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What’s a Course Building Platform?

Course building platforms, or CBPs, are software suites that enable instructors to easily and efficiently create the content for their online classes.

Before the pandemic, university professors and graduate teaching assistants were the main users of course building platforms. But because 66 percent of Americans have been more motivated to seek out online learning since the advent of the pandemic, that’s all changed.

All that sudden demand for instruction has given rise to a whole new and much larger market segment for CBPs: edupreneurs. An edupreneur is an entrepreneur who works in the education sector and sells their skills, expertise, and knowledge to an audience by creating online courses.

Much of the growth in the online education marketplace now originates not with universities but with edupreneurs, and they depend on these software platforms to efficiently develop and market their products.

Thinkific and Teachable: Market Leaders

In this report, we’re going to share some general impressions about the current products from the two market leaders among course building platform developers. These companies are Thinkific Labs, based in Vancouver, and New York City-based Teachable.

Both of these firms develop and market platforms that help edupreneurs create and sell their online courses. Thinkific’s platform provides a comprehensive course development solution that includes functions for student experience management, school and course marketing, data analytics, security, and instructor support. Teachable’s platform might not be quite as comprehensive, but for some new users, it’s easier to learn since it focuses on the special needs of beginners, such as first-time online instructors.

However, neither company’s offering is ideal for all customers, and controversy exists over which platform provides the best value.

Functions Served by Course Building Platforms

In general, these software suites offer three kinds of functionality. They support edupreneurs with:

  1. Online course creation, delivery, and management, including the preparation and online delivery of lectures, reading materials, and PowerPoint slides. This function can also include assessments like quizzes, tests, and final examinations. It might also encompass the awarding of certificates upon successful course completion.
  2. The selling and marketing of courses and related educational products and services, such as videos, books, outlines, study guides, consultations during office hours, model examination answers, tutoring, and peak-performance coaching. A crucial functionality within all these platforms enables edupreneurs to efficiently build websites that brand, market, and sell offerings like these online.
  3. Accounting and billing for the services and products delivered by the edupreneur. This function includes the management of accounting challenges such as invoices with currency conversions for students in other nations, late payment situations, and tax considerations.

What innovative startups like Thinkific and Teachable did ten years ago was greatly reduce and, in some respects, eliminate the barriers to entry that blocked instructors without university affiliations from teaching online.

Before 2012 and 2013, when Thinkific and Teachable launched, it would have been far beyond the capabilities of typical self-employed instructors without any online programming experience to set up a single, integrated website that performed all these functions. These new platforms offered a revolutionary advance that obviated the need for instructors to hire web designers and programmers to cobble together the content delivery, customer relationship management (CRM) and credit card billing systems available at the time.

What’s more, the new platforms saved those instructors tens of thousands of dollars on software development and web design costs in the process.

Sales and Marketing Emphasis

Now, one might naturally assume that most of the functionality built into these software suites would support online courses’ creation, delivery, and management. And if one reviews the literature in the press and the blogosphere written since the pandemic about course building platforms like these, that’s the position that most of these articles take.

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Most of the functionality that’s built into these platforms actually centers around sales and marketing. Many readers would likely be astonished—as we were—to recognize the tremendous emphasis built into these software platforms that’s devoted to selling educational products.

But is it really any wonder? If edupreneurs don’t sell courses, software firms like Teachable and Thinkific don’t make money. And these firms are big businesses with sizable operating budgets they need to support. For example, Teachable employs a workforce of 259—of whom 74 percent are women—and in 2020, was acquired by Amsterdam-based educational technology conglomerate Hotmart for more than $250 million. Similarly, unicorn startup Thinkific went public in April 2021 with an IPO that netted $160 million on a market capitalization of $1.18 billion; the firm currently employs 400 people.

It’s certainly true that these companies provide substantial resources that support their customers’ creation of amazing educational products and services. Nevertheless, when closely examining these platforms, one quickly realizes that they provide much more resources and emphasis devoted to selling these products and services than actually creating their educational content.

Thinkific vs. Teachable: Key Differences

From the moment one starts creating online courses for comparison purposes on both of these platforms, noticeable differences between them quickly emerge. Below we’ve listed some of the most significant distinctions that we observed.

New User Training

A huge difference between these companies exists when it comes to training new customers on how to set up their courses on each platform. For example, Thinkific employs a video-intensive approach not found within the Teachable platform. As soon as a new user creates their account, right away Thinkific displays this engaging Video Tour not on an external site like YouTube, but right in the center of the Thinkific dashboard itself.

The video shows the new user step-by-step how to set up their first course and create new lessons from a vast assortment of customized elements like recorded video lectures, live video lessons, PowerPoint slides, exercises, and quizzes. Thinkific makes all these customization options available not only because they improve student retention and help instructors fine-tune their content to their students’ needs, but also because they help edupreneurs differentiate their courses from those offered by competitors within the marketplace.

Then the Video Tour demonstrates how to set up an online community that accompanies the course. It even shows instructors how to create discussions within the community and invite classmates to share. And the company includes training videos like these within every one of the platform’s key functions.

But extensive use of videos isn’t the only way that Thinkific shows new users how to create content, because the platform also coaches users by applying an interactive guidance approach. For example (and as depicted in the Tour), when users select the “Create Your Course Outline” function, immediately the browser screen dims and a bubble appears. Containing the instruction “Open this menu to get started,” the first bubble points to the Manage Learning Products menu item in the Dashboard’s left menu column. Then a second bubble with the instruction “Open courses to start building” points to the Courses button in the submenu. Then the Courses web page loads, and a third button containing the instruction “Select a course to get started.” points to the course selector button.

This graceful and dazzling synergy between Thinkific’s videos and this interactive guidance system delivers the firm’s major competitive advantage over Teachable. Thinkific’s rapid training approach makes learning its complex and feature-rich platform ridiculously fast and easy—an efficient and effective pedagogical process that educators, of all people, will especially appreciate.

By contrast, in what can only be described as a colossal missed opportunity, Teachable doesn’t appear to use either videos or interactive guidance. What Teachable does instead is require new users to scroll through a help system containing dense columns of 1990s-era, textbook-style technical documentation, illustrated with simplistic animated GIF images.

Although Teachable’s low-budget help system may be adequate for some customers, it’s nevertheless dated and can’t possibly compete with the advanced training systems that Thinkific provides all its customers—even those on the free plan.

Beautiful Design Themes

Thinkific similarly excels when it comes to an element critical to building a compelling sales website: design. Yale University’s Paul Rand and Apple’s Chief Design Officer Jonny Ive established how great design plays a crucial role in adding value and boosting sales, and Thinkific’s top management undoubtedly understands such designers’ impacts and the results they delivered in the marketplace.

Created specifically for education businesses, the platform’s high-quality sales page design themes are beautiful and, in some cases, stunning. Not only are these images much more competitive than those offered by Teachable, but Thinkific’s themes are also easily customizable using drag-and-drop editing.

Additional Thinkific Advantages

In addition, several more of Thinkific’s features struck us as impressive:

Live Synchronous Lessons

Thinkific is the only one of these platforms that offers live, synchronous lesson delivery. As we pointed out over on BSchools within our coverage of the new, 100 percent live online MBA program introduced by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, this is one of the hottest trends in online education right now because it’s been shown to offer a broad range of advantages over the asynchronous delivery of recorded lectures.

PowerPoint Presentation Tool

Instructors can quickly and easily add audio commentary to animated PowerPoint slide deck presentations.

“White Label” Custom Domain

This feature makes the course appear as if it’s part of the instructor’s own website, instead of appearing as a subdomain on a third-party vendor’s web platform.

Student Payment, Subscription, and Membership Options

Thinkific can automatically invoice some students under more affordable subscription and membership plans. Such plans allow those students to pay portions of their course fees over time.

Free Introductory Payment Plan

Although it’s limited to one course per customer, Thinkific is the only one of these companies with a 100 percent free starter plan. The firm’s objective is to refrain from charging their new customers until they start earning income from at least one profitable course. Teachable also allows new customers to sign up for free, but as we note below, the firm then charges a percentage of sales as transaction fees in exchange for using their service.

Generous Customer Support

This is a tremendous advantage. Thinkific provides its customers with email and telephone support, even on the free starter plan. Teachable does not offer such telephone support. Moreover, in 2023 this is a very unusual support plan, given that many big tech and social media firms like Facebook offer no support through any channel at all these days.

Teachable’s Advantages

Although most edupreneurs will find that Thinkific’s platform more than meets their needs, Teachable also offers advantages that some potential customers should consider.

For example, instructors who appreciate streamlined, simplified navigation and don’t need many individual modifications to their content might want to consider Teachable. The reason is that when compared with Thinkific, Teachable offers a comparatively spartan assortment of fewer customization options. Teachable does turn this deficiency into an advantage because reduced customization options yield much simpler and less cluttered navigation within the dashboard. And that streamlining can help beginning instructors learn the platform more rapidly while creating and organizing their first course.

In addition, those instructors who spend a lot of their time in personal consultations like tutoring and coaching might want to consider Teachable. The reason is that all paying customers gain access to a function specifically geared toward delivering coaching services. This function makes it easy to set up a coaching sales page and create discovery intake forms and related kinds of learning content for new coaching clients. It also enables direct communication with coaching clients that bypasses email messages and can help simplify appointment scheduling, while providing smooth integration with video meeting software like Zoom.

But beyond those benefits, most of the other advantages that Teachable delivers have a lot more to do with billing and payment than with course content creation. For example, the platform offers its own internal payment processing service called Teachable Payments that enables customers to bypass external platforms like PayPal. However, the company does charge an additional 5 percent in transaction fees for that service on top of its customary recurring service fees for the use of their platform.

Thinkific or Teachable?

Readers who move beyond the free plans will quickly find that these platforms’ subscription prices are roughly comparable. Yet, on balance, in 2023 Thinkific wins decisively in terms of providing the best value overall.

For one thing, the platform offers a vast array of course customization functions delivered through an efficient and logically organized dashboard interface. Moreover, the platform also includes beautiful sales page design and branding themes at no additional charge. Furthermore, the platform’s state-of-the-art video training and interactive guidance systems make learning all these powerful capabilities ridiculously fast and easy. Although a minority of customers might prefer Teachable for certain purposes, most customers will find that Thinkific’s features, benefits, and overall value amounts to a superior choice.

Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani and AT&T.

Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. He graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.