The Online Course Industry Outlook (and a Bit of History)

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Virtual learning was a thing long before the online world even existed. Colleges and universities provided distance learning opportunities that stretched beyond the classroom through letter correspondence, radio broadcasts, television, and telephone conferences. Then came the internet. 

And with it came a boom in online learning. Institutions of higher education began to allow students to learn any time and from any place, as long as they had access to a computer and reliable internet. Today, students all across the globe participate in online programs, graduating with associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and even doctorate degrees – completely online.

While online courses are most often associated with educational institutions, over the years, their popularity has grown far beyond traditional education. As technology continues to advance, new ideas enter the business world and ecommerce sales spike. Then, throw in a global pandemic and, all things considered, offering online courses has become a reliable way to make money online. 

In this article, we’ll talk about why consumers are drawn to online learning. Next, we’ll go over how entrepreneurs, small business owners, and companies are responding to the high demand for online courses and preparing for the industry’s impact on future business operations.

What is an Online Course?

An online course is a collection of lectures or lessons on a specific subject made available on the internet. Online courses are designed to educate learners in a flexible, web-based environment through on-screen readings, assignments, images, videos, discussion forums, and exams.

Online courses are created by experts from various industries. In most cases, course creators charge a fee for learners to participate in their online programs. Although, there are several instances when an online course can or should be free.

Most importantly, online courses offer equal learning opportunities. Anyone with access to the internet can participate in an online course as a fun, engaging, and convenient way to learn. 

Online Courses, Massive Open Online Courses, and Learning Management Programs  

An online course can also be referred to as a massive open online course (MOOC). Meaning that online courses created by business owners often meet the requirements of a MOOC. A MOOC allows learners to complete an online course at their own pace and can be accessed anytime day or night.  

Online courses can also be posted to an open-sourced platform known as a learning management system (LMS). An LMS is the website used to host online courses and organise how online course materials are delivered to participants. 

The Significance of Online Courses amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

By March 2020, the Coronavirus was considered a global pandemic. The turn of a new decade nearly turned our world upside down. Schools suspended in-classroom learning. Businesses were forced to shut their doors. Social events and family gatherings were canceled. And the death toll was rising by the hour. The future was suggesting difficult and unrecoverable times ahead.

For a while, times were extremely tough. Fortunately, it was just a matter of time before many realised we were equipped to handle such an unprecedented situation. We just needed to act in positive ways to stay focused, educated, connected, and motivated. 

Online courses played an essential role in helping rebuild our world. The ability to share information, to grow, and to learn new things began to brighten our future. Now, more than a year later, the records are coming in to prove just how valuable online courses were – and continue to be – during the times of COVID-19.

Udemy, a global marketplace for online teaching and learning, released several studies reporting how people across the globe have turned to online learning to master a new skill, stay busy, and increase productivity levels.

In less than a month, Udemy’s paid enrollments rate skyrocketed by 425%:

Udemy Course Enrollment Growth by Country-503

Consumers took advantage of shelter in place (SIP) orders to spend their free time learning new skills – whether educational, technical, or a new hobby:

Highest Enrollment Surges by Country Since SIP-431

According to one of the biggest online learning platforms Thinkific, the high demand for online courses lead to a 221% increase in new course creators on their platform alone:

New Course Creators-834

Even after the early boom, the platform continues to see online courses being created at a 158% higher rate than before pandemic-response practices were put in place. This goes to show that industry experts are turning to online courses as a new and more efficient way to expand knowledge. 

MemberPress, a widely used membership site plugin for WordPress, has seen sales for its Courses Add-on more than double since the pandemic started. The add-on allows membership site owners to create and sell online courses to further monetise their online content.   

As the creator of MemberPress, it’s essential that our platform provides relevant and resourceful tools for our users. That’s why my team set out to build the Courses add-on, to supply membership site owners with a viable way to grow revenue by addressing the growing demand for online courses.

The Growth of Online Courses Leads to the Growth of Online Business Methods 

As more and more people turn to online learning methods, online courses have become an excellent way to increase revenue and extend learning to larger audiences. Course creators at all levels – from solopreneurs to small business owners and large corporations – are seeing just how beneficial online courses can be to starting and expanding their businesses. 


In spite of the staggering number of layoffs and business closures in the wake of COVID-19, many individuals have persevered in the face of adversity. According to Guidant Financial, the number of individuals who started their own businesses recently grew by 27%.

Everyday experts in popular industries and pastimes took their existing skills and turned them into online courses. Becoming an edupreneur and starting an online courses business provided a steady income for those who were willing to put in the work.  

Existing Online Businesses

Online business owners have also been quick to take part in online course creation to increase revenue and broaden their brand’s awareness. Content producers, including bloggers, membership site owners, affiliate marketers, podcasters, etc., have created online courses as a way to generate an additional income stream by growing their available products and services lists. 

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Online courses can be a great way to enhance existing digital content by including a self-teaching element. For example, a health and wellness blogger could take a popular blog article on basic yoga practices for beginners and create an online course as a supplementary learning resource.

Brick and Mortar Businesses 

With the global business closure rate at 26% during the pandemic, physical storefronts have been right alongside online business owners in the fight to stay operational. In fact, over 35% of small businesses have built websites as a new, adaptive way to sell their products and services. And with the help of online courses, 42% of U.S. businesses have been able to increase their yearly revenue almost instantly.

For example, like the blogger who creates an online course for basic yoga practices, a brick and mortar business owner could create online courses to add to their physical services. A photography store might build an online course to teach aspiring photographers certain tricks of the trade. Not only would doing so allow the business owner to share their craft, but it could also direct students to become buyers.

Online courses allow traditional retailers to completely transform the way they do business – to the point where the unconventional has become the standard means of bringing in a steady income.  

A New Way to Train Employees

The online switch has not only benefited business revenue across the board, but employees as well. Business owners have taken advantage of online courses as an innovative (and affordable) way to educate and train employees.

In 1995, when corporations were just starting to use the internet for daily business operations, less than 4% had utilised online courses for employee onboarding. Today, 90% of corporations rely on online courses to train new and existing employees. 

According to recent studies, employees are more motivated to use online courses as a tool to improve their work performance. In 2020, LinkedIn found that Gen Z learners participated in 50% more online course hours than they did in 2019. The top three areas of learning and development course topics included upskilling and reskilling, leadership and management, and virtual onboarding: 

LinkedIn Learning Workplace Report 2021-920

The Future of Online Courses 

The evidence confirms that online courses are in the midst of substantial growth. Although, many are asking, What is the future of online courses? Are online courses here to stay, or just a temporary solution?

The answer is simple: Online courses are the future! The courses industry was on the rise before COVID-19, and predictions show that it won’t be slowing down anytime soon.

In 2019, the global e-learning market had grown to a record-high value of nearly $101 billion.  Statista estimates that online learning will triple in worth throughout the next five years and reach a worldwide value of $370 billion by 2026.

Looking ahead, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and corporations will continue to advance with the use of online courses. The industry will evolve traditional business models to better benefit the consumer, the business, and the global economy. 

The following is what we can expect from online courses within the next ten years.

Online Courses Will Dominate the E-Learning Market 

According to Mordor Intelligence, the global MOOC market was worth $6,845.4 million by the end of 2020. With an estimated annual growth rate of 29%, online course sales are projected to reach $18,925 million by 2026, which will make it the fastest-growing market in education. 

Learning Management Systems Will Triple in Value

Fortune Business Insights stated that the global LMS market was valued at $8.7 billion in 2019. With an estimated annual growth rate of 19.1%, online courses will help build an LMS market that is likely to reach $29.7 billion by 2026. 

Corporations Will be Among the Biggest Endorsers for Online Courses 

A Facts and Factors report found that the global corporate e-learning market size was approximately $144 billion in 2019. By 2026, the market is expected to reach $374.3 billion as more and more companies use online courses to grow financially, functionally, and productively. 

Virtual Reality Will Become an Online Course Reality 

Gamification features are a big hit in online courses and significantly boost learner engagement. Gaming technologies for virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR) have revolutionised the entertainment industry. The same can be expected for online courses. 

VR, AR, and MR technologies are fairly new to the online course industry but have already made an impact on learning methods even for life or death.  For example, future doctors are now performing life-saving surgeries virtually, and law enforcement officers are using the virtual world to train for life-threatening situations. 

Online course creators are preparing to add VR, AR, and MR elements to their courses to completely transform their content into live, 3D experiences. And many business industries have already introduced virtual learning elements. By 2030, it’s estimated that 23 million jobs will incorporate virtual reality tools for situations such as employee training, distance collaborations, and customer support.

The Takeaway

The online courses industry inspires a better way to learn, an easier way to connect, and a major growth opportunity for all who are involved. Individuals crave new knowledge to better themselves, encouraging everyday experts to share their expertise, and in return, profit from their skillsets. 

Online courses have played a significant role in providing a positive outlet during this devastating worldwide pandemic. In many ways, millions of individuals and businesses are even stronger moving forward. As a result, online courses have become the standard means to improve the personal and professional learning processes. 

The high demand for online course material intensifies the need for course creators. So there’s never been a better time to start your online courses business. Additionally, future predictions and anticipated advancements indicate that there’s much more to be expected from online courses and the benefits they can add to your online business

Originally published Jul 21, 2021, updated Jan 16, 2023

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