Various reports about EdTech development mention different numbers when it comes to forecasting its market value in the near future. They usually range from $325 billion by 2025 (Research and Markets) to $375 billion by 2026 (Global Market Insights). Most of these reports were published before the pandemic, so we can imagine that these numbers will grow significantly. There are no doubts that Covid-19 has accelerated the implementation of e-learning solutions worldwide and has imposed the rapid paradigm shift in traditional education.
Numbers of active users on e-learning platforms are stunning. Only in 2018, Udemy gained 10 million users, starting the year with 20 million and ending it with 30 million online courses enjoyers. Next year was even more impressive and now, Udemy has registered about 50 million active users. If you feel thrilled seeing these data and are willing to build your own e-learning platform from scratch - here are some crucial things you should think about before taking the first step.
E-learning platform development step-by-step
1. Get to know your user
When thinking about e-learning it’s very easy to limit yourself only to school education. Of course, it’s still the basis of EdTech development but it often goes way beyond that field. Research shows that 77% of US companies used e-learning in 2017, mostly to speed up employee training. I’m mentioning that because getting to know your users is one of the crucial steps to take at the beginning of the product development process. And e-learning platforms are no exception.
I won’t focus on the details here, because Aleksandra has already covered this process well in her article about building a SaaS marketing automation platform like Mailchimp. Let me just highlight a few important things you should consider at the initial stage of the development process. You need to have it crystal clear whether your ideal customer is a single student, a school or a company. Then you can perfectly fit the UX and UI of the application to the users’ needs. The main Udemy’s offer is dedicated to students, but they also have a different platform - Udemy for business, which offers employees training but also allows companies to create their customized e-learning platforms.
Defining your customers at the very beginning is also crucial when it comes to your app scalability. You need to be able to estimate the demand for your product and predict its future growth to design a suitable architecture and choose proper technologies. Did you know that over 70% of startups fail due to premature scaling? You definitely don’t want to be one of them.
2. Prepare Business Model
There are different ways of monetizing an e-learning platform and you should take all of them into consideration before starting the development process. The most popular solution is to charge users for a specific course like in the case of Udemy. But you should be aware of the fact that in this monetization model it’s very difficult to maintain the high retention rate. Udemy successfully solved this problem with a sales strategy based on offering a huge discount for almost every course.
Another popular one is the subscription-based model, used by Udemy in their corporate-oriented platform called “Udemy for business”. It’s often based on monthly payments, but in some cases, it’s worth considering creating a one-year contract with a lower monthly rate. Deciding on this business model you should create some extra benefits for users so they will want to come back to your platform and still use it after finishing some course. The good way to keep them motivated is to create different certificates.
Implementing the paid certification model is also often used by different e-learning providers. They offer free courses, spreading the idea of easy access to education for everyone. But when students want to obtain the certification they need to pay for it.
Advertising and sponsorship are other commonly used business models for e-learning platforms. You can provide the advertisers with a lot of data about your users’ interests, which can be crucial for their marketing activities. For example, you can create a photography course which is sponsored by some photo company, like Nikon or Canon.
You can also offer the premium account option, which is very similar to the subscription-based model. But in this case, you can provide users with a very limited number of free courses that they will have access to. And of course, the higher the monthly subscription fee is, the more attractive the courses offer becomes.
3. Investigate the landscape
Obviously, Udemy is not the only e-learning platform you should treat as a benchmark for your product. There are many others that gained a lot of popularity and established their position in a specific niche. The last example mentioned above, about the premium account subscription, is the case of Skillshare. It became a household name especially among creatives, like filmmakers, photographers, designers. And they achieved that by overcoming one of the biggest obstacles for every e-learning platform - the availability of free but high-quality Youtube lessons and courses. What they did was basically cooperating with the influencers like Daniel Schiffer, Peter Mckinnon or Brandon Woelfel, who created their own online courses on Skillshare and promoted this platform on their Youtube channels.
But let’s take a closer look at the biggest Udemy competitor - Coursera. They’ve chosen a slightly different cooperation model with course providers. On this e-learning platform, you can find high-quality courses created by institutions like schools, universities and companies that are leaders in their fields. It means that you can learn from experts in their areas, Google or Microsoft employees, Stanford University lectures and many other organisations. This, of course, is reflected in the number of courses offered. While on Coursera we will find less than three thousand courses, Udemy offers over one hundred thousand of them.
So if you are planning to cooperate with establishments, you should rather focus on the Coursera cooperation model. On the other hand, it doesn’t mean that posting online courses on Udemy is available for everyone and this platform compromises the knowledge quality. They have strict rules about identifying the tutor’s identity and course ownership. Also, every course must undergo an individual quality assessment.
4. Choose a type of platform
When you already have a benchmark analysis done and you’ve identified your ideal customer, you can focus on choosing the platform type that will fit your needs well. You’ll probably need to face this question: should I build the MOOC or LMS platform? What are the differences between them? Or maybe it will be better to build a customized platform for my needs? Well, don’t get me wrong - the platform always has to be customized to your needs, but in this case, I am talking about the specific solutions that may be offered only by you, so you should have an adequate platform to handle it.
MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Courses. It means that in this situation, you’ll create a platform open to everyone. No matter what your niche is, people from all over the world can create and buy courses on your platform, which performs as a kind of e-learning marketplace. Udemy is an excellent example of a MOOC solution.
LMS is a Learning Management System and it’s often a type of platform with restricted access, it means it is available only for university students, company employees, etc. It provides a space for creating courses and corporate training, different certification or examination schemas, storing them and managing the roles of course participants. But as it’s designed for a specific customer, whether it’s a university or company, it won’t necessarily need such robust architecture as a MOOC platform, because fewer users will participate in the courses. The LMS systems often wouldn’t handle the number of users that MOOC platforms are designed for.
LMS should function as online classes that provide communication between teacher and students, allow working on different files, upload images, etc. In fact, MOOC is often considered a larger LMS system. Of course, there are also different kinds of LMS platforms, like open-source LMSes, but the truth is that they don’t differ much from each other. In fact, it’s always worth to build a custom learning platform from scratch with all of the functionalities adjusted to the project needs. Later in this article, I will take a closer look at two examples of such custom online education platforms we created at Merixstudio.
5. Design MVP
When you are finally ready to start the development process, you should primarily focus on creating an MVP of your app. MVP stands for Minimum Viable Product and it consists only yours app core features. But why should you create a basic product instead of filling it with the stunning designs and functionalities? To validate your idea as early as possible and gain what will be the most important in the future development - feedback. Find out if it’s easy for them to interact with your product, and if not - fix bugs and work on UX and navigation to solve problems the first users have met. Creating an MVP allows you to release your basic product quickly, interact with users early on, and attract the investors’ attention to raise capital for your startup.
The best way to choose the core features for your MVP and also to validate your idea is by joining product design workshops. During the online or in-house sessions, you’ll recognise the best solutions for your project. Design workshops will give you a base for creating a prototype of your product, and if you already have one, a well-conducted scoping session should ensure the environment to analyse technical opportunities and estimate the cost of development.
6. Choose the best TechStack
Choosing a technology stack may bring lots of confusion. That’s why before making any decisions it’s always a good idea to ask for software development consultancy.
If you treat Udemy as a benchmark, you should decide on the resilient, battle-tested technologies that will help you scale your product. Which ones should you consider when building an e-learning platform?
The base language of the Udemy platform is Python and it helps to handle millions of registered users and thousands of courses. What’s interesting - initially the platform was built with PHP, but they decided to switch to Python due to this language’s growing popularity and better performance.
And we recommend this solution as well. Not only because Udemy uses it - we also chose this technology for our e-learning projects. Python and Django created the powerful server-side base for competenz4u which helped us to handle hundreds of recorded tutorials. But Django also performs well with lightweight products, like in the case of our other project - Studybee, a Chrome extension for class management.
Although the majority of courses are taken within their desktop version, your users need to have access to their classes also on mobile devices. The fastest way to create a mobile app is to decide on a cross-platform mobile development solution, using frameworks like React Native or Flutter. They will provide you with a native look and feel, but, at the same time, it requires creating only one codebase for both - Android and iOS. That significantly accelerates the development process and makes it less expensive.
7. Engage the best team to turn your idea into a fully-fledged project
To build an MVP quickly you need a team of talented and experienced people. Unfortunately, hiring an in-house team is time and money consuming and it might significantly slow down the development of the product and time-to-market. It may take you months to find skilled developers as they are in high demand and there’s a very limited talent pool in software engineering. And they are not the only ones who stand behind the success of the digital product - the role of product designers (both, UI and UX) and Project Managers is priceless.
That’s why you should consider outsourcing your project and entrust it to a reliable IT partner that already has experience in creating products similar to yours.
Core features of educational platforms
As I mentioned, to create an MVP of your platform, you should focus on the most crucial features that will allow people to use your app and learn. Ok, but which ones of them are the basic ones? Although it depends on the project, we can set some examples typical for e-learning platforms.
1. The search tool, categories and filtering system
You need to make searching for online courses as easy as pie. Following the Udemy model, you can use the search bar to make it simple and perfectly clear from the UX point of view.
You may also give users an opportunity to look for a particular course exploring different categories and filter their search results by subcategories, price, ratings, and even captions language if needed.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, in the case of Udemy’s business model it’s not easy to maintain high retention. That’s why they decided on implementing the recommendation module. This feature can be based on the questionnaire filled by a student when creating an account or harness machine learning to suggest new courses considering the finished or most popular ones.
A good dashboard is a simple dashboard but functional at the same time. It’s a great challenge for UX and UI designers to keep clarity and ensure the necessary features. Users need to be able to access the course and start it from the point that they left, check the course status, and track their progress. In the tutor dashboard, you should include analytical data such as a number of course's participants, active users, etc.
4. Course page
The single course page usually includes a short intro from the tutor within which he introduces himself and informs about what a student is going to learn here. You shouldn’t also forget about the detailed description, the course programme and materials provided by the lecturer. Add a review section to keep people informed about other student’s feedback.
5. Course creation
On the tutor’s side, the course making page should also be simple and customizable. Let them create the course structure, upload videos, PDFs, and other extra materials. Provide them with tools that will maintain their interaction with students, like exams, questions and questionnaires.
6. Reviews and ratings for fast feedback
That’s a very valuable feature that gives students the possibility to share their feedback about the course. First of all, it informs new users whether the classes are still relevant and up to date. The tutors can also make sure that people like their content. And if not - they see, where is the space for improvement and updates.
7. Payment systems
Allowing for recurring card payments method, just like we did in the case of competenz4u project, is the best solution when it comes to the monthly subscription business model. In the cases similar to Udemy you should create another convenient payment method making use of debit/credit cards or PayPal.
Maybe some other payment solutions are popular in your local market (like BLIK in Poland)? Think about making use of them. Remember to create a way for tutors to collect their earnings.
They are crucial to keep students motivated and informed about the updates and changes in the course. They could be sent by e-mail or within push notifications in the mobile app. But, if you decide to inform about new courses with them, don’t overuse it, and, just like Udemy and other platforms, give the user a possibility to choose which notifications the user wants to receive.
9. Admin panel
That’s a must-have feature of the e-learning platforms' MVPs. The administration panel allows you to manage users’ accounts and all the content. It will also give you an opportunity to generate statistics. The powerful tool for creating the dedicated admin panel is Django Suit, which we used in developing the Studybee chrome extension.
Take the e-learning platform to the next level
It’s obvious that today’s data consumption, especially on mobile devices, changed the way how we perceive information, particularly among the Z generation representatives. What comes after, it also influenced the way we learn. There are a few reasons why students prefer online classes instead of traditional school lessons and you should be aware of them when creating the e-learning platform. Here are some of the features and characteristics which can elevate your project and conquer the hearts of your users.
Video has become the most engaging content on the web and that’s definitely one of the biggest reasons that attract millions of users to the e-learning platforms and online courses. The amount of time that people spend consuming online content is constantly increasing. In 2019 they spent the weekly average of 6 hours and 48 minutes watching online videos, 59% more than in 2016! Youtube is now the second most popular search engine in the world, and that fact is often overlooked.
Video courses are the core of the Udemy business strategy. You’ll find their video lessons but also teasers that will help you find out more about the course. People love to learn from video because it’s easy to transfer the knowledge and show examples at the same time. It applies not only to students but also to employees. Research shows that 75% of them are more likely to join video training than to read the text, and hence their training is much more effective thanks to this solution. There is nothing more boring than another PowerPoint presentation with tons of text information!
But on the other hand, when designing the best user experience possible, you should also give tutors and students a possibility to attach files, like text documents, images, or PDFs. Remember that although the video is ruling the world right now, a lot of people still like to study by reading, so diversify the type of files they can share. Take a look at how Udemy solved that:
The implementation of video lessons into your e-learning platform is one thing, but if your project assumes the live online classes with students, you need to think about the video streaming solutions. You can, of course, consider buying a subscription from one of the most popular video providers, but as you are probably thinking about monetizing your project, it's better to create your own solution.
On the other hand, if you are planning to distribute your videos for your company’s internal purposes and only among your employees, using YouTube or Google Meets streaming services should meet your needs. Of course, it reduces your possibilities of creating the dedicated video content and you won’t control all the functionalities, but I think that if a video is not going to be the most important content on your platform, you can agree to that.
Chats, questions and tests
If you decide on a live video streaming solution you have to provide a text chat to maintain smooth communication between the lecturer and attendants. It’s not only necessary to conduct classes but also to report some technical issues that may occur, due to e.g. low video quality caused by slow internet connection. Chat is helpful when it comes to live streaming, but if your platform is based on earlier recorded video, it’s better to implement the Q&A section, just like Udemy did it:
You should also consider implementing the test features to be able to examine your students and employees online. A simple test at the end of each chapter of the course is a great way to systematize acquired knowledge.
VR and IoT
If you want to stand out of the crowd and increase the chances of gaining ground in the EdTech industry, bet on emerging technologies like virtual/extended reality or Internet of Things. It’s still not commonly used in education, but can be very helpful also in the case of employees training, especially when it comes to more technical issues - just take a look at how Microsoft implemented it.
The growing number of devices with access to the Internet opens the door to a whole plethora of possibilities to digitize classes and make them more interactive. How to use it? Take a look at our U Project case study. It’s a multitouch whiteboard with an app that provides a connection with students’ tablets, so all the drawn and written data can be displayed at everyone’s device. First of all, we focused on the whiteboard drawing tool, thanks to which the teacher was able not only to sketch and create shapes but also open web pages and import images or even 3D videos. In the second phase, we created the communication between the teacher’s and students’ devices. That’s an excellent example of using IoT solution in the modern education system.
The U Project goal was to transfer the data from the interactive whiteboard to students’ tablets.
Learning by playing makes acquiring knowledge more effective not only for kids. But be careful, it’s very easy to go way too far here, just like KFC did with their VR training game. Much easier and safer is to make use of traditional methods, but turn them into creative and engaging gamification schemas. You can consider implementing some microlearning tools into your online education platform like flashcards. Do you remember them? Flashcards are indispensable when it comes to learning new languages. Another great example of microlearning tools are quizzes - people love them because they combine gaining knowledge with fun. Short games based on scoring points will also work here.
Don’t forget about smooth UX and UI
There is a possibility that you create all of these fantastic functionalities but people still won’t like to use your platform. If so, you need to take a closer look at a usability side. That point should be covered during the product design workshops or scoping sessions for sure. You need to have in mind the main purpose of using your e-learning platform when designing the user interface. People are going to love your app if nothing stands on their way to gain knowledge. You need to make the process of learning smooth and attractive.
That’s why the class or lesson view should contain only video and chat. Also, the list of other lessons can be displayed, if we are talking about the online course - this gives students an awareness of on what point they are and how much classes are left to finish the course.
How we created e-learning platforms like Udemy - competenz4u case study
As you probably noticed, our knowledge about creating online learning platforms comes from experience that we’ve gained developing EdTech products. Competenz4u was the platform most similar, in terms of functionalities, to this article’s main benchmark - Udemy.
It wasn’t a giant like Udemy, but our client found a niche perfectly and succeeded. The product was invented as a response to the new examination standards introduced in Austria and gave students access to affordable and user-friendly courses that were adjusted to the reformed examination system.
For competen4u we created not only web but also a mobile application
Our goal was to create an MVP of the web application that was going to handle hundreds of hours of different video courses. Online product design workshop session preceded the development process and helped each other plan the appropriate solutions and schedule the workflow. Python and Django helped to create a powerful platform and advanced admin panel. We also agreed that the subscription-based model was the best solution to monetize the services. The app was well-received by students and that success encouraged our client to expand it with gamification features that helped to maintain the high engagement among the students.
The numbers don’t lie. People love learning online and research shows that it’s a much more efficient process than in traditional one. What’s more, there is still a lot of space on the market for the new solutions that will bring education to another level. When planning the e-learning platform development, don’t forget about the essential features and steps you need to take to create a fully-fledged product with high chances to succeed.