A Simple Guide to the Confusing Tech “Jigsaw” Behind Online Courses

It feels like an unsolvable puzzle, doesn’t it?

Like completing a jigsaw without knowing if you have the right pieces or even what the picture should be.

Yes, I’m talking about the challenge of understanding all the tech that’s required to deliver an online course.

Because confusing tech is one of the most common obstacles facing course creators. It prevents countless valuable courses from ever seeing the light of day.

Fortunately, there is a path through all the fog.

Why Course Tech Is So Damn Confusing

If you’re baffled by online course tech, don’t worry!

I have university degrees in two separate technology-related subjects and I still find it hard to work out exactly where every new tool fits in.

So don’t beat yourself up, okay?

Here’s why online course tech can confuse even the most technology-friendly creator:

  1. Online courses have a distinctive set of technical needs.
  2. Different tools are designed to handle different pieces of the tech “jigsaw”
  3. For each type of tool, there are many competing products (e.g., Teachable vs Thinkific)
  4. Some products tackle more pieces of the jigsaw than others
  5. Everybody thinks their way of doing things is the best!

Beginning to see why it’s reasonable to feel confused?

Good! Let’s start getting some clarity.

What Tech Do Online Courses Need Exactly?

To understand how all the pieces fit together, you need to understand the features that the average online course needs.

Because the truth is, a modern online course is a technically demanding beast. Certainly compared to, say, a simple website or a blog.

So let’s take a quick look at what the completed tech jigsaw needs to do.

What’s Needed for Course Delivery?

Starting with the essentials, let’s focus on what’s required to deliver your online course.

This is the heart of the tech jigsaw and probably the part that’s clearest in your mind at the moment.

So, assuming you’ve planned and created your content, to deliver it successfully you’ll need a way to:

  • Organise your course curriculum and display it to your students
  • Upload “rich” media assets like videos and audio that students can play on their chosen device
  • Enrol new students and allow them to log in and access the content they’ve paid for (and only the content they’ve paid for)
  • Track each student’s progress through your course and make it easy for them to pick up where they left off
  • Deliver course-related communications to students (e.g., email notifications)

Depending on the complexity of your course you may also need a way to:

  • “Drip” content out according to a predefined schedule
  • Send emails and trigger other actions based on students’ progress inside the course
  • Administer and grade course quizzes and assessments
  • Issue certificates to students who complete your course successfully
  • Allow students to interact with live instructors and with other students

And these are just the features you’ll need to support students once they’re inside your course.

Now let’s look at the features you’ll need to get them there in the first place.

What’s Needed for Course Marketing?

If you want to get paying students into your course, you’ll need to market it to the right people and provide a way for them to buy it.

So let’s look at the technical features required to support the marketing of your course.

To attract interest and turn that interest into course sales, you’ll need a way to:

  • Capture email addresses for potential customers via your website
  • Send contacts an automated series of emails to warm them up for your course
  • Send “broadcast” emails promoting your launch when the time comes
  • Build an attractive sales page to describe your course and its benefits
  • Create a shopping cart page where people can buy your course
  • Process customer payments of different types, e.g., credit cards, PayPal, etc.

And if you’re getting more sophisticated with your marketing you may also need a way to:

  • Send different emails (and even other types of messages) based on people’s behaviour
  • Enable other people to promote your course for a commission

When you look at the list above, you might see features covered by a tool you’re already using, for instance: capturing email addresses and sending broadcasts.

In one sense, this simplifies things, because you already have part of the jigsaw covered. But also you might wonder how what you have will fit with the other pieces you need.

10 Major Pieces of the Online Course Tech Jigsaw

Let’s try to understand what the jigsaw looks like by breaking out the major pieces of functionality.

#1 Membership Management

Membership management handles student registration and login, and controls which students can see what content and when.

This feature is so fundamental (not just to online courses but other digital products too) that it might seem weird to break it out on its own.

However, there are some scenarios where a separate software tool might handle this for you.

For instance, if you’re building an online course on your existing website platform, a “membership plugin” may be required to help protect and manage the students-only content.

#2 Learning Management

This central jigsaw piece covers the features that come most easily to mind when you think about online courses.

It includes most (but often not all) of the features we talked about above under course delivery.

We’re talking here about things like creating a curriculum, tracking student progress, managing quizzes and assessments, and so on.

In its simplest form, this might just be a plugin for your existing website that lets you build a curriculum around your content and add buttons to navigate between lessons.

At its most sophisticated this could be a dedicated platform that provides all kinds of bells and whistles designed to enhance the learning experience.

#3 Media Hosting

Many courses include video and audio. These are often large files that need to be managed differently to smaller files like web pages and images.

In other words, you can’t just upload them to your regular website and hope for the best.

That’s one of the reasons entire businesses like YouTube, Vimeo, and Wistia have grown up around video hosting (although they cater to different audiences.)

A good media hosting solution will make it easy to:

  • Upload your course videos and add thumbnails and captions
  • Deliver your videos quickly and efficiently to your students whatever their device or location
  • View analytics so you can see who’s watching your video and whether they watch to the end

Although you may take media hosting for granted, not all course platforms have it built-in. And most free platforms like YouTube are designed for delivering public videos, not student-only videos.

#4 Landing Pages

If you’ve ever bought a digital product like an online course or membership you’ll be familiar with the concept of a landing page.

It’s a richly-formatted web page that tells you about the product and its features. These types of pages are usually optimised for one thing — prompting any visitors to click the “Buy” button.

A good landing page solution will make it easy to:

  • Create design-rich, conversion-optimised web pages to sell your product
  • Add widgets like videos, feature boxes, testimonials, and “call to action” buttons
  • View analytics to discover how often your page has been viewed and how effectively it’s converting visitors to customers

In other words, non-designers should find it relatively straightforward to create effective and professional-looking pages.

#5 Shopping Cart

Once someone has decided to buy your course, they’ll need a way to actually purchase it. That’s where the shopping cart comes in.

You’ll be familiar with digital shopping carts from almost any purchase you’ve made online. And buying a course is no different.

From the customer’s point of view, a shopping cart is just a page where they can add your course to their virtual “basket”, choose their payment method and receive a confirmation that the transaction has been completed.

But behind the scenes, a shopping cart lets you the course creator package your product in different ways both in terms of the pricing (e.g., one-time payment vs payment plan) and what’s included in the payment (e.g., single product vs a bundle with other products or a coaching call).

Note: Some course platforms offer a simple shopping cart but integrate with the products if you need more features.

#6 Payment Processing

Processing payments is a specialised activity that requires solution providers to have close links with banks, credit card issuers, and so on. Naturally, institutions like that won’t deal with just anyone!

As a result, pretty much all course platforms and even dedicated shopping cart tools choose to integrate with a small number of trusted payment processors like PayPal, Stripe, and Authorize.net.

This means that depending on what payment options you want to offer, you’ll need to set up accounts with one or more of these providers.

However, it’s not too hard to get set up with PayPal and/or Stripe which is enough for most people.

#7 Email Marketing

While email platforms like Gmail and Outlook are great for 1:1 and small group communications, they’re not designed for sending to larger groups. This is where email marketing tools come in.

In fact, you may already be familiar with email marketing tools like MailChimp, ActiveCampaign, and ConvertKit.

In a nutshell, they help you build a list of email contacts for your business, send emails to them en masse, and track data like who’s opening your messages. Many also provide marketing automation features (discussed below.)

Most simple courses have fairly basic email requirements once people are inside, for example sending login details and password reminders. You usually won’t need a separate tool for that.

But email marketing is an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to marketing your course. Most effective sales “funnels” have email communications at their core.

#8 Marketing Automation

Most prospective students need to go through a journey before being ready to buy your course.

First, they need to discover you and your business. Then they need to get to know you. Then they need to consider what you have to offer and whether it’s a good fit for them. Then need to take the leap and buy your course.

And while it’s possible to lead them through that journey personally with phone calls, emails and meetings, it’s usually more efficient and effective to automate as much of the process as possible.

Marketing automation is a whole field unto itself, but this piece of the jigsaw uses certain rules and triggers to interact with the prospects based on their actions and where they are in the pipeline.

A simple example might be sending a short email sequence promoting your course to anyone who signs up for a free download on your website.

#9 Affiliate Management

One of the great advantages of digital products is that once built, the cost of sale (what it costs to you to deliver your course to a new customer) is usually very low. Certainly compared to a physical product like a computer or a table.

That means you can give generous commissions to people who sell your course on your behalf — often as much as 50%.

This is a popular route for promoting online courses, but it does require keeping track of your promotion partners (aka affiliates) so that you know who is responsible for generating which sale, so you can reward them appropriately.

Affiliate management is one of those areas that’s sometimes bundled with another piece of the jigsaw but sometimes handled separately for maximum features and flexibility.

#10 Community Management

Many online courses work perfectly well without a community element. Students study the materials in splendid isolation and make progress at their own pace.

But increasingly, online courses (particularly higher-priced courses) provide an environment where students can interact with each other, sharing ideas and encouraging each other on their journey.

It’s also a space where the course creator and members of their team can jump in to answer questions and give advice.

Some courses use a private Facebook group to provide community, but whatever the solution, community management is an important part of the online course tech jigsaw.

3 Common Approaches to Solving the Tech Jigsaw

We’ve looked at the technical demands made by online courses, and the pieces of the tech jigsaw that are designed to meet them.

And hopefully, that’s provided some clarity around what tech is required by online courses and why.

But we still need to talk about how you fit these pieces together to meet the needs of your course.

The options usually break down into three basic approaches.

#1 “All-in-One” (e.g., Kajabi, Podia, etc.)

All-in-one platforms aim to give you all the pieces of the tech jigsaw under one roof.

Indeed the sales pitch is usually some variation on “don’t buy and glue together all of these other tools, just buy this one!” (Many of these platforms will even host your main website too.)

In reality, you usually need to add something else, even if it’s just a payment processor like Stripe, but some of these solutions do cover an impressive amount of ground.

These platforms are classified as “hosted” solutions meaning you’re running your course and business within your own area of someone else’s technical infrastructure.

Advantages

  • Everything’s in one place (well, almost everything) under one login
  • The technical pieces are already integrated
  • It’s relatively easy to hire people already knowledgeable about the platform

Disadvantages

  • Less flexibility – you won’t be able to do everything exactly the way you want to do it
  • More expensive – you get a lot of features, but that comes at a cost
  • The features may overlap with tools you already have (e.g., email marketing)

Most suitable for…

  • People who need an entire online business-in-a-box and already have content they can quickly turn into courses.
  • Existing course owners who’ve tired of the complexity associated with using multiple tools and want to replace them with a single, simpler solution.

Least suitable for…

  • People who already have tools in place they’re happy with (e.g., email marketing)
  • People who are starting small and just testing the waters with their first course

#2 “Course-Centric” (e.g., Teachable, Thinkific, etc.)

These platforms tend to cover the core pieces of the jigsaw pretty well (particularly the learning management piece) and then defer to other tools for things like email marketing and marketing automation.

The platforms’ own marketing tends to emphasise their course-related features and the ease with which a non-techie subject matter expert can get up and running.

On the flip side, they might ignore some of the broader features you need to create and launch a successful course, leaving you to fill in a few gaps for yourself.

Most platforms have multiple tiers, with higher tiers offering more features and higher limits on the total number of courses, maximum number of students, and so on.

Advantages

  • The easiest route for getting your first course up and running
  • Most of the essential features can be found under one roof
  • Designed for each-of-use — you’re insulated from much of the tech

Disadvantages

  • Limited control over the layout and design of your course
  • Additional tools may still be required to fill in the gaps
  • The course site remains separate from your main website

Most suitable for…

  • People who want to get up and running quickly with their first course
  • People who’ve used this type of platform as a student and like the user experience

Least suitable for…

  • People who want full control over their course layout and design
  • People who want to deliver courses that are fully integrated with their existing website

#3 “Roll Your Own” (e.g., WordPress + LearnDash + ConvertKit + …)

“Roll Your Own” solutions combine a custom selection of tools to create a specific solution.

Looking at the jigsaw this could mean using a separate tool for each of the major pieces described above.

There are several reasons for going this route:

  1. The online side of your business is already well established and you want to add online course features to your existing “jigsaw” without throwing away any of what you have
  2. You want to provide specific features that are not included in the all-in-one or course-centric platforms
  3. You love tech and “rolling your own” seems like a fun challenge!

If the “all-in-one” approach is like ordering a set meal in a restaurant, this route is like going completely “a la carte”.

Advantages

  • Endlessly flexible – you can build whatever you want
  • You can build your course around your existing tools
  • You only pay for what you actually need

Disadvantages

  • Not for the fainthearted – things can get technical very quickly
  • Higher burden of maintenance – lots of moving parts to potentially go wrong
  • Costs can add up if you’re using lots of different tools

Most suitable for…

  • People who want a course platform that’s tightly integrated with their existing website
  • People who want to create a unique learning environment, not a cookie-cutter experience

Least suitable for…

  • People who don’t enjoy diving deep into the tech
  • People who are starting with a clean slate and creating their first course

Example

  • WordPress + LearnDash (learning and membership management) + Vimeo (media hosting) + WooCommerce (shopping cart) + Stripe (payment processing) + Elementor (landing pages) + ActiveCampaign (email marketing and marketing automation)

Is The Picture Looking Any Clearer?

Let’s face it, the tech jigsaw required to support an online course can be tough to fully understand.

Fortunately, you don’t need deep knowledge to make smart decisions about the best path for you and your course.

Now that you have a better understanding of what all the tech does, look at the three main approaches and work out which one is the best fit for you.

Is it an “all-in-one” platform where you have everything under one roof, but may have to compromise on a few of the more advanced features?

Is it a “course-centric” platform that will get you up and running quickly, but requires you to fill in a few gaps with other tools?

Or is it a “roll your own” solution where the possibilities are endless but you’ll need to be comfortable with integrating lots of different tech?

Make your choice then let’s get your course out into the world.

3 thoughts on “A Simple Guide to the Confusing Tech “Jigsaw” Behind Online Courses”

  1. Great post!

    When I started, option 3 was all I was aware of. I’m glad I found the courage to get help and work it all out – thanks for being part of that journey!

    It’s actually been surprisingly stable over the years, all things considered. So one thing people can do is research and due diligence on the “who” they will find to help them put it all together. The right person can help actualize the vision and teach you how it all works.

    Reply
    • Thanks Anthony!

      Like you, my experience started off in “roll your own” territory. I guess if you go back a few years the other options were scarcer and less mature so you basically had to DIY it.

      And that’s a good point about finding the right “who” to help you. Instead of trusting a particular platform, you’re trusting one person’s ability to build the right platform for you. I think it still raises some questions around maintenance but there’s usually someone who can jump in and troubleshoot as long as the individual tech choices are not too unusual.

      Cheers,

      Glen

      Reply
  2. Great article! This has clarified a number of tech things for me. I have no technical skills. From this reading it seems as if Kajabi or Podia (I will read up about the latter) will have to be my choice. Therefore my course will have to be delayed because I know that these platforms are pricey.

    Reply

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