This is what I asked myself one and a half years ago.

I had this deep gut-feeling that it must be possible.

The first thing I did was research. Google presented me with a selection of socalled online teaching platforms, websites, where you can sign up as teacher or student, create profiles, courses etc.

So, what did I do? I signed up here and there. Saw sites that demanded a payment up-front, just for the listing, moved on – and waited.

And waited…

And waited…

While I was waiting, I tried to figure out how those websites work. I had been creating webpages for more than a decade, but – on some of those sites it took me hours just to figure out how to upload a freaking profile picture, not to mention creating or editing actual courses!

Eventually, some students came and requested lessons. Many of them scheduled something and then didn’t show up. But once in a blue moon, learning actually did happen – I met real people (after painstakingly explaining the students how to use the “classroom” software). Unfortunately this was not the norm. Much of the energy and time invested was lost on friction.

I was trying hard to become an online teacher. But it seemed so difficult…

To make a long story short, eventually I gave up on those platforms. I won’t mention any names, because those teaching platforms come and go like the seasons. Today it’s this, tomorrow it’s that. The reason why those sites don’t work as advertised could be many, but as Charles R. Perry argues on Kirsten Winkler’s blog, online language-teaching start-ups simply lack educational expertise. There are many investors, lots of hot air – and their founders are hopelessly clueless as to how language learning works. Rarely will you find a CEO who is a teacher, too.

All of this is somewhat upsetting, because beyond all the fancy advertisements, talks of credentials, “success guarantees”, etc. demands are simply not being met. And I haven’t met an online teacher yet who makes a full time living from such a platform.

A Minimalist Approach

My experience of teaching languages had always been a positive one. I had been working with teenagers for many many years and although it wasn’t always easy, the experience was generally characterized by a sense of  optimism, flexibility and simplicity. Being a teacher was often a tough job, but now that I wanted to become an online teacher, it seemed even harder!

What was I doing wrong?

After my first experience dealing with investor-fueled teaching platforms, I asked myself: “What is the most simple, most flexible way to implement a live learning situation on the net with minimum friction?”

And I thought: why not try Skype? Everybody is already using it, just not for teaching. Even non tech-savvy people have a user account and know how to use its basic functions without long-winded explanations. Plus, it’s free.

At the time, the idea of a teacher offering live lessons online, let alone on Skype seemed somewhat abstract.

But I had made my decision: I would try my luck and become an online teacher using the simplest, most commonly available tools.

Here’s what you need:

  1. A Skype account
  2. A simple online teaching website
  3. A fail-safe way to handle payments

Sounds too simple?

This is what I thought at first. And to be quite honest, the difficult part is not in the online teaching technology but in the marketing aspect.

A successful independent online teacher needs a successful online marketing strategy.

Teachers Are Not Marketers

In the same way Charles argued that the founders of online teaching startups have often no clue as to how the actual teaching/learning happens, many teachers don’t know how to

a) create webpages or

b) “market” themselves

The first one is not much of a problem. There are many ways to create online teaching websites with minimal technical knowledge.

The real problem is how an online teacher should “market” himself once he got everything set up. It’s not exactly a popular topic but it makes all the difference between being able to make a living as an online teacher or just doing it as a hobby. But don’t worry, marketing doesn’t always have to be shameless self-promotion.

I have mentioned big teaching platforms above. What I haven’t mentioned, yet – is that for all the hassle online teachers have with those sites, they demand commissions, meaning you have to give away part of what you earn – in some cases even up to 50%! Why? The standard explanation is that they’ll “do marketing for you”. But what kind of marketing?

What it often means is that the company will use the money to invest in advertisement campaigns so that the online teacher will get more students (at least this is what they say).

Most of us teachers not being hard-core economists, we sheepishly agree to the high commissions and say: “They probably know what they’re doing.”

So you teach (in between hassles with technology and fake students). The company takes a bite. Ads go up. More students sign up. And more teachers! There’s lots of friction. A bit of teaching. Companies take a bite. More ads go up! And so on and so forth.

You know what’s wrong with this picture? Two things:

  • advertising targets the lowest common denominator. These big portals don’t just get clicks from people that are seriously interested. By putting themselves up on the soap box and screaming “Online Learning!” they attract all kinds of people that range from curious to undetermined to simply bored.
  • Advertising doesn’t improve the quality of a site or service

This is what generally passes as “marketing” – But it’s as sustainable as using a giant power plant to power one single light-bulb.

In other words: For individual online teachers with their own website there is no need for high advertisement costs, in fact – and I know many people will disagree: there isn’t a need at all for advertising.

So, maybe you are independently wealthy and can spend ridiculous amounts of money on ads. Good luck with that. For all the others, here’s what I suggest:

Traffic Means Trust

I’ve said it before that paying for ads doesn’t magically increase the quality of your site or service. Instead it simply increases the sheer quantity of people exposed to it. And, although we can intuit it to be true, we still have problems getting it: Quantity is not everything!

Instead of juxtaposing numbers of visitors with numbers of dollars, focus on quality! Then, the traffic (and students) will come almost effortlessly.

One of the best ways to do this is simply helping people. Yes. Helping people. For free!

For example, it is highly recommend to open up a blog on your site and write articles on a regular basis that talks to your potential customers. And, no: advertisment language is not enough. You have to show that

a) you know what you’re talking about and

b) give people a reason to care.

If you cannot prove to your visitors that you are an expert teacher and have a serious passion to help people make a progress, don’t expect them to care.

But if you put out high value on a consistent basis, you will end up with a strong reader- or followership that respects you for the quality of your performance – not for the size of your advertisment budget.

You will be able to form strong connections in the meantime, gain supporters and friends – not just customers or clients.

This is why the term “marketing” doesn’t really apply to what I’m talking about here.

Marketers are liers – There I said it.

My fellow online learning enthusiast Kirsten Winkler put it in a milder way: “That’s what marketing is for, to make you believe, not to deliver facts“, but it’s more or less the same thing.

If you want people to trust you as a teacher you have to stand as an example.

Put value on the table. And if you’re skillful, people will recognize and appreciate it.

This has nothing do with marketing and has everything to do with communication skills!

And, after all, this is an area in which every (language) teacher excel quite naturally!


UPDATE: This article and many others like it are now part of a book containing a series of essays on online teaching titled “How To Teach Online Without Selling Your Soul”. Click here to find out more.