About 10 days ago I spoke to Greg Smith, CEO and founder of Thinkific, about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the business of learning. In a 20-minute conversation we covered a lot of ground—from the strategy for pivoting from classroom instruction to online delivery (where there are more opportunities than live-streaming a class), to expanded opportunities for individual practitioners, to the long-term effects of the shift to working from home. I hope this interview will give readers some ideas and a lot of encouragement.
Bill Brandon: What are your thoughts about strategy for pivoting learning delivery to online from the classroom in response to COVID?
Greg Smith: We're providing some free resources and doing everything we can to help make it easier and less expensive or free to create online courses. Our focus at Thinkific is on individuals, entrepreneurs, small businesses, and micro businesses. What we're seeing is people who have a business that is based on some knowledge, passion, skill, or expertise, (and) bringing that online. Whether it's the local boxing dojo, the person who taught music for children at the local community center, or the artist who is finding they're struggling to do what they used to do in pre-COVID times, now they're bringing that all online. And we also see the same thing in government and not-for-profit. These are all groups that used to offer courses or training in person.
The really interesting thing is we're seeing a lot of them discovering that they can do better and reach more people by moving online. By going online, a not-for-profit that served their local community (is) suddenly able to access hundreds of thousands of people around the world and help more people. That's one of the interesting trends we're seeing. This is compounded by the fact that everybody's stuck at home and looking for things to occupy their time, things to learn, and things to keep them engaged.
BB: Are these organizations mostly moving to conferencing apps, rather than to asynchronous applications for self-paced learning?
GS: Interestingly, we have more of an asynchronous focus as opposed to synchronous. By synchronous I mean conferencing apps like Zoom or YouTube Live or other synchronous methods. You can do live events but you can also have asynchronous recordings, courses, or video, and I see people doing both. People who are taking training a bit more seriously are taking the asynchronous approach. The nice thing there is you can operate across time zones and across schedules and across childcare and all the other working from home struggles we have right now.
If you create an asynchronous course, then you have something that people can consume when it suits them They might not have time to hop on a synchronous one-hour discussion of a topic or training or a course, but they can consume it in, say, 30-minute segments—one in the morning and one in the evening—if you have an asynchronous course built out. We’re actually seeing a lot of people on both—a lot doing asynchronous for sure, but more on the kind of ad hoc meeting and a lot of the asynchronous where it's something you want people to really learn and consume. Plus when you do the asynchronous you can add in a lot of things like quizzes and other interactions, and community and things that people can interact with.
BB: For those that are taking the asynchronous approach, is it slower for them to make the pivot from classroom to online than it would be if they were using conferencing apps? What are the reasons for choosing one over the other for your clients?
GS: Let’s start with the synchronous delivery. Suppose you were teaching in a classroom yesterday and now you're at home. If you go synchronous, where you do a Zoom call or YouTube Live, you could be teaching today, instantly, and you just invite everyone to it. But then the thing you find is that it's really dependent on everyone's calendars and schedules. So what I'm seeing is people doing Step One to start, which is often synchronous, and then Step Two as asynchronous. They'll have a live event online, they'll make a recording of it, and then maybe they'll add interactive elements to it, maybe add another recording, and then they'll put it all online, hosted, where people can consume it on their own time. When they see that start to work then they start to put a little more work into it and add and improve and grow it.
The reason I think people choose the synchronous approach is you can launch it instantly. You can just send out an invite and say “Let's go today.” There's very little overhead to get things going. The reason why the people then move to the asynchronous, or even start there, is you have something that can be a lot more interactive, a lot more engaging. And it’s a little more legacy-like. It can stick around a lot longer. If you do the synchronous and you launch it today, you teach people today and anyone who can't show up, it's kind of "too bad, maybe watch the replay"—but now you're moving to asynchronous. Whereas if you create an asynchronous resource, you can put a little more effort in to create it, and now you have something that is available for months or years or however long you leave it up and running. So it allows you to serve a lot more people.
How fast can you pivot?
BB: Let's go back to the conversation with the folks who start with the conference call and then decide to augment that with additional material. We've been under pandemic conditions for a month or a little longer. Have there been many providers that have managed to pivot from classroom to streaming live online to asynchronous delivery in four weeks?
GS: Oh, definitely. We're seeing hundreds every day out of the thousands a week that are moving in that direction very quickly. I talked to someone last week who was teaching at a community center and within an afternoon, she had her course set up and running online in an asynchronous format with some interactive engaging components.
BB: What have been the discoveries about maximizing eLearning in this environment? What are the lessons your clients have had to learn in order to do it?
GS: Well, in pre-COVID times the two biggest challenges for people getting something up and running were the early effort and motivation to go and build it. I used to hear tons of people say, “Oh, I know I really want to add online education as part of my business model. I'll get there one day.” (The challenge was) developing that motivation and then building it into your calendar to go and spend the time to do it.
Post-COVID what we see is people moving through that cycle way faster than ever before because they have the motivation, because they have the time, and there's not much else to do. The motivation is, "My businesses is suffering and this is the only option, or it's a really good option." But then they also have the time so we see people move. That's something that's really changed.
The other big challenge people had pre-COVID was marketing. And that's suddenly gotten a lot easier as well because everyone is online and everyone's online looking to consume content and learn. So your audience has, you know, just significantly increased. And because other businesses are struggling, we've seen advertising costs drop significantly so now it's actually a lot cheaper to advertise through Facebook or Google or other platforms. You can now reach way more people with way less investment, very quickly and advertising doesn't have to be the way to go. That person I was talking to that was teaching at a community center and then went online...they did a quick Facebook Live. This is the kind of person who probably would have struggled with marketing two months ago but they instantly had 300 people from around the world attending their Facebook Live because the audience is there waiting.
I think the maximizing thing is just recognizing that the opportunity is so huge right now that it doesn't actually take that much to get into it if you dive in. Start doing a Facebook Live or start sharing content on your favorite social network. You can really quickly pick up an audience. Start helping people a lot faster than you would have before. The maximizer is recognizing that people are hungry for this, it's helping them by being at home and giving them something to learn and do and grow. And if you just get something out there, you'll learn very quickly that there's a lot of people hungry for knowledge right now.
Where are the opportunities?
BB: Are there topics that you're seeing more people adopting this strategy for? In other words, technical topics or sales, for example, or onboarding. What are the areas of most interest?
GS: I think we have seen health and fitness up significantly, close to 300 percent, arts and entertainment up over 300 percent, and higher education, just because they're not having to deal with that physical classroom, is up close to 500 percent. Within some of those areas, some of the interesting topics are the non-professional content. There's a lot around everything from baking sourdough to things you can do at home with your kids. Even a lot of mental health. Really think about the kind of things that people are looking to learn and do while they're stuck at home. There's a lot of personal growth stuff. So that's everything from the health and fitness side to the mental health and arts and crafts and entertainment side. On the health side, one of the biggest topics right now is free courses around the coronavirus and how to prevent infection. We’re seeing millions of people signing up for some of those courses. Interest is up across the board because everyone's online looking for things to learn.
BB: It sounds like a lot of your adoption is coming through people who are not necessarily designing instruction for use within an enterprise, for example, but more independent producers.
GS: Most of our users are designing for people outside of their organization. Now, it could then end up getting used inside of an organization. So, for example, if someone designs a sales course they're then usually selling it to multiple companies and organizations where they can train internally with it. But we do a lot less internal employee training. Most of the things people use Thinkific for are external: branded customer-facing (or potential customer-facing) training. And that could end up with a customer bringing it in house and training their team, but it's much more courses that drive revenue for your business by educating external stakeholders.
The long-term trends
BB: A fair number of Learning Solutions readers are independent producers of eLearning. That will be of interest to them. Do you think this is a change that's going to continue for a long time, or is this only going to last as long as people feel the urgency of the COVID experience?
GS: I wish I had a perfect crystal ball but my thoughts on the future—recognizing that it's just my humble opinion—are that what we'll see when people build a course and are successful means they're able to get even 10 to 100 people as a baseline to enroll in and take their course. I have some data to back this up so it’s based on historical analysis. And so what that looks is: If you were teaching offline pre-COVID and then you create something online and you get 50 people enrolled in your program, or 5,000 around the world, when COVID goes away you'll return to running your brick and mortar but you now have this additional revenue stream and this additional channel to build and grow audiences and build and grow revenue. So there's really no reason to shut that off. I see a lot of this sticking in the long run. So that's one trend—a trend that continues long after COVID goes away.
The other thing is that what's happening now has woken us all up. And it's forced us to go online more. And I don't see that going away after this changes either. Obviously people will fly places again and they'll go back into the offices and the workplaces in the classroom. But I think there's going to be a residual understanding that it's good to have the option to have a remote workforce, so it's also good to have the option to have online training. People are adding this now because it's necessary but once they have it added, and they've seen the benefits of it, there's no good reason to take it away when you when you can go back out in the world.
We're going to see a longer term trend residual from COVID. It won't always be quite the strength of push behind it but there's always going to be this lingering memory. We should actually be able to support ourselves online and train online and work online, so I do see this something that likely continues after the fact.
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