The 5 Best Platforms for Hosting Online Courses in 2020

When it comes to hosting online courses, there are lots of options out there. And it can get quite confusing.

Over the last four months I’ve tried three different platforms.

This article tells you what I’ve learned along the way. Hopefully it will save you some time and help you make your own choice.

platforms for online courses

1. Course Academies vs. Course Hosting Platforms

First let me make an important distinction.

There are two kinds of platforms for hosting online courses:

  • Course academies (such as Udemy, Khan Academy, and Lynda)
  • Course creation and selling platforms (such as Teachable and Thinkific)

These two kinds of platforms do very different things and really can’t be compared (they’re like apples with oranges).

Here’s a brief summary of the main differences between course academies and course creation platforms:

1.1 Course Academies

Course academies:

  • have built in traffic
  • will market your course for you
  • control the price that your course sells for (course prices on these platforms are at the low end of the spectrum: as little as $19 and usually no more than $150)
  • business model = high volume of sales at low price
  • course academies are like directories of courses: your course will be discoverable in a directory of different categories

1.2 Course Creation/Selling Platforms

Course creation platforms:

  • don’t send any traffic to your course
  • the marketing of your course is entirely up to you
  • you have complete control over pricing
  • offer various pricing options such as coupons, bundling courses together, upsells, etc. 
  • business model = low volume of sales at premium price
  • your course is not discoverable on their website

At the outset, I need to make clear that this article doesn’t cover the first type of course platform - course academies.

There are plenty of good reasons for hosting your course on a platform like Udemy.

But I wanted a course creation platform that allowed me to control the price of my course and the way it is marketed.

So this article deals only with the second category - course creation/selling platforms.

With that out of the way, let’s dive in!

2. From Thinkific to Teachable

I started off with Thinkific, which is a popular alternative to Teachable.

However, I found Thinkific’s course creation interface a bit clunky compared to Teachable. I also much preferred the way Teachable displays the course curriculum. So a few weeks later I moved over to Teachable.

Thinkific - platforms for hosting online courses

Thinkific (Popular Alternative to Teachable)

Teachable is the 800-pound gorilla of platforms for hosting online courses. It’s been around longer than the others and its used by a lot of successful online course creators.

There are basically three elements to a Teachable course:

  • the course curriculum (a series of modules, each containing various lessons)
  • a sales page
  • a checkout page
Teachable Pages - platforms for hosting online courses

Teachable Sales Page and Checkout Page

Teachable allows you to create various different ‘pricing plans’ that you can use for different kinds of promotions.

It also offers coupons (the customer just enters a code into the coupon field on the checkout page and gets whatever discount you specify).

Teachable coupons

Teachable Coupon Creation

Teachable is excellent in terms of handling sales and providing a platform where your students can access your course material.

It also has, in my opinion, a better course curriculum format than any of its competitors.

Teachable curriculum - platforms for hosting online courses

Teachable Course Curriculum format

But there’s one aspect of Teachable I’m not keen on: the page builder.

Recently (about October 2019) Teachable revamped its page builder. I have to confess that I haven’t worked with the new page builder.

But the previous page builder was clunky, to say the least. It gave you very few formatting options and you ended up with a very basic-looking sales page.

Teachable sales page

example of Teachable Sales Page

When you’re selling anything, visual presentation counts for a lot, so that aspect of Teachable was far from ideal.

Having said all that, Teachable is, without doubt, one of the best platforms for hosting online courses.

3. From Teachable to Thrive Apprentice

I began looking around for alternatives.

And I discovered that Thrive Themes has a course creation platform called Thrive Apprentice.

I was already a big fan of Thrive Themes. I use their lead generation software, Thrive Leads, to build my list. And I use their page builder, Thrive Architect, to create my blog posts.

What particularly appealed to me about Thrive Apprentice is that I’d be able design the sales page using the Thrive Theme’s page builder, Thrive Architect. In fact, Thrive Architect contains a very smart sales page template that I could simply adapt for my online course.

So it didn’t take much persuasion for me to move my course off Teachable and onto Thrive Apprentice.

Thrive Apprentice - platforms for hosting online courses

Thrive Apprentice Course Index

Here I need to point out that Thrive Apprentice is not a complete solution for selling online courses. 

You need to integrate it with a payment gateway that accepts credit cards, processes customer payments, and delivers access to new customers.

For the payment side of things, Thrive Apprentice has partnered with SendOwl.

Integrating Thrive Apprentice with SendOwl involves a number of steps and is quite complex. But Thrive’s founder, Shane Melaugh, walks you through the process.

With a bit of patience, anyone can manage it.

Thrive Apprentice course curriculum

Thrive Apprentice course curriculum

Another advantage of using Thrive Apprentice is that you can also use Thrive Themes’ evergreen deadline funnel, Thrive Ultimatum.

At $99 (one-time payment) it’s a much cheaper alternative than using Deadline Funnel ($37 per month).

Thrive Ultimatum - platforms for hosting online courses

Thrive Ultimatum Dashboard

To begin with it all seemed fine. Customers were purchasing my course on the new platform and my new landing page was far more pleasing to the eye than the Teachable landing page.

But I began to receive distraught messages from my customers saying they couldn’t access my course material. I wasn’t sure if it was problem with the Thrive Themes software or a problem with the access mechanism on SendOwl.

Over the next few weeks more and more of my time would be spent frantically trying to these kinds of problems. There’s nothing worse for a course creator than a customer who can’t access what they paid for.

I reluctantly came to the conclusion that Thrive Apprentice + Sendowl is not one of the best platforms for hosting online courses.

I then decided to look again at Teachable and see if there was a way to design more elegant landing pages.

4. From Thrive Apprentice Back to Teachable

I was still hunting for a way to build nicer pages on Teachable.

And that's when I came across an application called CoursePro. It's designed specifically for creating beautiful landing pages on Teachable.

CoursePro Page Builder for Teachable

CoursePro Page Builder for Teachable

However, there was nowhere on the CoursePro landing page to sign up. So I contacted the owners and they said it was currently being re-developed and temporarily unavailable.

So I did some more research...

And I came across another solution for creating nice-looking landing pages on Teachable.

It's a workaround that involves using Lead Pages.

You sign up for a Lead Pages account, and create your landing page. You then export your Lead Pages landing page into your Teachable landing page, as dynamic HTML.

For instructions on how to do this, see Emma Lee Bate’s article: How to Create a Better Sales Page in Teachable Using Leadpages

This is certainly a good workaround. You end up with state-of-the-art landing page instead the bare bones sales page that Teachable offers. However, these are some problems.

Firstly, the course curriculum that Teachable generates and inserts into every sales page is no longer available to you.

Secondly, the Teachable coupon functionality no longer works.

And thirdly, you can no longer insert the Deadline Funnel script into your Teachable page (in theory you can place the DF script into your Lead Pages account and do it that way, but I could never get it to work).

With all these limitations I realized, in the end, that the Lead Pages workaround was no solution at all.

Back to the drawing board (note to self: part of being an entrepreneur is coming up with creative solutions to problems like this).

It then occurred to me that I could design and host my landing page on WordPress and use the Teachable checkout page as the link for my ‘enroll’ buttons.

After all, the part of Teachable that I wanted was the checkout page, not the page builder. The link to the Teachable checkout page contained everything that I wanted.

And so that’s what I’m doing now: I use Teachable as the payment gateway and course platform, but I use WordPress to build and host my landing page.

Here’s my landing page, built on WordPress but with a Teachable checkout:

In this article I’ve mentioned two kinds of course creation/selling platforms:

  • Third party platforms (Teachable, Thinkific)
  • Self-hosted WP platforms (Thrive Architect)

Of course, there are many other options in both these two categories.

Here’s a quick review of the main examples in each category.

5. Third Party Platforms for Hosting Online Courses

These are third-party platforms for hosting online courses.

They host your course content (videos, PDFs etc) and provide you with a checkout page. They also give you a sales page and a page builder to create it.

5.1 Teachable

Teachable is the granddaddy of course creation platforms.

Features

  • Build online courses using video, images, text lessons, and PDF files
  • Course Compliance
  • Organize your content into schools, courses, and lectures
  • Create a site for your courses with built-in website builder and Stripe or PayPal payments
  • Use quizzes, discussion forums, and blogs to engage students
  • Use segmented student lists to send info that helps students through your courses
  • Activity grading
  • Certificate management
  • Survey Engine
  • Learning Paths (Curriculums)

Pricing (annual):

  • Basic: $29 p/month
  • Professional: $79 p/month
  • Business: $399 p/month

5.2 Thinkific

The closest competitor to Teachable, Thinkific offers much the same as Teachable.

Features:

  • Full video & content hosting
  • Create courses with any content type
  • Built-in content creation tools
  • Embed 3rd party tools and sites
  • Student course reviews
  • Student discussions
  • Quizzes
  • Student surveys
  • Prerequisite lessons
  • Assignments
  • Brillium exams integration

Pricing (annual):

  • Basic: $39 p/month
  • Pro: $79 p/month
  • Premier: $399 p/month

5.3 Podia

Podia is a full-featured platform for creating, marketing, and selling online courses.

Features:

  • Online courses and digital downloads
  • Customizable branding
  • Bundle products
  • Upsell
  • Pre-launch courses
  • Quizzes
  • Drip content
  • Payment plans
  • Integrated membership site
  • Email marketing campaigns
  • Affiliate marketing campaigns
  • Instant payout with no transaction fees

Pricing (monthly):

  • Mover: $39 p/month
  • Shaker: $79 p/month

5.4 LearnWorlds

LearnWorlds is an interactive online school for creating, hosting and selling online courses

Features:

  • Unlimited courses
  • Landing and sales pages
  • Course builder, video uploads
  • Certificate management
  • Activity grading
  • Attendance Tracking
  • Assignments Engine
  • Learning Paths (Curriculums)
  • Digital downloads
  • Course Discussions
  • Online testing engine
  • Dashboards and Graphic Reports
  • Interactive engagement
  • Built-in social network
  • Custom domain

Pricing (annual):

  • Starter: $24 p/month
  • Pro Trainer: $79 p/month
  • Learning Center: $249 p/month

5.5 Teachery

Teachery is a platform to build, launch, and sell your online course.

Features:

  • Embed Video, Audio, Images, and Slide Presentations
  • Course Style Editor
  • Payment Pages, Recurring Payments (Payment Plans or Memberships), and Promo Codes
  • Sales Pages, Landing Pages, and Email Capture Pages
  • Email Integration with MailChimp and ConvertKit
  • Zapier Integration and Easy Customer Exporting
  • Custom Domains
  • Custom Course Homepage
  • Tracking Code and Analytics
  • Comments and Community
  • Course Lesson Scheduling (aka Drip Content)
  • Welcome Emails and Course Completed Emails
  • Affiliates for Your Courses

Pricing:

  • Monthly: $49 p/month
  • Annual:  $470 p/year

5.6 BrainCert

BrainCert is a cloud-based online training platform.

Features:

  • Integrated E-commerce
  • Subscriptions and Recurring Payments
  • Video and Content Hosting
  • Custom Certificates
  • Blended Courses
  • Tests and Assessments

Pricing (annual):

  • Basic: $36 p/month
  • Pro: $91 p/month
  • Business: $238 p/month

6. Self-Hosted WP Course Creation/Selling Platforms

These are WordPress plugins that act as platforms for hosting online courses. They integrate with various different payment gateways (such as PayPal, Stripe, SamCart, 2CeckOut, WorldPay etc).

Note that if you use a WP plugin to sell your online courses, you would need to sign up for a video-hosting platform. Some of these are free (YouTube, Twitch, GoogleDrive) and others are paid services (Wistia, Vimeo, DailyMotion).

6.1 Thrive Apprentice

Thrive Apprentice is a WordPress plugin that allows you to create online courses. Integrates with SendOwl for shopping cart.

Features:

  • membership options (through SendOwl)
  • Integrates video from third party software
  • Design flexibility
  • Course progress monitoring
  • Drip fed content (through SendOwl)

Pricing:

One-time payment of $67

6.2 Zippy Courses

Zippy Courses is the brain child of Derek Halpern, founder of Social Triggers, Zippy Courses is a full featured WP plugin that lets you create and sell online courses.

WordPress plugin that allows you to create and sell online courses

Features:

  • Unlimited Courses and Unlimited Students!
  • Drip according to schedule
  • Self-directed (unlock next module as student completes previous)
  • PDFs, slide presentations, and audio files may be directly uploaded (for downloading by students)
  • Stripe, PayPal, and Infusionsoft
  • Payment plans
  • Discount coupons
  • Integration with major email service providers
  • Multiple choice quizzes

Pricing (one-time payment):

  • Standard: $199
  • Deluxe: $299

6.3 LearnDash

LearnDash is probably the best known WordPress LMS (Learning Management System) plugin. It can be sued by solopreneurs but it's designed for educational institutions, such as colleges, academies, and universities.

Features:

  • Course Builder
  • Advanced Quizzing
  • Drip Feed Content
  • Set course, lesson, and quiz based prerequisites
  • Grading
  • Course Points
  • Certificates and Badges
  • Easily add Shopping Cart
  • One-time fee or recurring payments
  • Detailed re[porting
  • Assignment management
  • Works on any theme
  • Mobile compatible

Pricing (one-time payment):

  • Basic: $159
  • Plus: $189
  • Pro: $329

6.4 Lifter LMS

Lifter LMS is a WordPress powered learning management system for course creators and membership site entrepreneurs.

Features:

  • Multimedia Lessons
  • Quizzes
  • Course Builder
  • Drip Content
  • Prerequisites
  • Course Tracks
  • Assignments
  • Quiz Timer
  • Student Dashboard
  • Course Reviews

Pricing (annual):

  • Core LifterLMS plugin: $99 p/year
  • Universe Bundle: $299 p/year
  • Infinity Bundle: $999 p/year

6.5 WP Courseware

WP Courseware is a WordPress plugin by FlyPlugins that lets you create and sell online courses and turn your knowledge into profits

Features:

  • Drag and Drop Course Builder
  • Drip Your Content at Custom Intervals
  • Classroom Grade Books for Each Course
  • Powerful Quiz and Survey Functionality
  • Set Required Course Prerequisites
  • Certificates of Course Completion
  • Built-In Shopping Cart Support
  • Sell Courses as a One Time Purchase
  • Set Up Recurring Subscription Payments
  • Offer Affordable Installment Payments
  • Use Your Own WordPress Theme
  • Customizable Course Styling

Pricing (one-time payment):

  • Teacher: $129
  • Professor: $149
  • Guru: $199

Conclusion

Creating and selling online courses is a booming industry, as you can tell from the number of platforms for hosting online courses, all competing with each other.

In this article I’ve walked you through my experience of going from a third party platform to a self-hosted platform and then back again to third party.

Hopefully, the lessons I learned along the way will help you make your own choices as you consider how to host and market your online course.

This post was most recently updated on July 11th, 2020

Rob Powell
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