Business ideas for 2021: Online learning

School's out for online learning – how can you take advantage of the online learning space?

Our experts

We are a team of writers, experimenters and researchers providing you with the best advice with zero bias or partiality. This article was authored by:
  • Tom Fogden

We all know what online learning is. But, while it had previously existed in the margins of schools, colleges, universities, and workplaces, the coronavirus pandemic brought the idea of learning over the internet into the dining rooms, studies, living rooms, and even the bedrooms of Britain.

Of course, as the country has tried to return to normal, Britain’s students – from nursery to university – as well as their teachers and other support staff have been exposed to coronavirus more than most. Online learning has remained the last recourse for schools – if the virus becomes unmanageable, send everyone home.

However, change might be coming in 2021. “The pandemic may not have been the catalyst for a complete shift towards online learning,” says Atif Mamood, CEO of online teaching community Teacherly. “But it has certainly presented the sector with a unique opportunity to implement new ways of teaching and learning.”

These new ways of teaching and learning present a fantastic opportunity for aspiring entrepreneurs – demand for online learning services is higher than ever, and there are sizable gaps in the market available for anyone with the right expertise to exploit.

In theory, online learning seems simple. Learners get given lectures, are assigned tasks to complete, and discuss ideas over the internet. In practice, however, learners require far more from platforms than you might initially think – students learn in different ways, and different topics place different demands on the teacher, students, and the software.

Want to read about more top business ideas? Check out the full list of the best business ideas for 2021

Starting an online learning business – why it’s a good idea in 2021

With the coronavirus pandemic, one might think that there has never been a better time to start an online-first learning business.

There are other reasons for starting a business beyond the pandemic, however. Homeschooling was becoming an increasingly popular option even before coronavirus, having experienced a 40% rise between 2015-2018. Things naturally went supernova in 2020, with 87% of parents reporting that a child in their household had been homeschooled because of coronavirus.

Google searches for online learning have increased 187%, while searches for online learning courses and teaching online have jumped a whopping 240% and 328%, respectively. But, as ever with online phenomena, people are wanting something for nothing – searches for free online learning have increased by 367%.

What’s more, businesses and students are becoming increasingly globalised – according to COO Courtenay Probert, more than 70% of Learna’s postgraduate audience is based outside of the UK, for example.

Similarly, online-only schools are becoming popular in the UK. While they might be easy to characterise as the preferred choice for well-to-do parents with high-flying jobs and kids in tow, Hugh Viney, CEO of Minerva Virtual Academy, explains that there are a multitude of reasons why an online school might be preferable for some.

“Those choosing an online school might include children suffering from anxiety or mental health issues, vulnerable children with illnesses, or expat families who want their children to receive a British education, but who don’t live in the UK,” Viney explains.

If these examples aren’t enough to sell you on online learning, perhaps figures projecting that the UK’s EdTech sector could be worth £3.4bn by 2021 will do the trick.

Imperial College Business School, for example, launched Insendi in 2018. This is an online platform that, according to David Leferve, the College’s director of Edtech, allows them to deliver “high-impact, blended learning course format[s], comprising high-quality asynchronous activities together with live sessions”.

Admittedly, there’s a fair amount of jargon in there but, frankly, it’s working.

The Insendi service is now being used by more than 20 other business schools to deliver more than 450 modules. What’s more, usage of the platform has, according to Leferve, increased tenfold during the pandemic. And, while he believes that “post-pandemic, some processes will revert to their previous format… many will not, and a form of technology-enhanced learning should endure.”

The EdTech market is surprisingly established already, but there is still scope for new businesses to emerge. The trick to starting a successful EdTech business, however, is finding a niche

Opportunities for online learning businesses

Before you start your online learning business, it’s important to understand the market you’re entering into. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the sector is relatively new, given the recent attention it has been getting, but it is, in fact, pretty mature.

Learna, for example, was founded in 2010. Preply – which facilitates 1-on-1 tutoring – launched three years later, while Teacherly debuted in 2014, as did Minerva.

With that being said, there is still great potential for innovation in the market.

Imperial created Insendi in 2018 because it couldn’t find an existing service that met the Business School’s needs:

“We wanted to build a platform that was focused on enabling learning, rather than the administration of learning,” explains Imperial’s Leferve. “Insendi comprises a suite of learning activities that faculty organise into a sequence to form a course.”

Teacherly’s Mahmood started the company to harness the internet in a way that school’s previously hadn’t:

“As a former teacher myself,” Mahmood explains, “I saw first-hand how the working processes of teaching were extremely inefficient, with many of us often working in isolation on lesson plans and marking and so on, and rarely as one team.”

“At the same time,” he continues, “we have the added functionality of being able to deliver lessons remotely, in the same way that meetings can still be held through tools like Slack.”

So, when thinking about your new business, you should consider whether the same sort of tech is being offered by an existing company. What is it about your platform that is different from Zoom or Microsoft Teams, for example?

“One of the biggest advantages is that we can move and adapt quickly with the times,” explains Minerva’s Viney.

“We run after school clubs, such as film production, robotics, art, and debating, which inspire children to explore their creativity and develop a broad range of interests. From an operational perspective, we can launch new after school clubs (such as drama, coming in January 2021), far more easily than if we were a physical school.”

Finding your business’s niche is absolutely essential in this marketplace. It’s crowded, and there are likely hundreds of companies offering similar services – not only to your burgeoning business, but also to other, more established companies.

“We can’t offer more physical subjects like P.E. or Design & Technology,” explains Viney, “which rely heavily on coursework or practical examinations.”

However, with the rise in virtual exercise tools such as Peloton – or even online football coaching companies, such as MyPersonal Football Coach – there could be a gap in the market waiting to be filled.

You should also invest serious time into understanding the needs of your potential audience. Are they school children, are they university students, are they professionals looking for CPD tools, or are you going to be marketing directly to companies to train staff?

“High attrition rates are always a cause for concern for online learning, and are much greater than for residential education,” explains Learna’s Probert. “It’s often the human connection of face-to-face courses which retains students, and keeps them feeling part of the community.”

If you’re going to be marketing to university students, then, how can you facilitate their feeling part of a collective?

“Learners can also struggle with the discipline of self-directed online-learning,” he continues. If you’re going to be aiming your business at school children, how can you keep them using your platform rather than hopping on TikTok or YouTube?

Another potential pitfall lies simply within the world around us.

“Many traditional schools, understandably, have been less willing to embrace new technologies and methods, most likely due to fears that they threaten the teaching profession,” explains Viney.

As ever with new technology businesses, there is the problem of accessibility. While it might be second nature to most people to turn on a laptop and log into a Zoom meeting, it isn’t for everyone. Can your platform be used by people with hearing problems? What if they have sight issues? What if operating a computer is a challenge?

Plus, what if your target market – primary and secondary schools, for instance – includes people that don’t have a computer? What if they only have one PC in a household with four, five, or six people clamouring to use it?

Insider opinion: Finding your niche

“For EdTech startups specifically, finding the niche requires more effort and work into innovating the business model, and bringing the education industry along with you for the journey,” explains Mahmood. “We are often looking two to three years ahead of where the market is currently situated in order to remain relevant in a consistently shifting space.”

However, according to the experts we’ve spoken to, there are several underserved areas which would be ripe for a new business.

“I think the biggest opportunities will be within postgraduate education and the global market,” explains Probert. “Online learning can cross borders. While some countries are still resistant to online learning and education, as more and more open up to it, they will be looking for organisations and expertise to support them.”

“In the next few years,” says Mahmood, “we may see a more flexible method incorporated into schooling – a method where online learning is blended with in-person lessons so that children can attend classes from wherever is best for them.”

It’s clear, then, that starting an online learning business in 2021 won’t be easy. There are challenges across the board. However, with the right planning, strategy, and care, you could make your business a success.

Tom Fogden
Back to Top