effort. You can see my courses here (scroll to the last page to see my oldest courses).

CON #3: There is a steep initial learning curve

The competition is getting stiffer and the bar is getting higher for new courses as thousands of new instructors and tens of thousands of new courses are published each year. This also means that the learning curve, especially for newcomers to the space, is only getting steeper. Gone are the days when a lazily slapped together presentation with Powerpoint slides could create a course that earns $1,000’s in passive income each month. It takes more effort to get started now than it did a few years ago.

You need to learn how to conduct market and competitive research to understand what the market wants and what the existing courses are failing to provide.

You need to learn how to script concise but educationally dense lectures. You need to know how to create and provide useful course resources to your students.

How to record lectures with good video and audio quality. How to edit them to enhance the learning experience.

And if you’re hosting your course independently, how to set up a website, find a host for your course, and set up a sales funnel along with a thought out paid advertising strategy.

The first couple of months can feel like drinking water from a firehose, especially if you’re learning every aspect of the course creation process for the first time. But every single instructor who has found their place and captured their slice of the ever growing pie has gone through the same process.

Yet despite the cons listed above, I wish I had placed a bigger bet on teaching online earlier rather than to have hedged my bets by pursuing multiple paths in my first few years of teaching. Today, I know better and focus exclusively on growing only my e-learning income through my courses because the pros just far outweigh the cons. Because from a different light, the cons are can also be pros.

Yes, putting yourself out there, especially if you’re not used to doing that or have never presented to a public audience before, can feel scary. But at the same time, it is precisely that instructors are putting themselves out there that they’re getting opportunities thrown at them. Today, Evan and I have over 830K students on Udemy alone. With our students from other platforms, we’re well over 1M students. That is valuable not just for us but to any business that also wants to reach our student audience. This has translated to us receiving business proposals for collaborations on a weekly basis, often multiple times every week.

The steep learning curve and the time it takes to ramp up your earnings from online courses makes it something that requires commitment. These hurdles make it difficult for many aspiring instructors to stick with, let alone start the process of, making online courses. But it is also precisely this reason that the instructors who do get over these hurdles will have a huge advantage.

The pros far outweigh the cons

After seven years in the space, having dealt with the worse of the cons listed above, here are all the pros of teaching online that make it all more than worthwhile.

PRO #1: Most of your work can be front-loaded

One of the best things creating online courses is that almost all of your work can be front-loaded in creating the course, especially if you teach in a topic that is relatively evergreen that requires infrequent updates and especially if your course is sold through marketplaces like Udemy. This means that once you’re done making one course, you can be fairly hands off with that course and let the markets sell your course for you while you turn your attention to making another course.

For example, most of the topics that Evan and I teach on Udemy do not require frequent updates or a lot time interacting with students on a regular basis. In fact, for many of our best performing courses, they have not had to make major content updates at all since we initially released them. Big caveat is for instructors teaching programming or highly technical courses that often requires annual new releases to match new software releases. They do update more frequently and answer far more student inquiries but they also have the most student demand online (e.g. many of the top performing 7-figure instructors on Udemy teach programing related courses).

PRO #2: You can work from anywhere

Every aspect of course creation, from idea and research to scripting, recording, and editing your videos can be done from almost anywhere and on any schedule. I’ve lost count of the number of coffee shops I’ve worked out of or the number of shared offices like WeWorks or even borrowed offices and homes for recording my videos. The biggest hurdle to location is when you’re recording since you need a space that works for your shot but most of the time, you can work from practically anywhere. And post publishing, instructors can interact with students from anywhere that has an internet connection. It’s no surprise that teaching online is a popular choice among digital nomads. In fact, for much of the early years of teaching on Udemy, Evan as traveling around the world for ten months every single year, all without any impact to his earnings.

PRO #3: You own your schedule

In between making courses, the main activity for instructors is maintaining their existing courses, which mostly means answering student questions. But depending on the topic you’re teaching and using strategies like making new lectures to address frequently asked questions, you can minimize the volume of questions drastically. Today, with over 830K combined students on Udemy, Evan and I spend on average <10 minutes a week answer questions, sometimes no time at all.

This means that we can take long breaks whenever we want, going off on months long trips or tending family emergencies without fear of losing or hurting your income source. The courses, once published and established, can keep earning for you regardless of how much (or little) time you’re putting into them.

PRO #4: Flexible, mostly passive income

This is one of the best benefits of creating online courses and earning an income from them—you get near complete separation of your time working and your earnings. That means your courses are selling and earning for you 24/7 all year round, all around the world. It means when you go to sleep and then wake up in the morning, you’ve earned more money. When you sat down for a quiet dinner at home, you’ve earned more money. When you sat and and got up from your toilet, you’ve earned more money. How free would you feel when your income is coming in during all the hours when you’re not working, but also when you’re eating, sleeping, or going to to toilet?

Think about this. Compare someone who works a solid office job that pays them $100K/yr. At the standard 2000 hour work year, that office worker is earning $50/hr for each hour of their work input. But they have to work during certain hours of the day, most days of the week, and often at a specific desk, in front of a specific computer, in a specific office or cubicle.

How about for an online instructor with courses earning them income 24/7? Well, instead of 2000 hours to earn, they now have 8760 hours a year to earn (365 days times 24 hours). That means to reach the coveted $100K/yr milestone, the online instructor only needs to earn $11.42/hr. That’s the power of creating online courses that work for you at all hours of the day, all year round. And the instructor worked from anywhere and on their own schedule.

PRO #5: Get highest ROI on your time

A $100K/yr employee is earning $50/hr for their time. For online instructors, because so much of the work is front loaded, their return on time almost seems unreal because sometimes it takes nearly zero time to maintain a course. That means it takes almost zero ongoing input of time while the course keeps earning money for the instructors.

For example, looking at our best performing Udemy courses, tallying the time we spend maintaining them, and even adding all the hours we initially spent in creating them, Evan and I are getting these results right now:

Most months we actually spend way less time than shown, but we used our max time per month to get more realistic looking numbers.

Even courses that earn very modest monthly earnings of $300/mo could have significant ROI. I have one of these courses. My earliest course, a short course on helping startup founders find a smart way to divide up their equity pie, earns me only $250/mo on average. But how much time do I put into maintaining the course? I spend <5 minutes a month (most months, zero time). My ROI on this course that is a failure is actually earning me the equivalent of $3000/hr for my time.  I spent a week making this short course nearly 7 years ago. And it’s been earning me $250/mo for 7 years, without any updates and practically zero time to maintain.

So even if your early courses may not be a complete home run in terms of total earnings, they can be winners when you factor in how little time you put into maintaining them.

PRO #6: Build a valuable and growing audience

Unlike followers on social media or subscribers on a newsletter, your students are far more valuable because they’ve already opened up their wallets and trust in you enough to pay to learn from you. And as online instructor, you could quickly build an audience into the tens or hundreds of thousands in only a few short years.  And as you build your base, you can grow even faster as more students mean more word of mouth, more exposure, and more opportunities.

Today, Evan and I have a combined 830K students on Udemy (well over 1M including students from other platforms). We’re adding 10K+ new students across all platforms every single month. As it grows, it grows faster. And as it grows, it gets easier to do things like launching new courses. Once your students enjoy learning something from you, they’re more willing to learn almost anything else from you as well, even if your previous professional background or training isn’t on the same topic. Case in point, Evan knew little about Instagram when we decided to create a course on it. But because he has perfected his process of researching and producing high quality courses that appeal to his students, he made a winning course on the topic he knew little about going into it.

Also, brands and companies find you and reach out for partnerships. Real estate software companies reach out to me to try out their software and to promote it to my students as an affiliate where for any new subscribers, I get a recurring share of their subscription dues. The audience I built around Airbnb hosting and real estate investing allowed me to successfully pitch and land two book deals that essentially put into book form two courses I already had published.  So, not only are your courses earning money for you, they’re building up an audience for you that gets more valuable by the day.

PRO #7: Lots of secondary sources of income

What many new instructors don’t realize when just starting out is that there are so many ways your online courses could help generate a new income source for you, not just from direct course sales.  Without diving too much into these here (we’ll cover them in greater detail in a separate post), here are secondary income sources possible for online instructors:

Consulting—with students paying to learn something from you, some of these students would rather just hire you to do the work for them. In fact, in my first two years of teaching online, consulting made up the bulk of my earnings as a result of turning some students into clients. It allowed me to crack the $100K/yr mark in my second year while I ramped up my sales from courses

Live/private workshops—although many students prefer to learn asynchronously, some will be willing to pay extra to learn live, whether in person or over Zoom. And all the work you’ve already done, it’s quite easy to convert an online course into a weekend workshop where you teach the same materials but live. So if you enjoy doing in person trainings, offering it as an option to your students can be a great way to generate additional income. You can often charge $500+/day for in person workshops that have a limited number of seats. This is a popular strategy among independent course creators who want to have higher priced products and services to sell to their existing student base. For example, an instructor selling an online course for $500 may have a live weekend version of the training for $2500 that’s limited 10 seats. This is a great way to drive additional income without significant time commitment while also giving you the opportunity to build much deeper student connections, ones that often lead to great case studies and testimonials.

Repurposing content—the work that goes into researching and creating a good course on a topic often can be repurposed or reused in other ways. Lecture notes can be repurposed as blog posts to build organic traffic. The courses can be repackaged and published onto other platforms. Or even repackaged and used in other courses. They can be turned into audio books or podcasts. I turned some of my existing courses into books, audio courses, and email courses, all adding additional sources of income for the work I already did.

Affiliate marketing—by becoming an affiliate for products and services you believe in and that are useful to your students, you can earn extra income from making recommendations to your students. From books for further reading to equipment and software, anything that can be sold online typically has an affiliate program you can join. The most popular one is Amazon affiliates, which anyone can sign up for. For my Airbnb students who need to furnish their new Airbnb listings, providing them a list of recommended items to purchase makes it easy for my students but also allows me to earn some extra income on top of their course purchases.

Speaking engagements—As more students enroll in your courses, your reputation as a subject matter expert will also grow. You will get more visibility online and eventually will start getting invitations to speak at paid events. Evan and Symon both have been invited regularly to speak at events, both small and big. According to a recent publication in Harvard Business Review, newbie speakers can charge between $500 to $2500 per talk while those who are well-known in their field, such as best-selling authors, routine charge $20,000 to $35,000 per talk, with a handful of celebrities and outliers even charging six figures per talk. But the great thing here is that even if you do not charge a large speaking fee, speaking at a big event can help you generate new leads for your courses, consulting clients, or even potential business partners. It’s just a fun extra perk for online instructors as they become more established with their courses.

Teaching online and achieving direct course sales that can replace or surpass ones previous income is attractive enough, but growing your audience and opening yourself up to many potential new opportunities can make online teaching even more attractive. The great thing is you get to choose which, if any, of these secondary opportunities you want to pursue. There will always be more than you can take advantage of.


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