As a traveling teacher in the craft industry, I’ve spent countless hours balancing student supplies between two 50-pound suitcases, wondering when the day will come that they will weigh my carry on and realize it is far beyond the limit allowed. I’ve spent many, many hours in airports, but you might be surprised to hear that I truly love waiting in an airport. As a mother of five, it is my only uninterrupted time for reading or handwork. All that travel time does, however, take time away from my family. Kids or no, we all know how difficult it is to balance a career and time with our family.
Years ago, when the opportunity presented itself for me to teach on one of the very first online teaching platforms, I jumped at the chance. The courses ran twice a year and provided a very nice income stream without me needing to pack a boatload of suitcases and travel away from my young children. I happily handed over a percentage of each student fee to the owner of the platform so that I wouldn’t need to deal with any student registrations or technical issues. I loved it!
Shortly after Craftsy came online, I was approached by them to come on board as one of their instructors. After carefully reviewing my options and speaking to other teachers who had experience with the platform, I chose to stay loyal to QuiltUniversity, even though I knew video coursework was the wave of the future. QuiltUniversity’s owner resolutely refused to add video. She was concerned about the large percentage of her students who were accessing courses outside of the US and still on dial-up modems. I knew several people had done very well with Craftsy, but I was concerned with the low royalties paid to the teacher as well as the time commitment stated in the contract. It seemed to me that teachers were required to be available for questions in perpetuity, something I knew would irk me to no end. I like having more control over my schedule than that commitment would provide.
When QuiltUniversity closed several years later (due to the passing of the owner, not due to lack of enrollment!), I knew that when and if I picked up online teaching again it would be entirely on my own terms and that video must be a major part of the presentation style.
Fast forward several years and I’ve once again taken the plunge into online teaching. Thanks to the availability of easily accessible platforms like Ruzuku and Teachable, launching my own online classes has been fairly straightforward. I am in control of my schedule and have complete control of how each class has run. Because of my experience filming several DVD workshops for an outside publisher and for my own in-house publishing company, I was able to hit the ground running and have been successful in this new endeavor.
If you have considered teaching online independent of the large craft platforms like Craftsy, here are some things I have learned that might be worth thinking about.
Choosing a Platform
There are a wide variety of online platforms that you can use for independently hosting online courses. I have colleagues who have successfully taught through private blogs, by sending out weekly PDF and video links, and even through private Facebook groups.
I chose to go with Ruzuku because it checked off my entire wish list. I can upload videos and have written content on each lesson page as well as provided downloadable files. Students have a place to upload photos of their work and the ability to converse within the space of each lesson. Payments are immediately deposited into my PayPal account, student registration is easy as pie, and their customer service has been very good. The platform is simple to navigate, even though most of my students are older women who aren’t always tech savvy.
I spoke with Jenny Rushmore, founder and creative director of Cashmerette and Heather Lou, owner of Closet Case Files, who have both produced their own online classes on the Teachable platform and find it both affordable and easy to use with many of the same features as Ruzuku.
I sent out several surveys through my newsletter and social media outlets to gauge the interest of my students and choose which classes to offer first and at what length. It was definitely worth doing as the answers were not the ones I was expecting. Because I knew there was demand for it, my first offering filled almost immediately.
Expect to spend an intensive amount of time developing your course even if you already teach it live on a regular basis. There will inevitably be differences between what you do in front of the camera and what you can do with your students gathered around. In my online coursework, I provide far more written material than I do in my live classes. I use short video lessons for demonstrations and write out much of what I usually explain while the students are working.
Organize your lessons into small, digestible chunks of time. I find students are much happier with five or six short lessons than with one long continuous video.
Creating Video Content for Your Lessons
As a crafter, visuals are extremely important. Nothing beats being able to see someone’s hands doing the work you are trying to learn. With so many skill tutorials available on YouTube and with sites like Craftsy providing professional video learning content, it pays to create the highest quality content you can manage.
Both Heather and Jenny hired professional videographers to film and edit their courses. I have done the same with several DVD workshops and find that they translate seamlessly into online course content. One huge advantage to self-publishing professionally produced DVDs is that I fully own the copyright and can reuse the content in any manner I wish. When the DVD is translated to an online course I’m able to add in written content that includes supply lists, PDF patterns, and still-photo tutorials with live links to my online shop and outside suppliers.
Because I have also invested in professional studio lighting and filming equipment, I was also able to film and edit a course on my own. Once I had the studio arranged and set up, each five-minute segment took me about half a day to film and edit on my own. I use professional Lavilier mics and my iPad to film both close-up overhead working shots and introductory lectures for each technique. The learning curve was a bit steep at first, but for my most recent course it was quicker than hiring the pro (Bonnie McCaffery, in my case— she is fantastic!) and moving half of my studio out of the room.
Scheduling Your Courses
I’ve had enough experience with teaching online to have a good idea of the time commitments involved. It was true “back in the day,” and I find it still the case, that a minimum of one-third of students (usually more) that sign up for a mid-to-low-cost course will never publicly participate. They might do nothing, or they might work through the course on their own but they have no interaction with the teacher. There will however, almost always be at least one student who asks a LOT of questions.
Today there are a variety of options for scheduling. With many courses, especially the lower cost ones, you can buy all content at once but rarely have any serious interaction with the teacher. These can be a lovely passive source of income.
Other courses are scheduled to open and close on specific dates and lessons are released one at a time. You can choose how much involvement you want to have, but be very clear about this up front. If your students know exactly how much to expect from you, they won’t be disappointed.
I also offer very high-end personalized courses that are an intensive period of study. I open these to very small groups and spend quite a bit of time mentoring and encouraging their progress and growth. We are able to have group and individual Skype conversations and I spend quite a lot of time tailoring existing lessons to their needs.
I have enough of a following that I was certain I could fill my courses and make the financial investment in the Ruzuku platform worthwhile. I also carefully thought about what kind of time commitment would be involved and what my time would be worth.
Do some market research to find what the industry average for your type of class is. Do you want to offer the same level of quality and interaction as one of the major companies, or do you think you offer something a little more? Heather Lou says, “Unfortunately I was limited by the industry average. Since my main course is in direct competition with Craftsy, I didn’t feel like I could charge much more than they do, although I do think the content is worth way more than I am charging.”
The wonderful thing about going it on your own is that you can always revisit your pricing, your scheduling, or any other part of your offerings any time you wish.
Lyric Montgomery Kinard is an author, artist, and educator. She transforms cloth into art in her studio and timid spirits into confident creatives in the classroom. You can see her work and peruse her courses at www.LyricKinard.com.