Prepare for the Work & the Rewards

There are many reasons why you might want to start an online school. They’re flexible, accessible, more more affordable to build than traditional educational environments, and they come with powerful abilities to personalize coursework and rapidly scale both your student enrollment and your offerings as a school.

As such, starting an online school can be a lucrative endeavor for those with the willingness to put in the hard work of what is effectively starting and maintaining a small-to-medium-sized business.

But, once you’ve decided to start your online school, where do you start?

Build Your Online School One Virtual Brick at A Time

When creating your online school, a good first step is to divide the enterprise into smaller, more manageable blocks. Taken together, these blocks will hopefully produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, and get you on your way to successfully creating, selling, and delivering your curricula.

Here are some common tactile steps you can take, along these lines:

1. Confirm or Test Demand and Identify Your Niche

Starting an online school, while completely possible, will likely involve a lot of work. You’ll need to invest a great deal of time, and probably a good amount of money, to do it effectively. 

Before making those investments, be sure that you have an idea with enough demand to support a thriving business, in a niche and with target audience that you can successfully market to when it comes time to seek out students for your school.

What subjects are you going to teach?

Why? To whom?

What’s your unique selling proposition (USP)?

Answering these questions will help set you up for success when starting your online school.

2. Develop a Business Plan and Assemble a Team

After you’ve done the groundwork of validating the idea for your online school, next you’ll need a business plan.

Your business plan should outline how you plan to deliver on your value proposition for your courses, when marketing to your target audience(s). It should also catalog your startup costs, for things like technology, software, and any staff you might need to execute on your plans.

When it comes to staffing, how you approach this will depend on the general business model for your online school. If you’re bootstrapping or scaling up from a business of one (or only a few people), you may want to start by hiring specialist, short-term contractors for certain tasks like setting up your learning management system (LMS) and marketing funnel.

By contrast, if you’re building a larger school, you may need full-time employees or at least longer non-employee contracts, in order to get your courses staffed and up-and-running.

As much as possible, try to hire collaborators with an appropriate level of experience in online education and who share your passion for the subjects that your school teaches.

3. Decide on Your Branding and Build a Website

How your online school looks and feels to prospective students is arguably as important as the content of your courses and your efficacy as a business operator.

Your website will also be your online school’s home. Taken together, what this all means is that you’ll want the colors, fonts, and any other stylistic elements you choose as part of your branding to align closely with the impression you want everyone to leave with after visiting your site.

On a structural and user experience (UX) level, you’ll want a website that’s easy to navigate and use, visually pleasing, optimized for mobile as well as desktop (whenever possible) and that’s stable and secure.

4. Develop Your Curricula and Create Course Materials

Your course materials and greater curricula will represent the foundation of your online school. Proportionally, they should take the most amount of time and work. You need to get your actual course content right if you want to succeed in helping your students and in growing and maintaining your business.

We recommend starting with outlines for your courses, and perhaps even a higher-level document determining how courses will work together to educate students along the lines of the goals you’ve set for them and yourself as a school.

Most courses are put together with a variety of tools and combine a few different forms of media, such as video, slideshows, text documents and quizzes. Don’t forget accessibility when compiling materials, so that all students can equitably access and learn from your courses.

5. Set Up Your Learning Management System (LMS) and Video Hosting Solution

An LMS helps you upload and administrate course materials, track student progress, and communicate with students. Basically, it helps you manage the actual content and relationships that make up your school.

Available LMS options vary in scope and complexity. For bootstrappers, there are free or low-cost platforms you can use. Large scale LMS can support entire accredited universities.

Note that an LMS will often have to paired with a video hosting service for optimal performance and scalability.

6. Market and Sell Your Online School and Course Offerings

We could write an entire additional post just about this step (and kind of did). However you decide to go about it, however, you need to have a marketing plan for bringing students into your online school.

Utilize a set of tools and tactics for driving demand and enrollment, such as:

– Your web site and/or landing pages

– Advertising

– SEO and content marketing

– Email marketing

– Social media marketing

– Partnership marketing and/or referrals

Keep your plans closely aligned with your USP and your audience targeting. For larger efforts, an agency can be a good idea for outsourcing some marketing and sales to professionals.

Key Challenges to Starting an Online School

Even if you’re already set on starting your online school, it’s smart to consider what potential challenges might lie ahead of you.

Here are a few common roadblocks to success. All can be navigated with some hard work, focus, and dedication.

1 – Technology: Starting an online school can require a significant investment in technology. This may include hardware such as computers, servers, and cameras, as well as software for creating and delivering courses, managing students, and tracking progress

2 – Funding: Starting an online school can also call for a significant initial cash investment. And it may take time to start generating dependable revenue at sustainable numbers. If bootstrapping, prepare for a potentially bumpy ride in the early days (years). If planning to secure funding from investors or loans, note that this can be challenging for new or unproven businesses.

3 – Legal compliance: Your online school may be subject to a variety of laws and regulations related to education, privacy, and data security. Compliance can become a complex and time-consuming responsibility, but failing at it can result in serious legal and financial consequences.

4 – Marketing: It’s worth repeating. Building a brand and attracting students to an online school takes a lot of work, and patience. And with so many other online schools available, it can be difficult to differentiate yours from the competition when it comes to enrolling students. You must succeed at marketing in order to generate the sales you need to move forward.

5 – Teaching: Online education often necessitates a different approach to teaching than with traditional education. Online courses must be especially engaging and interactive, while leaving room for self-pacing. Teaching staff must also have the right skills to fit into an online environment.

6 – Student engagement: When the novelty wears off, you need to find ways to keep your students engaged and motivated. It can be more of a challenge to build a sense of community in the virtual environments of online coursework.

Set aside plenty of time to consider which of these challenges might affect your online school the most, and have a plan for combatting them in turn.

Conclusion: Starting an Online School Means Playing the Long Game

There’s a world of difference between prototyping a single online course, and creating an entire school with many more students, and potentially a full roster of faculty, administrators, and sales and marketing (and operations) professionals.

Provide yourself with as much lead time as you can afford, get those business and marketing plans in good shape, and prepare yourself to play the long game. Study business management as much as you study teaching, and try to grow professionally yourself, even as you go about helping students.

Starting an online school does take a lot of effort, but it can be rewarding and lucrative. Good luck!

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