Learning Websites Vie To Become 'School Of Everything'

Nov 14, 2013

All kinds of online marketplaces offer ways to sell your stuff: eBay, Craigslist, Etsy. But what about a place to sell your skills and expertise?

Now sites like Udemy, Skillshare and are in a race to become the “School of Everything.” As more courses appear, the competition among teachers is intensifying.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Julia Flucht of the Northwest New Network has our story.


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It's pretty easy to sell your stuff online through huge market places such as eBay, Craigslist and Etsy, but what about a place to sell your skills and expertise? What if you're, say, a talented graphic designer, or you're a wizard at helping people start up businesses? Well, now sites like Udemy, Skillshare and are in a race to replace old-fashioned books and seminars, and essentially become an online school of everything. But as more courses appear, the competition among online experts is intensifying. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, Julie Flucht of the Northwest News Network explains.

JULIA FLUCHT, BYLINE: Vanessa Van Edwards lives in Portland, Oregon and is an expert on body language. She's written books, columns and lectured on the subject. She'd often thought body language was an ideal subject to be thought online. But it's only when she found Udemy that it made sense.

VANESSA VAN EDWARDS: This was the first time I was able to actually consider offering it because they took payment, they hosted it all, they got me students, they helped me with marketing.


EDWARDS: One thing that we do when we're trying to build rapport, connect with someone, is we suddenly mirror their body language. Now, we do this...

FLUCHT: Van Edwards filmed her first course, "Secrets of Body Language," with an iPhone perched on top of a pile of books. She lit her set by dragging in every lamp she owned in her apartment.


EDWARDS: This is because it's a way that our bodies show another person, nonverbally, that we're getting along with them.

FLUCHT: To her surprise, it worked.

EDWARDS: My inbox was filled with sales.

FLUCHT: Van Edwards says her courses have earned her $18,000 since June - way more than she made on books sales in that time. She has big plans for more online courses.

EDWARDS: Body language for healthcare professionals and doctors, body language for realtors, body language for students, body language for dating - every different (unintelligible) I could think of. I could never do that with books.

FLUCHT: Udemy - get it? The academy of U - is one of the fastest growing online learning platforms. The company offers 8,000 courses and claims to have gone from one million users in July, to 1.5 million currently. Other sites like Skillshare and are also growing fast and new ones are popping up all the time. Seattle-based Tom Vander Ark is the author of "Getting Smart: How Digital Learning is Changing the World." He blogs for Education Week Magazine, and is an investor in educational technology companies, including Udemy. He believes there's a lot more room for growth.

TOM VANDER ARK: Now there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of these anywhere, anytime learning sites that make it possible for people around the world with access to broadband to gain entrance into the idea economy.

FLUCHT: But Vander Ark also believes there will be saturation in some subject areas.

ARK: This space will be very, very Darwinian. We don't need 3,000 Photoshop instructors.

FLUCHT: With so many new entrants, these companies have gotten pretty aggressive in how they compete for students. They offer steep discounting and giveaways. Some instructors aren't too happy about that. One of them is Charlie Borland who offered Udemy's first photography course.

CHARLIE BORLAND: They have a very high discount percentage, 75 percent off all the time. Sometimes you only get five bucks for a class.

FLUCHT: Body language expert Vanessa Van Edwards has the same complaint.

EDWARDS: They have trained their students to buy only on discount.

FLUCHT: Udemy vice-president of marketing Dinesh Thiru understands that some of the instructors dislike discounting courses. But he says that the marketing technique pulls in a lot more students. Most instructors understand this and 90 percent opt in to the discounting program.

DINESH THIRU: For most of our instructors, they're more than happy to be able offer a discount, you know, if it means that they're able to reach a few more students or teach some more folks.

FLUCHT: But Udemy instructors don't just take less from discounted courses. They also must give Udemy 50 percent of their revenue when students are brought in through these marketing programs. And this is why successful instructors like Van Edwards and Borland are extremely focused on building their own following. They subscribe to a newsletter, they follow you on Twitter, they buy your other courses.


BORLAND: Hi, I'm Charlie Borland, and I want to welcome you to the ultimate guide to flash photography. I'm going to take...

FLUCHT: Borland built a big enough following that he was able to sell his house in Bend, Oregon, buy an RV and travel full-time. So now maybe you're thinking, what skill can I sell online? Borland has this advice.

BORLAND: The competition, like everything, is as fierce as can be. And so create the best product with a lot of enthusiasm, and if you do it right, you'll be rewarded.

FLUCHT: For HERE AND NOW, I'm Julia Flucht in Portland.


CHAKRABARTI: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.


I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.