Learning from Big Learning: 14 Lessons

BY Jeff Cobb

14 Lessons from Big Learning

In case you haven’t noticed, online learning has become big business – more so, and much more credibly so than back in the mid 90s when I joined my first e-learning start-up. Venture capital firms have jumped back into the game head first, major universities have been jockeying for position, and big Web firms like LinkedIn and Google have been – more or less  seriously – making moves. (And it seems inevitable that Facebook will rock this market at some point.)

Most importantly, there is little doubt that we now live in a world in which people are perfectly comfortable with learning online, and indeed expect to have that option available to them. Given this shift, it’s worth considering what some of the Big Learning companies seem to know and do that could be worth emulating – and, crucially, that it seems possible for the average association or other market-facing learning business to emulate. Here’s a look at a handful of them.

The MOOC 3

I’ll start with the three big massive open online courses (MOOC) organizations – Coursera, EdX, and Udacity. While there are certainly differences between them, I think it’s safe to lump them together for the purposes of drawing a few lessons.

The MOOC providers have made it abundantly clear – if it wasn’t already – that there is huge global interest in perennial and emerging topics of all sorts. Yes, I know: most people sign up for MOOCs and never complete them. But still, 1,192,697 signed up for a course in learning how to learn? There’s something happening here, folks.

The big MOOCers have also illustrated how powerful brand and partnerships can be. All three are, of course, built upon partnerships with major universities and, to a lesser extent, companies (like Google). The MOOC providers have leveraged their partners’ brands to build their businesses, and their partners have leveraged the MOOC model to elevate their brands globally. Not a bad deal.

But, of course, there is the business model issue. MOOCs are supposed to be free, and while free can lead to huge numbers of learners, huge numbers times zero still equal zero.

While it’s too early to say that this issue has been sorted out definitively, there are clear signs of progress. Notably, all three of the big providers are focused on the ability to award credentials of one variety or another – from certificates, to specializations, to nanodegrees. The money, that is to say, is not so much in the content as in the validation – a broad trend, by the way, we highlighted a couple of years ago in our year-end trends and predictions Webinar. So what are some key lessons to take from all of this?

  • First of all, there may be significant opportunity in thinking bigger and broader than you are right now – which probably means well beyond your current membership base as well as beyond state and national borders. If you represent a field or industry of any reasonable size, there is almost certainly a large audience out there interested in foundational knowledge, emerging topics, or both.
  • Second, it’s worth exploring what partnerships you could/should be leveraging for broader reach and mutually-beneficial brand building
  • Third, “free” is powerful – and all the more so if your organization is seen as a valuable source of validation through certifications, specializations, and other forms of credentialing. It’s worth devoting some major time to (a) what you can offer for free that might attract significant interest (see the first bullet above) and (b) the paths to validation you can offer as part of your education business strategy.

These are just some of the big ones I see for starters. I encourage you to comment and add any lessons of your own.


While Lynda.com, a video-based online education company, made something of a splash when it was acquired by LinkedIn for $1.5 billion in 2015, it operated relatively quietly for two decades before that. Unlike the world-shaking claims associated with MOOCs, there’s is nothing at all that sexy about creating video tutorials. These days, at least. But way back in ye old days of 1995, not a whole lot of companies (relatively speaking) were doing it. And a lot of those who were took on venture capital money and fell prey to the usual sins of trying to grow too fast.

Lynda was among the first companies to start offering Web-based video tutorials and – critically – one of the few that stuck to its simple, but effective model. The company had been operating for 17 years before it took on it first outside funding in 2013, at least part of which was earmarked for developing a mobile strategy and expanding internationally. In a nutshell, it grew to more than $100 million in annual revenue based upon showing up early, persistently – but organically – growing and improving, and and being smart about when to capitalize on significant changes occurring in the market for education.

Speaking of capitalizing on significant changes: LinkedIn and Lynda together recognized the increasingly tight connections between career development, career networking, and online education. LinkedIn describes itself  as “the world’s largest professional network on the Internet with more than 400 million members in over 200 countries and territories.” Providing content that can help members enhance their skills and develop new ones is very much in line with the company’s mission – making the acquisition a logical strategic move.

Some key takeaways:

  • While showing up first is never a guarantee, it almost always gives you a major advantage if you have a reasonably good (i.e., not perfect, not cutting edge) model and are willing to focus. Most trade and professional organizations are naturally positioned to be first with education in their markets. Are you capitalizing on this position?
  • There is deep value to be mined in effectively connecting online education with a network – or, even better in our view, a community. I won’t argue that LinkedIn/Lynda has come anywhere close to realizing this value, but clearly it is a goal. Again, membership organizations are, at least in theory, particularly well positioned for creating education-community connections that vastly exceed the sum of the parts.

Khan Academy

In some ways, the the lessons of Khan Academy and Lynda are similar: pick a relatively simple model, stick to it, and work hard. But it is worth highlighting the particular simplicity and focus of Khan Academy, at least in its early days. Salman Khan set out to address a specific problem: helping his cousin Nadia with her math homework. He used freely available tools to do this – Yahoo Doodle, and eventually YouTube – and he focused on being clear, concise, and practical in helping the growing audience for his brief video tutorials.

Khan also paid attention to his audience, and once he realized he was on to something, he developed and stuck to a sense of mission that guides Khan Academy to this day.

It’s easy to forget all of this now that Khan Academy has Gates Foundation funding behind it and has implemented cutting edge approaches like an adaptive learning engine and badging. But there are lessons to be drawn from the organization’s humble beginnings, including:

  • You don’t have to have expensive or cutting edge technology to get started. The main thing is to focus on how you can best improve your learner’s situation.
  • Everything doesn’t have to be a “course” in the traditional sense. Most Khan Academy videos are in the 5 to 10 minute range. They are provided as a learning tool to help learners with a specific, well-defined issue or problem – not as a full-blown educational solution. Two big benefits of this approach are that they (a) make it possible for learners to easily get at the help they need most, and (b) they make it possible for a single subject matter expert to provide a tremendous amount of learning value. (While he is admittedly above average, Khan himself created more than 2000 videos in the early days of Khan Academy.)

The Great Courses

The Great Courses is the oldest organization in this group, and arguably the least sexy. Indeed, some readers may be surprised to even see it here. After all, it is a company that specializes in creating and distributing, gasp, lectures – the learning modality that has come in for so much criticism in recent years.

I won’t get into a debate about lectures other than to say that there are good lectures and bad lectures, and for my money, these are good lectures. Given that The Great Courses has long since passed 1 million learners and $100 million in revenue, I am apparently not alone in thinking that.

I could write an entire post on things The Great Courses does right from a business perspective (though I have already discussed that to some extent in Leading the Learning Revolution). The main point I will focus on here, though, is The Great Courses’ emphasis on quality. This is an emphasis that dates from the days when the company was delivering its product on video and audio cassettes, and it comes down to two main areas: the care they take in selecting faculty, and an intensive focus on customer support and satisfaction.

The Great Courses has a very intensive process for scouting, selecting, and working with “talent.” As the company will tell you on its Web site, it aims to feature “the top 1% of college professors in the world, selected entirely for their ability to teach.” (Customers also vote on every professor before a course is made.) In my own experience with their courses – which is extensive enough to be almost embarrassing at this point! – they are more successful with some of their selections than other. But that’s to be expected. Overall, the caliber of both teaching and content is very high. It should be noted, too, that while the company has recently started making use of more sophisticated techniques like green screens and virtual reality, it relied for years on a relatively simple studio set up and basic techniques to make the presenters come across more professionally on screen – approaches that even small, cash-strapped organizations can master.

As far as service, The Great Courses backs up its offerings with something I can’t recall ever encountering in an association’s catalog of online courses – a money back guarantee. Additionally, in the 90s the company instituted “Course Knowledge” as a key part of customer service training. Customer service representatives keep a “CK” notebook on hand with their notes about courses, so that they are actually able to engage with customers in a meaningful way.

A few lessons:

  • First, while lectures are most assuredly overused, and often done badly, they are hardly a thing of the past. Used in the right way, they can be extremely valuable, and many – probably most – learners actually like a good lecture. The Great Courses has focused on delivering great lectures. It may be something to consider.
  • Related to the above point, actively scouting, engaging, and cultivating teaching talent is, for my money, one of the most essential and strategic function of an education business these days. It’s worth reviewing – and, most likely, improving – your efforts in this area regularly.
  • Finally, put your money and your service where your mouth is. Offer a money back guarantee – the number of people who take you up on it will be small, but it lowers risk – thus helping with converting prospects to customers – and it creates good will. And do everything you can to make sure the people interfacing with your customers/members know at least a little something about the courses you offer.


Next up, Udemy. I won’t spend a lot of time discussing Udemy’s business model here – I have covered the Market Maker model in other places. Suffice to say that Udemy, along with a crop of other start-ups like Ruzuku and Teachable, has realized that there is a big opportunity in empowering subject matter entrepreneurs, or eSMES, as we sometimes call them.

A key factor that has set Udemy apart from many other company’s, however, is its emphasis from the early days of the company on ensuring that the experts who use the platform actually create a reasonably good product. Anyone who has worked with subject matter experts knows this is no small order. Being an expert in a topic is one thing. Teaching it well, and in particular, teaching it well online, is quite another. Udemy has developed good supporting materials  to help experts through the process and thereby maintain reasonable consistency in quality across its catalog. It’s not rocket science, but it makes a huge difference.

So, two lessons here:

  • First, if you have not thought about how your organization might embrace some variation of the Market Maker model, now is the time – and it is a time that is in the process of passing.
  • Second, regardless of the above, investing in systematically supporting your experts in delivering great content is a smart move (and that goes for the classroom/breakout session room as much as it does for online).


I had not originally planned to include Degreed here as my focus was more on companies engaged in content creation. Degreed, at least so far, is not really a content creator, but rather an aggregator of content and – more importantly – an aggregator of learner records.

We first highlighted Degreed in our annual trends Webinar at the end of 2014 when we talked about the concept of a “learning locker” – basically, a place where learners can record and keep track of all of their various learning activities, formal or inform, no matter where they take place. It’s a powerful concept, and Degreed has been able to build on it: as suggested above, they evolved quickly from a place where learners can capture records for their learning experiences to a platform that also provide access to learning content from a wide range of providers (including Lynda.com, Khan Academy, Coursera, and Udemy). Don’t be surprised if they pull a Netflix move soon and start producing their own programming.

Two final lessons:

  • Being the place where learners come to track their learning and access content is a potentially powerful move. Traditional LMS providers have been slow to make this an off-the-shelf feature of their platforms, but a number have finally gotten there. It’s worth looking into the possibility – before Degreed beats you to it.
  • Informal learning has always been important – by most accounts, a lot more important than formal learning. Degreed is making strides in giving informal learning its due by including sources like YouTube, The New York Times, and Audible, among many others, in its mix. Curating and giving credit for informal learning opportunities doesn’t have to be rocket science – but it does need to be part of the strategy for most education businesses going forward.

So that’s my take on what can be learned from Big Learning. What’s your? Please comment and share your thoughts.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.